photo installation, work in process 1998-
Flowers of Evil and Good continues O'Grady's attempt to engage and comprehend the self through the study of cultural history, and vice versa. Her historic approach to postmodernist concerns (O'Grady won the Sons of the American Revolution history prize for Massachusetts when she graduated from high school) was confirmed by an encounter with 1980-90s Black British cultural studies. Writings by Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy, and Kobena Mercer helped crystallize ideas she'd had about cultural colonialism since beginning to teach European modernism from Baudelaire to Breton at SVA in the mid-70s.
O'Grady's love of Baudelaire was inseparable from her fascination and identification with his black muse Jeanne Duval -- the poet's common-law wife of 20 years who had been the inspiration for his best and most complex work both in poetry and, O'Grady believed, in the art critical writings with which he had founded modernism. She began work on a project to examine their relationship while she was a Bunting Fellow at Harvard in 1995-96. At last there were time and resources to teach herself Photoshop, to research images of the couple and pay for high-quality scans of them, and to gather the extant information on their lives. . . she found a lot on Baudelaire, almost nothing on Duval. The project would require more invention than she'd anticipated.
O'Grady first showed two studies for the work in New Histories at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in Fall 1996. But these still felt unresolved. The breakthrough came in 1998 while preparing for her one-person show at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC. O'Grady's mother Lena, who died in 1991, was 80 years younger than Jeanne but the two had similar trajectories, having left their islands to live in the metropole as young adults. They'd had postmodern lives before the word was invented. When Haitian-born Jeanne began to speak in Lena's Jamaican patois, the shape of Flowers of Evil and Good became more clear.
© Lorraine O’Grady 2010The French feminist magazine Petunia’s invitation to create a centerfold sparked O’Grady’s piece in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, The First and the Last of the Modernists. The text documents her decision to contrast images of Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. [Also posted as a related material under The First and the Last of the Modernists]
Lorraine O’Grady, in Mousse Magazine, Summer 2010The Mousse interview, done after the Whitney Biennial opening, elaborated on O’Grady’s piece for that exhibit, The First and the Last of the Modernists, and its relation to her decades of teaching Baudelaire and to her work-in-progress Flowers of Evil and Good.
© Lorraine O'Grady, 1998
Written for the first exhibit of “Studies #3 and 4 for Flowers of Evil and Good” at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC, this discussion of the father of modernism Charles Baudelaire and his Haitian common-law wife Jeanne Duval, as well as Picasso and O’Grady’s mother Lena, places their relationships in the postmodernist moment.
Charles Baudelaire is often referred to as both the West's first modern poet and its first modern art critic. It would be no exaggeration to say that Baudelaire created his most important poetry out of his responses to an allegedly destructive relationship with Jeanne Duval, his black common-law wife of 20 years. A close reading of his poetry would indicate that he may also have developed his aesthetic theory, that of a beauty which is contradictory and ambiguous and of its time, based on the example she provided as well.
Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), published in 1857, was a turning-point for European poetry, like that given painting 50 years later in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Each work embodies the psychologically complex ways modernism constructed itself out of Europe's encounter with the worlds it colonized. Seen in this way, Les Fleurs du mal is the more interesting: whereas the Demoiselles struggled to contain already mediated forms of art, Flowers was dealing with the body and psyche of a live and messy human being.
None of Duval’s own words remain: she does not speak for herself either in Baudelaire’s poetry or prose, and there is an indication that Charles' mother may have destroyed her letters to him. In addition, there are no civil documents permitting a reconstruction of her life, though most evidence points to her having emigrated to Paris from Haiti in the 1830s. They met in 1842, when Baudelaire was 21 and she was possibly the same age.
The language component of the final installation, Flowers of Evil and Good, each of whose 16 diptychs contains one panel representing Baudelaire and one Duval, will be in sustained disequilibrium: Charles speaks in poetry, Jeanne “speaks” in prose.
On Baudelaire’s side of the diptychs, the language is taken from my own translations of Les Fleurs du mal—I found it necessary to do my own because later translators, like the critics, erased and demonized Jeanne in a way that Charles had not. On the Duval side, her words are a fiction, written by me, to fill the silence of this woman-without-speech, and I know that I am as guilty as Charles. I too am using Jeanne. Perhaps to understand my mother, Lena–who emigrated from Jamaica to Boston in the 1920s, when little had changed for the metropolitan woman of color–and, in turn, to understand myself.
Jeanne’s demonization began almost immediately in the memoires of Baudelaire’s friends and has continued for 150 years to a greater extent in the writings of his critics. John D. Bennett, in a book published by Princeton University Press in 1944 and frequently reprinted, in describing Baudelaire as a Louis XV out of time made the following extreme but symptomatic statement: “This Bourbon Louis took his pleasures not in the Parc au Cerfs but in a cheap furnished room with a mulattress. His lever was elaborate; he took two hours to perform his immaculate toilette every morning. But the only courtier was the maniac on the bed, the raucous gesticulating Jeanne, rolling her white nigger eyeballs, chattering incoherently like a monkey.”
Charles often admitted his need for her—and his debt to her—speaking in one prose poem of “his beloved, delicious and execrable wife, that mysterious wife to whom he owed so many pleasures, so many sorrows, and perhaps too a large part of his genius.”
Because Baudelaire was a great poet, even at his angriest and most petty, although Jeanne is presented externally it is surprising how well she may be discerned by the sympathetic reader, not just in the “Black Venus” cycle but throughout Les Fleurs du mal. I am not so much interested in the literal Jeanne as in the figurative one—the hybrid woman caught up in the dilemmas of diaspora. We all are now from some other place, trying to orient ourselves, using and being used, struggling to gain a foothold.
One frustration in trying to present Jeanne and Charles’s relationship as that of a complex couple at a particular historical moment, i.e. the apex of Europe's political and cultural empire, is that the attempt to show them as pictorial equals is constantly subverted. Baudelaire was photographed by some of the greatest photographers of the day, Neys, Carjat, and Nadar, but all we have of Duval is a few casual pen-and-ink drawings by Baudelaire himself and an indifferent painting by Manet from the end of her life. For me, layering images of Charles and Jeanne with that of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, while hardly eliminating the obvious differentials in power, is a way to show that they were both subject to forces outside their control. Another device for equalizing Jeanne and Charles’s humanity is the use of color: a single hue across each of two panels, changing from diptych to diptych throughout the installation, with the colors also taken from Les Demoiselles.It’s not a fair match. Charles is the master of a tongue charged with the power of its historical moment; he can afford the luxury of exploring his language’s vulnerabilities. Jeanne’s struggle is for a language to comprehend a situation which has, for all purposes, never before existed: a post-modernist condition in a modernist time. As a chart of her struggle, her side of the diptychs may often be difficult to read, wavering between obscurity and clarity. For the viewer, this is a project in which she may or may not succeed....
© Lorraine O’Grady 1998
excerpt from a conversation between Lorraine O’Grady and a studio visitor, 9.12.98.
Visitor: You’ve said your work is an argument against Western dualism. But if that’s the case, why do you use two panels? Doesn’t that just reinforce the basic idea? Why not the triptych instead?
Lorraine: You mean like the three-panel altarpiece? The old beginning, middle, and end?
L: Well I know it seems funny, but this is one case where reality doesn’t support common sense. You’d think that dualism would be reproduced in two panels, but it’s not. No matter how it might appear at first, two does not equal two here. It took me a while to figure this out, but in Western dualism, there’s a kicker and it’s hierarchy.
V: Which means?
L: There’s no equation: good doesn’t equal evil, black doesn’t equal white, male doesn’t equal female, culture doesn’t equal nature.... Something is always better than. In spite of its name, the binary always contains a hidden third term. It’s the thing that has been passed through, the thing that has been experienced or received, that makes it superior, like the blessing of Abel over Cain, or of Jacob over Esau. The Western binary isn’t really a two, it’s a three; it’s a narrative that goes from fallen to saved.
V: It’s not a diptych, it’s a triptych....
L: Right.... With the diptych, there’s no being saved, no before and after, no either/or; it’s both/and, at the same time. With no resolution, you just have to stand there and deal.
by Courtney Baker. 1996
Handout on the historical and critical treatment of Jeanne Duval, accompanying “Studies for Flower of Evil and Good” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. Oct 23, 1996–Jan 5, 1997. Curator: Milena Kalinovska.
“She was silent and submissive. This was very appropriate, after
all, since she had no soul, and she was of a race of slaves. She was
lazy and stupid.”
— Camille Mauclair, 1927
“… it is the penchant for misery that kept him near the emaciated
body of Louchette, and his love for ‘the hideous Jewess’ that is like a
prefiguration of what he would later bring to his relationship with
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, 1946
“Jeanne, the black witch, symbolized his damnation; Appollonie, the white angel, his salvation.”
— F.W.J. Hemmings, Baudelaire the Damned: A Biography, 1982
Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s black mistress, has been an unavoidable subject in Baudelaire’s biographies. Yet despite her obvious importance in Baudelaire’s life and work (it was she who inspired the Black Venus cycle, arguably the most poetically significant poems of Les Fleurs du Mal), very little is actually known about her. Historians and philosophers such as Sartre and Jean Prevost have searched through letters and other writings by Baudelaire and his contemporaries in an attempt to reconstruct something of Duval’s identity and the quality of her nearly twenty-year relationship with the poet. What they have gleaned from these anecdotes is that the two endured an extremely tempestuous relationship, and that Duval was largely responsible for their domestic difficulties. The majority of musings on Duval during the one hundred and fifty years of Baudelairian criticism have portrayed her as ignorant, malicious and manipulative — figuring as little more than an obstacle to the artist’s genius. These pronouncements may be read as being shaped by the historical contexts of the Baudelaire’s critics, contexts which themselves are intertwined in the history of race.
In embarking upon a study of the critical reception of Duval, one might reasonably expect to encounter hideously racist statements like that of Mauclair, or of Dr. Arthur Kraetzner who described her, in 1950, with shocking confidence as a bad, inferior and annoying woman, citing only her race as the basis of her inferiority. But the frequency of such comments coupled with their intensely offensive nature soon become numbing, and Duval, the biographical figure, becomes alienated and more distant.
The actual Duval is hidden, silenced by critical projection. Duval appears as Baudelaire’s foil: she is the demon; Baudelaire is the saint. She is the greedy animal; he is the generous, yet tortured soul. However, it is not only the critics who silence her, but Baudelaire as well.
Duval was a woman living in nineteenth century Western society — a fact which could culturally preclude her from maintaining an identity separate from her male companion and benefactor. Moreover, Duval was a black woman: an exotic foreigner by sight. She never managed to achieve the same fame or social renown as Madame Sabatier (Appollonie) another of Baudelaire’s muses, who maintained a popular literary salon Although Duval is frequently compared to Sabatier, the juxtaposition is framed so that it may reveal the contrast between the dark, earthy Duval and the light, spiritual Sabatier. If for the critics Madame Sabatier represented the ideal woman, then Duval represented a woman’s tragic fall from grace.
In response to the critical precedents, Lorraine O’Grady presents an alternate view of Duval and her involvement with Baudelaire. Asserting that their relationship was in fact complex and authentic. O’Grady has invented a language that situates Duval as a cultural hybrid living in colonial and sexual exile. In doing so, it acts to complicate the discussion of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and the “histories” surrounding their relationship.
Radcliffe Research Program
by Franklin Sirmans. 1998Lorraine O'Grady, "Studies: For a Work-in-Progress on Charles Baudelaire, the first Modernist Poet, and his Haitian-born wife Jeanne Duval," Sep 12 - Oct 31, 1998, at Thomas Erben Gallery, NYC. Review published on the internet.
by Dominique Nahas. 1998
Reviews O’Grady’s first NYC show of digital cibachrome studies for this work, in Review, vol 4, no 3, October 15, 1998, pp 6-7.
IN CHARLES BAUDELAIRE’S essays The Painter of Modern Life, the French nineteenth-century critic defines the principal qualities of “the modern” as contingent and transitory — an elemental aspect of atomized daily contemporary experience. Sociologist Kenneth Gergen refers to the condition of “multiphrenia” in his study The Saturated Self, when describing the different valences of relationships developed by the individual through the media. Symptomatic of this condition in everyday life, continues Gergen, is an aspect which mimics multiple personality disorder, that is, having layered selves within the self, each with its individual voice, a cast of personae deployed to meet the various demands of the outside world.
History is seen as a slivered self in Lorraine O’Grady’s moving exhibition of cibachromes using language and color. They are generated by computer, manipulated from historical texts and images. There are three digital cibachrome diptychs in the exhibition collectively entitled Studies for “Flowers of Evil and Good.”
In her recent work, O’Grady examines and intertwines various voices of history — those of the recognized and those who have been deliberately excised and sublated from the stream of legitimacy. The characters in Studies for “Flowers of Evil and Good” are Charles Baudelaire and his black common-law wife of twenty years Jeanne Duval, who emigrated to Paris from Haiti in the 1830s. This story intersects with that of Pablo Picasso’s meeting of the primitivistic in his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.
While no documents of Duval’s life (her letters to Charles may have been destroyed by his mother) are extant, it seems likely the two met in 1842 when they were both 21. O’Grady, the product herself of mixed ethnic heritage, is particularly sensitive to the interpretation of mainstream history and how it steamrolls through inconvenient and problematizing facts which tend to diminish the luster of historic and literary figures by introducing messy facts about their personal lives. Baudelaire is one such example of someone who, while described by some biographers to [be] a meticulous and courtly bourgeois flaneur in his personal habits and style, had another perhaps equally interesting, and obvious shadow side that added a vibrancy to his thinking about the contrariness of beauty.
Here is one of the great geniuses of the nineteenth century whose critical theories of beauty and culture, and whose poetry is marked in some way or is a response to his stormy relationship with a black woman he clearly was fascinated with and to whom he was devoted on many levels.
Just as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is historically important because it shows a visual genius using third world motifs in his work, that is appropriating elements of the “other” to rejuvenate exhausted European pictorial codes in the beginning of the twentieth century, Baudelaire’s own writings are in response to a meeting with what Lorraine O’Grady calls “the psychologically complex ways modernism constructed itself out of Europe’s encounter with the worlds it colonized.”
Duval is usually disregarded by mainstream historians as a nuisance, an uneducated alcoholic harpy upon whom Baudelaire inexplicably allowed himself to waste his valuable time as he struggled to define the modern age. Using the photographer Nadar’s photographic image of the eloquent poet an the pen sketch of his wife as the consistent starting-off point in each diptych Lorraine O’Grady, in her work at Erben weaves together a narrative of textural and visual difference in the same way that antiphonal voices play off one another in a moving way. The artist allows us to mentally reconfigure the workings of history, its influences, affinities, associations and unexplored and undelineated possibilities.
Each of the figures in each of the diptychs are given a voice and presented in dialogue between themselves and between competing visual and literary histories. Baudelaire of course has a public voice, those of Les Fleurs du Mal, used as the deep background behind his visual image. Floating also in the background, as spiritual heirs, are the Demoiselles.
In one of the diptychs, for example, O’Grady attempts to delineate a private Baudelaire communicating through a purported love letter or fictional conversation with Duval using a technique of outsized letters in the foreground (one set of words are “for me the door to an Infinite”) contrasted to the background text: “Come from heaven or hell, what does it matter, O Beauty. . . if your eye, your smile, your foot open for me the door to an infinite I love and have never known.” The primary image of Jeanne Duval, on the opposite panel, Is a portrait sketch in ink by Baudelaire. Compared to the visual weight of Nadar’s photograph of her lover, she seems transparent and vaporized, a hallucination set against a backdrop of the Demoiselles imagery (a Greek chorus of subjugated history?). Duval’s speech is made up by O’Grady (who is aware that her appropriation of Duval has echoes in Baudelaire’s using of Duval for his own ends) and her voice, though fragmented, halting and fictional, has purpose and dignity: “I am homesick what is home?” are the foregrounded words in one of the panels, the repeated backdrop words are the following: “Their sun is not my sun. Their heat is not my heat. Am I sad because I am homesick? What is home?”The work at Erben is a preliminary one, which offers a taste (or rather an appetite) for the artists soon-to-be completed series. It is, however, extremely satisfying in its present form. Lorraine O’Grady’s conceptually complex study of personal, literary and visual codes intermixing through time is smartly succinct and touches on a number of troubling political and social issues stemming from displacement and dispersal of personal and social histories. The work is also a visually persuasive palimpsest. It offers an example of art as Benedetto Croce affirmed [as] “. . . a visible sign of indwelling state of grace and harmony, of exquisite perception and heightened feeling.” The artist’s intention is to present in the future an entire completed work of sixteen diptychs on this particular Duval/Baudelaire theme which seems so rich in its cross-cultural inferences. The full result of her efforts will be worth seeing and pondering.
by Courtney R. Baker. 2000
Analytic reading of two “works” —a description of her clothing by Gayatri Spivak, and Lorraine O’Grady’s Flowers of Evil and Good. Unpublished paper read to a symposium at Louisiana State University, March 2000.
This paper seeks to explicate a practice of reading (loosely defined to include a practice of viewing) that would yield a non-essentialist interpretation of postcolonial subjectivities. The practice (as opposed to the concept) of reading appears to me to be one of the only methods of approaching certain objects. The objects with which I am generally concerned, and which will serve as points of analysis in this paper, are elaborately constructed, complexly arranged visual images that border on artifice. They are artifice to the extent that they are artificially contrived, manipulated, deliberate expressions that announce themselves as having a complicated relationship with the real. I would argue, however, that these objects are less artifice than artifacts in the sense that they are theoretical signposts of meaning. They are the products of self-conscious creative and intellectual production. In a sense, I am attempting simply to figure out how to read art, not in a disinterested Kantian mode, but from a deeply politically interested position. The works that serve as my analytic objects here are concerned with race and gender as devalued bodily markings. These markings are not abstract symbols, but politically charged codes. The objects, then, do not permit the reader or viewer an objective distance or a disinterested perspective. In fact, through a juxtaposition of these and other visual codes, organized or explicated in such a way as to deny a linear or coherent narrative of the postcolonial subject, these objects, by appealing to the visual sense, disrupt the ostensibly natural practice of reading. These visual scenes are jarring and unsettling for this reason. I am privileging the visual scene in these objects because the visual here actively denies a linear narrative organization of information.
. . . .
“I don’t know whether to read it or to look at it,” or words something to their effect, were spoken by a visitor to the studio of the artist Lorraine O’Grady. The object with which the visitor was having so much trouble are a series of diptychs that present three overlapping layers of portraits, paintings, and text. The layers consist of Picasso’s painting “Les desmoiselles d’Avignon,” a portrait of Charles Baudelaire and his black mistress of 20 years, Jeanne Duval, and text from either Baudelaire’s poetry or of the artist’s invention (meant to represent the language of Duval). Flip through slides [In the gallery press release, the work is succinctly described thus: “In these diptychs, a photograph of Baudelaire is juxtaposed with a Baudelaire drawing of Duval. Each is layered with crops from Picasso’s ‘Les desmoiselles díAvignon,’ as well as with text constituting an imaginary dialogue.”]
The layers form a palimpsest with each image struggling with another to articulate meanings, to tell the story of modernist aestheticism, of interracial love, of the experience of gender and racial hierarchies. The stories intersect, overlap, and occlude. A painted face hovers ghostlike over Baudelaire’s shoulder. The familiar words of his poetry disappear into shadows, are cut off by Picasso’s hard angles. In other images, Baudelaire’s pen and ink sketch of his “mistress” is deepened by the shading in the painting overlay.
The (dis)organization of the terms in this work (the Picasso painting, Baudelaire, Duval, the written text) effectively obscures any easily available meaning. The terms themselves are immediately available. One might begin to read this work thus: “Baudelaire is the father of modernist aesthetics. Picasso is the great modernist painter. Blackness and womanhood are repressed subjectivities.” Of course, the terms are not innocent; they are iconographic. But any attempt to reduce the work to a singular meaning remains frustrated. If a value judgment is being made here, for example, on the status of modernity or Picasso, then it is quite convoluted.
I am intrigued by the related tropes of “the exhibit” for
Spivak and “the visual art object” for O’Grady as texts that are
set-off, framed, removed from the continuum of “the real” as exemplars.
What is significant about the moment described by Spivak, and what led
me to read this section more closely, is her privileging of the exhibit
as a useful method of practicing deconstructive self-reflection.
Indeed, it seems that the museum is the only space in which such a
reflection could occur. Spivak becomes an exhibit in the space of the
museum. The museum here operates as a deferring mechanism. It signifies
a space in which the complicating effects of temporal and spatial
contexts may be momentarily bracketed. In the museum, Spivak sees her
body not as she really is, but as she wants to; in this case, for the
purpose of furthering a critique of capitalist transnationalism.
I do not wish to challenge the purity of that desire to see one’s self (or one’s object of study) as one wants to. I suspect it is, in fact, deeply problematic to suggest that any space might provide a venue for pure analysis. Nevertheless I believe it is still the visual that holds the possibility of exposing those desires. The experience of viewing O’Grady’s work (and O’Grady’s experience in composing the work) foregrounds desire. Out of the consternation of not knowing whether to look or to read emerges the desire to “just look,” to “just read,” to “read or look in the proper order,” or in a “useful order.” For me, I am capable only of reducing my encounter with this work to a desire to know; a desire that is quickly followed by an art lover’s impulse to “do right” by the work.
I want to offer the project of reading the visual as a potential, not an absolute, denaturalizing of the concept of reading as knowledge production. In ideal circumstances, the visual is non-narrative. Its offering of objects and icons to the visual sense is unbiased in that it does not indicate a beginning point or a priority. Visual reading, then, is a project of narrating the reader’s desire through the excavation of an elected intellectual agenda. In this scenario the focus of the reading process could then be transferred from the objective (the intellectual agenda) to the subjective (the narrative of the reader’s desire). The knowledge produced would inevitably form a dialect of sorts, between the goal of the critical analytic work and the agency of the reader (now author).
As Donna Haraway remarks in her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (19??), “Vision can be good for avoiding binary oppositions.” (187) [This is from chapter nine, titled “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.”] Haraway goes on to make a case for “situated knowledges” which “insist on the embodied nature of all vision, and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere.” Haraway is fundamentally concerned with the embodied position of the reader. While I am interested in the impact of the visual and the agency of the reader, my project diverges from Haraway’s in that my focus is on the reader’s active agency as it is articulated through the reader’s desire. My investment in visuality therefore is less about structure (the self as constituted by a position) than it is about mobilized passions (the self as constituted through desire). Thinking about self-reflexive reading as an intentional foregrounding of desire problematizes the conflicts that arise in conceiving of reader-subjects as inhabiting multiple and often conflicting subject positions.
Visual reading as I have envisioned it is a sort of autoethnographic performance. In attending to the visual, in working through one’s relationship to a visual object, one produces a unique textual interpretation, a spectacle of analytic encounter. Spivak’s writing and reading of her own body is an example of that type of spectacle. Although the immediacy of her body is displaced for us (the readers of her text) we nevertheless have another object available to our gaze: the spectacle of her self-reading. Visuality in this project of reading is thus mirrored and repeated. What begins with a look, ends with a look. The possibility of new, unique readings therefore remains open, and the final word, the ultimate judgment, is endlessly (and I think happily) deferred.
by ANNE HIGONNET. 1996
Catalogue essay, New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. 1996. Lia Gangitano and Steven Nelson, eds. pp 154-160.
. . . . Then Lorraine O’Grady talked to me about writing this essay. I realized that I had heard the she and he of Baudelaire’s assumptions but had never fully listened to the black and white of them. Take for example these two sentences from a sort of Baudelaire-manual aimed at a general audience:
Jeanne Duval présentait tous les défauts que l’on dit être ceux des métisses. Sournoise, menteuse, débauchée, dépensière, alcoolique, et par surcroît ignorante et stupide, elle se fût peut-être trouvée mieux à sa place dans le monde de la prostitution que dans la compagnie des artistes.
[Jeanne Duval presented all the faults that are said to be of half-breeds. Surly, lying, debauched, spendthrift, alcoholic, and in addition ignorant and stupid, she would perhaps have been more in her place in the world of prostitution than in the company of artists.]
No adjective, no metaphor was neglected to deprive Duval of the most basic humanity. In Baudelaire’s poems she is an escape and the oblivion he longs for. In Baudelaire’s history she even ceases to be what he said he lacked, becoming instead the fodder for his work. Seeing O’Grady’s work on Baudelaire and Duval, I am faced with a Baudelaire from whom I recoil. Duval evokes the experience of a black woman whose suffering and degradation has obliterated identity, an experience incommensurable with anything I can say I know.
To go back again to Baudelaire on O’Grady’s terms requires by far the most difficult hybrid yet: not a grafting of the personal onto the professional, but of the unknown onto the known. It demands abandoning a model of inside and outside, fraught with fluctuations within space yet still one space which retains conceptual unity. To confront race demands a model in which hybridity is a perpetual mutation, in which identity never stabilizes or even oscillates, but repeatedly shears away, in which time forces change and forbids any return to origins. The more I think about O’Grady and Duval, the less sure I am about myself. Socially and historically, they are “black.” But the more I think about this essay the more complicated their being black becomes to me, the more hybrid, divided and grafted within, and the more my being “white” seems correspondingly fictitious, like being “French.” O’Grady often says: “Wherever I stand, I find I have to build a bridge to some other place.”
Like all of her previous work, O’Grady’s images of Baudelaire and Duval offer viewers only multiple vectors for identification, refusing either unity or opposition. The Fir-Palm (1991), for instance, grafts northern evergreen on southern trunk on human navel. The multiple pieces of her Miscegenated Family Album pair Egyptian sculpture with family photographs. Are the two types being compared, contrasted, likened or divided? Are these before or after, or what is and what should be? If so, which is which? In O’Grady’s latest work we again find histories old and new. Here Baudelaire is again, in the familiar guise of a canonical 1855 Nadar portrait photograph, a staple of mainstream photographic history and museum collections. And the image of Baudelaire is still endowed with his own words, writ large before him as well as small in his background. And now Duval too appears, next to Baudelaire, their images linked though not united by a double diptych format. She still does not represent herself, visually or textually; her image is a pen drawing he made, and the words that describe her are O’Grady’s. His image and his words are so reassuringly well-known; hers startle. Baudelaire already has a history; Duval does not. To go back to the same Baudelaire-manual: “La biographie de cette Jeanne Duval n’a jamais pu être écrite.” [The biography of this Jeanne Duval has never been able to be written.] Perhaps Duval’s biography couldn’t be written on Baudelaire’s terms. But O’Grady puts Duval back in the picture, another picture of history.
Duval’s and Baudelaire’s images are joined by Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon the painting that gave its author the same kind of place in history that Les Fleurs du Mal gave Baudelaire. Casting their computer-generated shadows on each other, Baudelaire and the Demoiselles or Duval and the Demoiselles, become layers in the same image. Baudelaire’s representation of Duval and Picasso’s representation of African art echo each other. Moreover, the color of both Baudelaire’s and Duval’s image is literally taken [from] the palette of the Picasso canvas, reclaimed through a computer program. The masterpieces that were supposed to be so individual become just aspects of one history, the history of a canon constituting its oneness through exclusion and appropriation.
O’Grady’s work can look like a compensatory act of retribution. Baudelaire’s body and writing, once sedulously separated by the use of a device called Duval, are now reunited, while her body, once the discarded detritus of Baudelaire’s poems, becomes the subject of O’Grady’s inquiry. Duval not only appears, she appears on the same scale and with the same visual weight as does Baudelaire. The form itself of the diptych implies parity, reciprocity, exchange, a relationship between two separate yet linked entities.
O’Grady’s work can look redemptively healing as well. Going behind the back of literary criticism, O’Grady takes Baudelaire at his word. She retrieves the need for Duval Baudelaire expressed and the likeness between them he acknowledged. This is the passage from Baudelaire’s journals she shows me in her studio:
These two fallen creatures, who could still suffer, since a vestige of nobility remained with them, embraced impulsively, mingling, in the rain of their tears and kisses, regrets for the past with hopes, all too uncertain, for the future.
She lets Baudelaire speak for himself, lets us read his words ourselves, paying homage to the form of his language, and also confident that his language itself will betray him, cracking under the pressure of exclusion, speaking what it intends to silence. Baudelaire’s journal entry continues:
Through the night’s blackness, he had looked behind him into the depths of the years, then he had thrown himself into the arms of his guilty lover, to recover there the pardon he was granting her.
O’Grady’s work lets us draw our own conclusions. She marshals images and words, color and letter-type, seeking a formal integrity that will let meanings loose. The work these meanings will accomplish she leaves to us. O’Grady does not try to control uncontrollable meanings, to make sure we get a single point, to spell out a single intention. On the contrary, she joins many kinds of meanings together in a firmly constructed but open mesh, luring us into the unknown with what we thought we knew. The diptych form is not only doubled, but internally layered, the uncertainties lead in every direction. What is the surface and what is the substance? Where is the real thing? Whose side are we on? Whose word should we take? Has Duval been reinstated in history or is her erasure by Baudelaire only made more evident?
By the questions she poses and the answers she refuses to give, O’Grady confronts with the prisms of likeness and difference, with the identities we would like to claim whole but can only inherit in spliced shards. She posits no single entry into her work, and designates no single exit from it. Her work provides a place of multiple possibilities where you and I, from wherever we come, can alter our trajectories.
by Irene Cheng. 1996
Handout on O’Grady’s “unmasking” as a response to the critical
tradition of fetishizing the fetish. Written to accompany “Studies for Flower of Evil and Good” in New Histories, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA. Oct 23,1996–Jan 5, 1997.
The fetish of colonial discourse—what Fanon called the epidermal schema—is not, like the sexual fetish, a secret. Skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognized as canon knowledge in a range of cultural, political, historical discourses, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies.
“Negro art? Never heard of it!” Picasso is said to have responded when asked about the influence of African art on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Years later however, the artist confessed that his discovery of “tribal” sculpture at the Trocadero Museum in Paris produced in him a profoundly significant shock. It was then, he recounts, that “I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty mannequins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day…”.
Picasso would later explain to André Malraux almost apologetically, “We all of us loved fetishes. Van Gogh once said, ‘Japanese art — we all had that in common.’ For us it’s the Negroes.” Picasso’s statement leaves us wondering whether he meant the tribal objects that were referred to by anthropologists as “fetishes,” the “Negroes” themselves, or his own affinity for African culture. Slippages such as these recur throughout Picasso’s statements on the role of the “primitive” in his work. The artist’s positions alternate between the poles of desire and disavowal.
As Anna Chave and others have observed, the critical response to Les Demoiselles has replicated Picasso’s fetishization of African culture by fixating on the most visible signs of difference in the painting — the African masks donned by the two right-hand demoiselles. Art historians range in their positions from denying any African influence whatsoever (as in Zervos’s statement, “The artist has categorically assured me that at the time when he painted the Demoiselles he did not know African art”) to centering on the “animalistic” sexuality expressed through Picasso’s use of “primitive” art. Scholars have written about the masks obsessively, electing to describe them as bestial and ugly. The critical fetishization of Picasso’s primitivism has fossilized into yet another sediment in the multiple layers of “masking” already inscribed within the painting.
Against this critical tradition of fetishizing the fetish, Lorraine O’Grady’s work begins the crucial task of “unmasking” through a re-framing and re-presentation of the “fetish” object. O’Grady employs a strategy of mimicry upon Les Demoiselles in order to expose the invisible and unconscious fears which motivate the artist’s and critic’s fixation upon the visible markers of difference. O’Grady’s work prompts us to look behind the masks, to examine the very processes of masking and to consider in another light the “Other” who continues to threaten the order and stability of the western male ego.
Radcliffe Research Program
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.