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Exhibition

The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture

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Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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The Colour of Anxiety brings into focus sculpture exhibited and collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900, a rich yet largely overlooked body of work.

The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.

Installation view of 'The Colour of Anxiety'. Photo: Rob Harris.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, British sculptors began to move away from the whiteness of Neoclassical marble and started to incorporate colour into their work, using bronze, silver, gold, ivory and porcelain as well as semi-precious stones, tinted waxes, enamels and paint.

The adoption of these materials has typically been attributed to the renewed interest in medieval history and craftsmanship, discoveries about the polychromy of ancient sculpture, the allure of exoticism in the visual arts and the introduction of new industrial processes.

Anxieties about rapid social change, developments in science, threats to the established patriarchal order and imperial rule have been highlighted by many literary and social historians, but have received less attention from art historians.

The Colour of Anxiety examines the rise of colour in nineteenth-century sculpture by focusing on how male artists responded to, and reinforced, a concept of the cis female body influenced by anxieties of the time.

Despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity, the representation of women in sculpture was increasingly sexualised, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women, Black female sexuality and racial intermingling.

Bringing together sculptures that either incorporate colour directly or imply it by means of subject matter and titles, the exhibition considers the fascination with colouring people and people of colour as a response to the perceived anxieties of the Victorian age.

Detail of Harry Bates, 'Pandora' 1890, marble, ivory and bronze on marble base. © Tate. Photo: Rob Harris.

The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture is guest curated by Dr Nicola Jennings (Director, Athena Art Foundation and Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 2015-21) and Dr Adrienne L. Childs (Adjunct Curator at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. and independent scholar) and will be accompanied by a special issue of the Institute’s Essays on Sculpture series and a programme of online and in-person events.

Upcoming events

Professor Roger Luckhurst, ‘What is the Colour of Heaven? Women, Spiritualism and Art in the Late 19th Century’
Part of The Colour of Anxiety
Part of The Colour of Anxiety

Lecture

Professor Roger Luckhurst, ‘What is the Colour of Heaven? Women, Spiritualism and Art in the Late 19th Century’

18:00–19:00

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Exhibition guide

Download a copy of the exhibition guide for The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture.

 

Download exhibition guide
(PDF, 8.5mb)

From the Hope Venus to the Tinted Venus

 

Antonio Canova, 'Venus (The Hope Venus)' 1817-20, marble. Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Antonio Canova’s Venus (The Hope Venus) 1817-20 and The Mother (Woman and Child) 1860-1910 (attributed to Raffaelle Monti), both in white marble, exemplify Victorian ideals of female chastity, purity and motherhood. Absence of colour was a key characteristic of Neoclassical sculpture, based on the belief that the sculptors of ancient Greece – considered to be the fount of Western culture – were interested above all in form, not colour.

Although this view was soon proven to be mistaken, it nevertheless continued to govern the making of British sculpture for much of the nineteenth century. This was no doubt related to the belief that absence of colour was the sign of a civilisation capable of abstract thought and moral rectitude, in contrast to the painted figures of animist and pagan societies.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, setting off a chain reaction which would have a lasting impact across society. Darwin’s scientific theories of natural selection and evolution were soon translated into unscientific and alarmist notions of what could happen to society, including concepts such as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘degeneration’.

Artworks such as G.F. Watts’ Found Drowned c. 1848-50 – depicting a victim of the sex work that many women were forced into – exemplified what could happen to the poor, weak and ‘degenerate’. The education of women and the imagined threat posed by the so-called ‘Orient’, considered to be a place full of barbarism and unbridled sexuality, further challenged the ideal of female chastity. Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave 1844 – depicting a white woman sold at an Ottoman slave market – became one of the most widely reproduced sculptures of the nineteenth century.

By around 1860 Powers’ Greek Slave had become the subject of a colour stereograph, The Captive c. 1860, transforming the white marble of the original into a flesh-and-blood woman. John Gibson’s Tinted Venus 1851-56, exhibited in London in 1862, underwent a similar transformation in sculpture. The public loved the lifelikeness of the goddess’ ivory-tinted skin, blue eyes and rosy lips, but Gibson’s fellow sculptors were outraged.

At the same time, sculpted femmes fatales such as the French artist Henri Baron de Triqueti’s Cleopatra Dying 1859 were beginning to be bought by British collectors. This work typified not only a taste for coloured materials but also a late Victorian fascination for all things Egyptian. Here again, colour was significant, for example playing a central role in the Theosophy preached by the cult mystic Madame Blavatsky (1831-91).

About the works in this section

Venus

Venus

John Gibson R.A.

Minerve Du Parthenon

Minerve Du Parthenon

Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy

The Greek Slave

The Greek Slave

Hiram Powers

The Greek Slave

The Greek Slave

Minton & Co., after Hiram Powers

Cleopatra Dying

Cleopatra Dying

Henri Baron de Triqueti

Echoes of Slavery

 

While women of colour, fashioned in white marble or coloured materials, were unusual subjects in nineteenth-century sculpture, there are significant examples of works representing them as erotically charged and bound slaves, sexualised Venuses, or a hybrid of both.

These reveal conflicting attitudes towards race, sexuality, slavery and abolition. White male sculptors such as John Bell and Charles Cordier intended to bring the pathos of the institution of slavery to public attention, yet they nonetheless traded on the allure of illicit sexuality born of that same system. Many works in this gallery evoke both vixen and victim.

Using white marble – the traditional medium of Neoclassical sculpture – to represent the Black body created a tension that challenged the material’s association with white Western culture, morality and purity. Using coloured materials to depict Black bodies was one approach to resolving this quandary.

Although limited in scope, images of Black women in sculpture were transformed and widely circulated through the processes of reproduction within the industrialised decorative arts. Large-scale works were scaled down and reproduced in bronze, plaster, porcelain and other metals. Bell’s Octoroon 1868 was reduced and reborn in Parian ware by Minton and Co. Even though these editions afforded a larger audience access to the works, the commodification and commercialisation of the image of the enslaved woman as a luxury object echoed the practice of slavery itself.

 

Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter

The Colour of Anxiety is an exhibition that features largely white male artists who drove the art world in the nineteenth century. The narratives about race and gender that their works embody have come under scrutiny in recent years by contemporary artists reconsidering historical works that reveal racist and sexist attitudes. These artists also question the centuries-long exclusion of women and people of colour from the world of art-making in the West.

Works in the exhibition by American conceptual artist Sanford Biggers and the late Scottish-Ghanaian photographer Maud Sulter offer a reminder of the relevance of this inquiry in today’s critical landscape. Together they bring Black voices – and in Sulter’s case, a female voice – to the conversation, interrogating the power of the European Classical tradition and the contested figure of the Black female in Victorian visual culture.

Statue of an African woman stading with her arms behind her head, carrying a jug on top of her head. The woman is sculptued in onyx, her floor-length dress in marble, and the jug in bronze.
Charles Cordier, 'La femme Africaine' 1867, onyx marble and bronze. Courtesy Rotherham Museums, Arts & Heritage.

About the works in this section

The Octoroon

The Octoroon

John Bell

The Manacled Slave / On the Sea Shore

The Manacled Slave / On the Sea Shore

John Bell and Elkington & Co.

Nile

Nile

Sanford Biggers

La femme Africaine

La femme Africaine

Charles Cordier

Calliope

Calliope

Maud Sulter

A Slave Girl

A Slave Girl

James Havard Thomas

Deathly Women

 

Sir George Frampton RA, 'Lamia' 1899-1900, ivory, bronze, opals, glass. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Paul Highnam.

The education of women and the prospect of female emancipation were also sources of anxiety for men. The pioneering British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley’s 1874 pamphlet, ‘Sex in Mind and Education’, claimed that education would damage the female reproductive organs, turning women into ‘monstrosities’ threatening the survival of the human race.

Such anxieties were no doubt a factor in the proliferation of femmes fatales in late Victorian painting and sculpture, in which colour was used to symbolise women’s dangerously seductive nature. Harry Bates’ Pandora 1890 was the first British sculpture to employ the ancient chryselephantine technique to draw attention to the jar full of evil that this mythical woman had unleashed upon the world. Sir George Frampton used ivory, bronze, opals and glass to create his sculpture of the serpentine temptress Lamia 1899-1900.

Another popular subject was the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor Pygmalion, having rejected real women, sets about carving his perfect partner from marble. Ernest Normand’s painting Pygmalion and Galatea 1881 captures the moment when the white stone flushes with colour as the goddess Venus grants Pygmalion’s wish to bring Galatea to life.

Women were also associated with death in stories involving female vampires such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, a dark medieval tale retold as ‘Briar Rose’ in the popular Grimms’ Fairy Tales (first published in 1812). Inspired by Edward Burne-Jones’ series The Legend of the Briar Rose, the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert encircled The Virgin and St Elizabeth 1899 with pink rose briar on his tomb for the Duke of Clarence (1864-92) at Windsor Castle, depicting the women as if in the sleep of eternal maidenhood.

Harry Bates’ Mors Janua Vitae 1899 – also chryselephantine and produced in the final months before his death – features another woman with her eyes closed. She represents Life but is about to be engulfed by the dark wings of the male figure of Death. They stand on a sphere depicting a Christian Last Judgement and imagery from ancient Greek myths about death.

About the works in this section

Pandora

Pandora

Harry Bates A.R.A.

Mors Janua Vitae

Mors Janua Vitae

Harry Bates A.R.A.

Lamia

Lamia

Sir George Frampton R.A.

The Virgin and St Elizabeth of Hungary

The Virgin and St Elizabeth of Hungary

Sir Alfred Gilbert R.A.

Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion and Galatea

Ernest Normand

List of artists in the exhibition

 

Harry Bates (1850-99)
John Bell (1811-95)
Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-87)
Sanford Biggers (b. 1970)
Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75)
Charles Cordier (1827-1905)
Sir George Frampton R.A. (1860-1928)
John Gibson R.A. (1790-1866)
Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934)
Ernest Normand (1857-1923)
Luigi Pagani (1837-1904)
Hiram Powers (1805-73)
Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849)
Antonio Rossetti (1819-89)
Maud Sulter (1960-2008)
James Havard Thomas (1854-1921)
Henri Baron de Triqueti (1803-74)
George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)
Attributed to Raffaelle Monti (1818-81)

Sanford Biggers, 'Nile' 2021, marmo nero / black marble. Courtesy the artist and MASSIMODECARLO. Photo: Todd White Art Photography.

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