The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture review – nonstop shocks

Cleopatra Dying, 1859 by Henri Baron de Triqueti.

‘In all her ivory glory’: Cleopatra Dying, 1859 by Henri Baron de Triqueti. Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
Nudes in bondage, endless bared breasts, passion, prurience… this superb survey of sculpture’s depiction of women in 19th-century Britain unsettles at every turn

The most famous sculpture in American art is currently on show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave (1844), a lifesize female nude carved in pristine white marble, toured a dumbstruck continent for more than four years, from 1847 to 1851.

Nubile, depilated, daintily chained, this vision of nakedness came disguised in all kinds of propaganda. The pose was high art (based on the Venus de Milo). The Greek girl was a true Christian (a crucifix dangles below one wrist). She was obviously trying to shield her modesty with the other hand (perhaps). Powers described his creation as the embodiment of “high moral and intellectual beauty” and even swapped the chains for manacles in a later version, alluding to America’s anti-slavery movement. But his nude was as notorious as it was stupendously popular, repeated on every scale from museum to mantelpiece edition.

The original carving came to Britain, bought by aristocrats for Raby Castle near Durham. It is the first figure you see in this riveting exhibition of Victorian sculptures of women. Straight away your mind buzzes with questions. How could Powers get away with this bondaged nudity in the 19th century? Wasn’t he putting the viewer in exactly the same position as the buyer ogling the enslaved people in the market? Isn’t this just flagrant orientalism by other means? And if the manacled variation was supposed to be pro-abolition, why on earth didn’t Powers reconceive his figure altogether and carve it in black marble?

The show keeps the shocks coming at a pelting pace. Here is Canova’s neoclassical Hope Venus effectively proffering one nipple to the viewer, and John Gibson’s Tinted Venus, with rosy nipples and come-hither blue eyes. She carries her cast-off robe like a coat beneath one arm. There were cries of indecency when she was first displayed in 1856, in full polychrome, but the controversy seems to have faded by the International Exhibition six years later.

Charles Cordier’s La femme Africaine, shown at the 1867 exhibition, presents the eponymous female figure in black onyx, cloaked in thick robes of rippling white marble. The black woman is allowed to be black only on condition, it seems, that she bears a heavy burden of whiteness. The marble, incidentally, came from the French colony of Algeria. Depictions of women of colour gradually began to swither between the outrageous whiteness of so many Victorian statues and a very qualified naturalism.

La femme Africaine, 1857 by Charles Cordier.
‘A very qualified naturalism’: La femme Africaine, 1857 by Charles Cordier. Rotherham Museums, Arts & Heritage

There is an extraordinarily strange bust here, of a bound African women struggling against her ropes. She is neither entirely black, yet, but no longer white. A gilt-bronze plaster version of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved! (1868), she has at least – and at last – the appearance of a black African woman. Yet although the sculpture is ostensibly abolitionist, at least according to Carpaux’s title, the ropes cut across the bare breast so that her body is shockingly sexualised.

That the Victorians were vigorously interested in sex is hardly news, for all the old chestnuts about piano-leg frills. What is so revelatory about this show, with its array of outlandish figures, is just how bizarre was their attitude to the bodily forms of sculpture. You could buy a pocket Greek Slave in porcelain, manufactured by Minton, for the privacy of your own parlour. You could go along to the Royal Academy and marvel at the torsions of exhausted Nubian water-carriers or purchase bronze statuettes of manacled female slaves in the galleries of Mayfair.

The weird fashion for chryselephantine sculpture – where the flesh is ivory and the rest is precious metal – seems to have been driven by a twisted orientialism that wanted eastern women to be more white. Cleopatra (Egyptian) lies back in all her ivory glory, one breast inevitably bared, on a throne of blackened gold. George Frampton’s Lamia (Libyan) is a deadly white seductress in a fin-de-siècle helmet of blackened bronze.

But a more disturbing use of materials is John Bell’s lifesize statue known as The Octoroon. White men forcing themselves upon black enslaved women led to generations of mixed-race slaves and former slaves. Octoroons, as they were known, were one-eighth black by descent. Bell’s nude, with her pale face and flowing tresses, can’t break free of her chains. She is carved from white marble, sure enough, but the stone has a vein of grey, as if deliberately chosen to appear impure.

Sir George Frampton’s Lamia.
Sir George Frampton’s Lamia, 1899-1900. © Royal Academy of Arts, London

This work is on loan from Blackburn; others come from Bradford, Bournemouth and Liverpool. There is a strong correlation here between municipal commerce, overseas trading and wealth and the collecting of sculpted nudes that verge on exploitation and pornography.

For context, the curators have displayed 19th-century issues of Punch magazine, in one of which Africa is depicted as a black version of Hiram Powers’s slave dressed in nothing but necklace and earrings. The devastating caption reads: “How to Woo the African Venus.”

This is a complex and highly intelligent show that reaches in many directions at once – from trade and slavery to Victorian mores and culture, from race and colour to polychrome sculpture. It is also about the prurience of the era, the passion for collecting pert-breasted teenage nudes carved in smooth marble. Such bodies are given even to the older figures here, their faces careworn and weary; they are even given to the dying.

In Harry Bates’s exceptionally creepy statue of black-feathered Death looming threateningly over Life, the latter is represented by an ivory nude with the body of a 14-year old girl who looks about to succumb.

Vénus Africaine, 1852 by Charles Cordier.
Vénus Africaine, 1852 by Charles Cordier. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 202

The crowning astonishment, here, is a black bronze bust of an African woman with a cropped afro and highly expressive face. Hanging from her lobes are earrings that resemble golden bullets. She looks, at first, like some mordant contemporary parody of imperialist sculpture – a fierce face and a round of ammunition. But this is no pastiche. Made by Charles Cordier in 1852, the work is titled Vénus Africaine. We are right back to exploitation again. It belongs to His Majesty the King.

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