Facing the Other: Charles Cordier, Ethnographic Sculptor
Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, October 12, 2004-January 13, 2005
Laure de Margerie and Edouard Papet, with contributions by Christine Barthe and Maria Vigli, Facing the Other: Charles Cordier (1827-1905); Ethnographic Sculptor, trans. Lenora Ammon, Laurel Hirsch, and Clare Palmieri, exh. cat. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004. $65.00
The recent exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of the work of the French ethnographic sculptor Charles Cordier, who came to prominence in the middle of the nineteenth century, demonstrated some of the challenges art museums face at a time when interdisciplinarity has transformed installation practices as the aesthetic arrangement of objects, even if in a fairly didactic manner. It also showed how reevaluations of nineteenth-century notions of the Other can reveal more about the active ingredient of contemporary biases than new insights about representations of non-Western people.
Cordier's career is justly revived by the exhibition and its accompanying catalog, which originated at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. He was an innovator of nineteenth-century polychrome sculpture; his sumptuous combinations of foreign colored marbles with patinated bronzes and occasional use of enamel along with the new process of galvanoplasty (metal plating) caused controversy at a time when sculpture was still based on the Neoclassical legacy of whiteness. The decorative and exotic appeal of his materials, his interest in peoples of the Orient, and his attempt to create lifelike figurative work place him in the later realist phase of Orientalism. (1) The didactic materials in the exhibition and the catalog itself play down the Orientalist framework, instead casting a wider and more scientific net. Cordier is credited with sculpting Asians (he created only two such busts, and these pendants were commissioned), sub-Saharan Africans (very few, if any, examples, since the models lack any specific sub-Saharan place of origin), and Europeans (for the most part these are from the Mediterranean basin--Greeks and Italians--and could equally fall under the designation Orientalist), but mainly his ethnographic busts are of North Africans. The claim that his work was scientific, even in the nineteenth-century sense, is difficult to sustain, as is the assertion made in the catalog, "It is clear that the artist Cordier did not entertain any belief in the hierarchy of race." (2) This notion would be a near anomaly in the Western world of the nineteenth century, when race was deeply embedded in the widely held concept of the forward march of progress in all its physical and cultural manifestations. Rather, it addresses the current moment, with the exhibition organizers maintaining, as if the artist were precocious enough to accomplish this, "More than a record of ethnographic types, Cordier's work is a memorial to [those] people whose differences form the foundation of rich cultural diversity in the France, Canada, and United States of today--the three countries that host this exhibition." (3) A quotation of Cordier, "Beauty is not the attribute of a privileged race; I conveyed to the world of art the idea of the ubiquity of beauty," is used in exhibition materials and in the catalog to connote equality of the races. However, "beauty" and "racial equality" are not equivalent concepts.
The exhibition was divided into six sections: an introduction to the artist's ethnographic work; contemporary ethnographic photographs; busts by Cordier; reproductions of certain of those busts in various media and sizes; polychromy; and examples of nonethnographic sculptures. In the first room, three pieces by Cordier were brought together with works by several other artists in a nexus that sought to present the artist's ethnographic interests in an abolitionist and democratic context. Cordier's would-be origins as a freethinking sculptor are established through the fortuitous timing of his Salon debut in 1848, the year slavery was abolished in France, with the bronze bust of the African Said Abdallah (Fig. 1). The placement nearby of a much later full-length allegorical bronze called Love One Another, of 1867, in which a black child and a white child with different-colored patinas embrace, reinforces that impression. Said Abdallah carries the carefully noted affiliation Mayac Tribe, Kingdom of Darfur (an area of Sudan at the southernmost part of the Sahara). Beside it stood the bust of a black woman entitled African Venus, done two years later. Both works were modeled on freed slaves living in Paris, although the subjects lack Western garb and are denied a modern, Western history. We learned that Said Abdallah had already been touted in anthropological circles as a splendid type, having been cast from life by the Ethnological Society in 1847 and held up for his beauty by none other than Victor Schoelcher, who played a major role in the abolition of slavery. The painted plaster cast in question was at the Dahesh as well. While all this seems to make a convincing argument for Cordier's sense of racial equality and belief in universal beauty, we were never told that Schoelcher was racist, believing that blacks had smaller craniums than whites, although he qualified this with the explanation that it was due to "lack of intellectual exercise." (4) Whether Cordier knew about Schoelcher's theories or his model's involvement with the Ethnological Society or not, he seemed to share a concern about Said Abdallah's cranium. Edouard Papet, one of the exhibition's French curators, notes in the Cordier catalog "subtle alterations that the artist made to the young man's physiognomy, primarily with regard to the shape of the nose and the curvature of the forehead." (5) The model was given a more prominent forehead, a signifier of intelligence in nineteenth-century France. Phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull, whose bumps were thought to reveal aptitudes, intelligence, and character, was the forerunner to mid-nineteenth-century anthropological craniometry (a science dealing with the measurement of the skull), and in its more popular forms was well known to the general public. (6)
The allegorical sculpture Love One Another does not necessarily signal desire for true racial equality, either. For example, the abolitionist Gustave d'Eichtal, secretary of the Ethnological Society, saw the black man and the white man as a kind of couple, the former the female of the pair and the latter the male. (7) This kind of racial gendering could explain the gentle embrace of Cordier's figures.
We know little about the background of the bronze African Venus, conceived as the pendant of Said Abdallah. No tribe or geographic locale is given in the title, nor any specific name, although we are told that the subject had passed through the slave market and ended up in Guadeloupe before being freed several years later. Despite the fact that the bust is modestly draped, the nipples are polished, giving the effect of having been rubbed by many an admirer. Breasts, we will shortly see, figure prominently in Cordier's ethnographic sculptures of women, although they are hardly alluded to in his portraits of wealthy white female patrons, another aspect of his oeuvre. The very assignation "Venus" is a reminder of that other famous black Venus, the Hottentot Venus, whose painted plaster cast was kept in the Halls of Anthropology at Paris's Museum d'Histoire Naturelle since 1815. The Hottentot Venus, an African Bushwoman paraded around London and Paris for several years beginning in 1810, then dissected after her death in 1815 by the naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier, was thought to embody hypersexuality, demonstrated by elongated labia and large buttocks. As Sandor Gilman has shown, the Hottentot Venus was central to the nineteenth-century discourse that conflated African women, as animalistic, sexual beings, with white prostitutes. (8) The portrait Charles Cordier Sculpting African Venus by Jacques Leman, included in the Dahesh exhibition, confirms that Cordier's Venus was perceived in light of the sexualized black woman. In Leman's picture the triumphal and virile figure of Cordier points a phallic sculptor's tool in the direction of Venus's parted lips, whose head he holds near his lap in a possessive grip. This painting appeared in the Salon of 1863, infamous among other things for the many erotic Venuses exhibited in that year. (9)
The life cast of Said Abdallah introduced the anthropological context given to Cordier's pieces at the Dahesh exhibition, for the sculptor counted among his most important projects the creation of his Anthropological and Ethnographic Gallery, a collection of forty-nine of his ethnographic busts exhibited in 1860. He contributed reproductions of fifteen of those same pieces to the Anthropology Galleries at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle between 1851 and 1867, where they were put on view along with life casts, including that of the Hottentot Venus, and various skulls, the famous phrenological collection of the founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall, and ethnographic photographs. (10) Cordier never made life casts, but he would go on to claim scientific measurement of his models and attention to physiognomic peculiarities of a given people as reason enough for his works to be thought of as scientific records. (11) He explained his method in this way:
I examine and compare many individuals. I study the form of their head, the traits of the faces, the expression of their physiognomy; I examine the common characteristics of a race that I wish to represent, I appreciate them as a whole as well as in their details ... I arrive
at an ideal type or rather the ideal type of their characteristics ... then ... I reconstruct ... an ensemble in which I reunite all the special beauty of a given race.... I search among the individuals that I have studied and compared for the one that...