Harvard Art Museums Update Painting Labels to Reveal Histories of Slavery and Sexism

In further news: German arts collective to install tank to protest far right; Greek prime minister willing to trade ancient artefacts for Parthenon marbles loan

Ingres, L’Odalisque à l’esclave (Obalisque and slave), 1839, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Jean August Dominique Ingres, L’Odalisque à l’esclave (Odalisque with Slave), 1839, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts are updating their wall labels to better tell the complex histories of some of their more controversial artworks. The initiative, ongoing since February 2019, employs PhD students and university fellows to research and rewrite the labels. Some high-profile works, such as The Black Countess (1881) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jean August Dominique Ingres’s L’Odalisque à l’esclave (Odalisque and Slave, 1839) are included in the scheme. The former’s new wall label finally acknowledges the name of the painting’s central subject, Anne Justine Angèle Delva de Dalmarie, a Haitian aristocrat – crucial information missing from the original text. The latter, which portrays a naked white woman lounging on a bed and a dark-skinned slave in the background, is interpreted in a new label which considers the painting’s orientalist themes, and its presentation of the woman as a ‘sexual prize’. Portraits of the Boylstons – a prominent Boston family – are placed within the context of the family wealth’s ties to the slave trade. A label accompanying a painting of Nicholas Boylston describes him as having ‘amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.’

An art-activist collective in Germany has announced that it will go ahead with plans to place a decommissioned tank in Dresden city centre, despite authorities denying their application. Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty) wants to use the tank, which weighs more than 13 tons, as a protest against the far-right political party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Saxony, a region which encompasses Dresden, is facing an election on Sunday 8 September, and the AfD is currently polling at second place behind the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Philipp Ruch, who heads up the collective, described the tank as: ‘a symbol of the defence of democracy and civil society.’

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has said that he is willing to allow ancient Greek artefacts to be shown in London in exchange for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Athens for its bicentennial independence celebrations in 2021. Speaking to the Observer, in his first interview with British media since he was elected to his role in July, Mitsotakis said: ‘Given the significance of 2021, I will propose to Boris: “As a first move, loan me the sculptures for a certain period of time and I will send you very important artefacts that have never left Greece to be exhibited in the British Museum”.’

In further news: Arts Catalyst has appointed Laura Clarke as its artistic director and joint CEO and she will begin in the role on 15 October; the American Folk Art Museum in New York has named Emelie Gevalt as its new curator of folk art. Gevalt joins from the Americas department of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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