Silhouettes have been around since ancient times – think of those shadowy figures on Grecian urns.
But it was in the 19th century that the art form of cut-paper profiles took on new life. “They were a hugely popular and democratizing form of portraiture, offering virtually instantaneous likenesses of everyone,” said Asma Naeem, curator of an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery devoted to silhouettes.
“Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” reveals the complexities of an art form that was once ubiquitous but is little known today, Naeem added.
The exhibit explores the historical roots of silhouettes and contemporary iterations.
Auguste Edouart (1789-1861), a French-born portrait artist who later worked in the United States, created the yeoman’s share of the historic silhouettes. He captured the likenesses of such notable figures as a post-presidency John Quincy Adams, known for his defense of the slaves who had revolted aboard the ship Amistad.
Many of the historic silhouettes are of prominent members of society, often men in formal wear. Even Edouart’s full-length paper cut of artist Thomas Sully shows him in at his easel formally dressed.
But, as Naeem pointed out, some of the portraits in the exhibit’s historical section deviate, including a double-silhouette portrait of a same-sex female couple and the life-size portrait of a a 19-year-old enslaved girl, along with the bill of her sale from 1796. A newspaper ad calling for the return of a runaway slave uses his silhouette for identification.
Four contemporary women artists have different takes on silhouettes. Kara Walker incorporates them in panoramas of plantation life and African-American history, while Camille Utterback combined a depth camera, computer software, projection, and lighting to create an interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements.
Kumi Yamashia contributed three art works, all of which employ cast shadows.
In Kristi Malakoff’s 18-foot “Maibaum,” she uses cut paper to make life-size sculptures of a children’s maypole dance.
“I’m very interested in cultural sites, rituals, and traditions of communities,” said Malakoff, a Canadian. “I grew up in a small village whose children still perform the maypole dance every spring, and I long wanted to create a piece about this. The piece was created after my living in Germany, where they, like many other world cultures, have some variation of this tradition, which dates back to pagan rites of fertility.”
To prepare for the piece, Malakoff hired local youngsters to dance and celebrate in handmade costumes. It took her about six months of full-time cutting to complete it.
Through the “Black Out” exhibit, Naeem said, the Portrait Gallery “wanted to tell a fuller story of America. Because silhouettes were inexpensive, individuals who would otherwise never be portrayed – such as enslaved people, disability pioneers, activist women, a same-sex couple – can now be seen. Silhouette portraiture allowed people in the shadows to be imaged.”
The silhouettes, she added, are an indication that “America has always been a vibrant, polyphonic, diverse society.
“Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” will be on view through March 24, 2019.
A recent addition to the gallery is a portrait of another woman who might have been written out of history if not for Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book about her and a film produced by Oprah Winfrey and HBO.
That woman is Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer at 31. Doctors treating her realized that cells they took from her body – without her knowledge – lived long lives and reproduced indefinitely in test tubes. These “immortal” HeLa cells have since helped more than 10,000 patients, aiding research and benefiting those with polio, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions.
The National Portrait Gallery is at F and 8th Streets, NW, in Washington, D.C. For information, visit: http://npg.si.edu.