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Jeanne Duval | A Melodrama

Solo show at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. 2003
Date: 30 May, 2003 until 31 August, 2003
Organiser: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Maud Sulter, the Scots-Ghanaian cultural historian, photographer, and poet explores the legacy of Jeanne Duval, who was the intimate companion and Black muse of the French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and the inspiration for some of his greatest verses… In new works, La Chevalure and Les Bijoux, Sulter returns to the theme of self-portrayal in the guise of Jeanne Duval.”

From the back cover of the attendant catalogue for Jeanne Duval | A Melodrama, a major exhibition by Maud Sulter, held at National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 30 May - 31 August, 2003.

The exhibition, an innovative investigation into (art) history, came with an important catalogue, extensively illustrated with this and previous bodies of Sulter’s work. The central aspect of the exhibition consisted of self-portraits of the artist, in the guise of Jeanne Duval. The work was, several years later, included in the Canadian exhibition  Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora. [The exhibition was a collaboration between the following galleries in Canada: Thames Art Gallery, Chatham, Ontario; Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia; The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario; Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec; and Yukon Arts Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon. The exhibition featured work by Deanna Bowen, Christopher Cozier, Michael Fernandes, and Maud Sulter.] In one of the exhibition catalogue texts (Anti-Localism), Peter James Hudson described Les Bijoux, from Sulter’s body of work, Jeanne Duval | A Melodrama, first exhibited, as mentioned, at National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2003.

Maud Sulter’s Les Bijoux centres on and is inspired by the figure of Jeanne Duval, a mixed race black woman actor and prostitute who was the long time lover of French poet Charles Baudelaire. For twenry five years during the mid-nineteenth century, Duval and Baudelaire had a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship. She is referred to as Baudelaire’s muse, though the term seems altogether too polite and simplistic for what transpired between them. Even so, Duval is said to have inspired Baudelaire’s richest wrtiting, and she is regarded as the source of the so-called “Black Venus” cycle of Baudelaire’s notorious erotic romp, Fleurs du Mal (1857) - a book of poems containing early, textbook cases of exoticized depictions of black women. “Languourous Asia, scorching Africa,” Baudelaire writes in La Chevelure, “A whole world distant, vacant, nearly dead, Lives in your depths, o forest of perfume!”

… Sulter deliberately repositions Duval within dominant historical narratibves while critiquing the formalist history of portraiture. But she also creates an intriguing set of exchanges between her self-portraits and baudelaire’s poems…”

Elsewhere in the same publication, Rinaldo Walcott (in his essay Salted Cod… : Black Canada and Diasporic Sensibilities) wrote: “Maud Sulter’s work most directly confronts the history of art-making. The excavating practice of her photography uncovers and reclaims, but I would argue it also fundamentally repositions black people in artistic practice, and does so as a political project meant to resignify our humanity. This work reworks history, writes history, and paints the sensibilities of diasporan consciousness into being. Sulter’s photographs are an elaboration and a refutation of the narrative of black peoples’ exclusion from and traumatic experiences of the lively and still-living justifications of transatlantic slavery.”

In her introduction to the work and the catalogue for the Edinburgh exhibition, Sulter wrote: “Western art and literature are littered with traces of the continuum of a Black African presence, which sadly continues to be invisibilised and marginalised. While the likes of Pushkin, Beethoven, Dumas: pére et fils and the great forefathers are deracinated the women are simply disappeared. From the anonymous sitter in Marie-Guillemine Benoit’s Portrait d’une négress, 1800 to successful artists in their day, such as the nineteenth-century African American Edmonia Lewis who worked in Rome, the fate of the Blackwoman artist or writer continues to be negotiated at the margins.

My ongoing visual fascination with Jeanne Duval began in 1988 with a visceral response to a Nadar photograph captioned Unknown Woman. There she stared at me willing me to give her a name, an identity, a voice. So for over a decade I have been image making with her in mind, from Calliope in Zabat, 1989 to Les Bijoux, 2002.”

Related items

click to show details of Maud Sulter | Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama

»  Maud Sulter | Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2003

click to show details of Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora

»  Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2006

click to show details of Tracing the thin black line

»  Tracing the thin black line

Article relating to an exhibition, 2003

People in this exhibition

»  Maud Sulter

Born, 1960 in Glasgow, Scotland. Died, 2008

Exhibition venues

»  Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Edinburgh, United Kingdom