June 18, 2024


I Fall For Art

Denise Murrell Speaks with Students of Bridget Alsdorf’s ART 450 Class

Murrell’s journey into the heart of this transformative discourse commenced during her pursuit of a Ph.D. in art history at the venerable Columbia University. Here, she unearthed a glaring void, a silence that reverberated through the annals of art history—a conspicuous absence of people of color in the tapestry of 19th-century French paintings. This void, more an abyss, became the focus of her impassioned dissertation, setting the stage for her remarkable odyssey.

The transformative path Murrell embarked upon materialized as “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today.” This groundbreaking exhibition first graced the hallowed walls of Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in October 2018, before crossing the Atlantic to find a second home at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, as “Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse” from March to July 2019. Murrell regaled the students with tales of her unyielding pursuit of funding, underscored by personal sacrifices, and serendipity’s timely interventions that ultimately breathed life into her vision.

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Amidst the grandeur of the European painting gallery, adorned with Gustave Courbet’s portraits, one recent acquisition captured their collective gaze. François-Auguste Biard’s 1848 masterpiece, “Bust-Length Study of a Man,” portrayed a man of African descent. Its placement amidst Courbet’s portraits catalyzed a profound discussion about the vital essence of contextualization—an intrinsic facet of Murrell’s curatorial endeavors.

She artfully articulated her concern that Biard’s unfinished study, steeped in trauma, deviated markedly from the tone of the other portraits in the gallery. This incongruity risked weaving a negative narrative about the plight of people of color in 19th-century France. Murrell, a master of nuance, conveyed her belief in the power of careful placement, arguing that a select ensemble of three to five paintings could, like a mosaic, more comprehensively depict the Black presence in 19th-century France, painting their subjects as autonomous and fully-fledged individuals.

Their journey led them to the next gallery, a sanctuary of Edgar Degas’ artistic prowess. Here, Murrell masterfully blended Degas’ enchanting ballet dancers with the world of circus performers, crowned by the ethereal “Study for Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” (1879). This striking artwork, immortalizing the renowned Black performer Miss La La, found itself flanked by masterpieces that expertly bridged the worlds of circus performance and ballet.

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Within this visual tableau of 19th-century France’s dance culture, Murrell left a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of a QR code, an invitation to witness contemporary Black aerialist and circus performer Blaze Tarsha, who drew her inspiration from the enigmatic Miss La La.

Murrell underscored the intricacies of representing people of color within the Museum’s august galleries. Her unwavering pursuit continued, as she sought to enrich the collection with acquisitions from her wishlist while also integrating donated and borrowed works, a symphony of evolution.

As she took her leave, Murrell pointed the students towards the enlightening exhibition titled “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast.” Centered around Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s resplendent marble sculpture, “Why Born Enslaved!” (1868), this exhibition challenged the prevalent trope of Black enslavement post-abolition. Instead, it unveiled a broader narrative, one that unraveled the allure of antislavery imagery, the evolution of nineteenth-century theories of racial difference, and France’s colonial fascination with Africa.

“Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast” promised to be an odyssey into the uncharted territories of history and art, an expedition into the depths of contextualization and representation that Murrell had so passionately championed. This journey would continue until March 2023, an invitation to all to explore, learn, and challenge the narratives that have long defined our perception of the past.