Gender and Race in Felix Vallotton’s The White and the Black, 1913

Les2Femmes-Félix_Vallotton-1913Ah yes, the familiar reclining nubile female nude of art history, frozen in time and laid out for our voyeuristic pleasure in a post- coital doze, cheeks ruddied from exertion or quixotic feverish dreams. We’ve seen hundreds of paintings of bodies like these, sometimes given biblical or mythological names with the sheer volume of the format granting some sort of universal permission to gawp and gaze at sleeping women through erotic goggles. But sometimes the best paintings suggest more about the spectator of the image rather than its subject. So as we look uninterrupted at this passive figure, we join the audience that was there first. In this case it is a black woman, arms folded on her lap, a cigarette cocked between her lips, its blunt ember edging dangerously close to all that exposed white flesh that could so easily be violated – with eyes, cigarette, or something else. And so we assume the gaze not of the white bourgeois European male for whom the history of art was practically invented, but a minority ethnic woman who is seen to be consuming all the visual pleasures that priviliged male archetype feels entitled to. Moreover, it casts that white default viewer as its unsettling polar opposite – a black woman whose agency is perhaps terrifyingly unmoored in post-abolition Europe in 1913. But still, the complexities around Felix Valloton’s La Blanche et la Noire continue to muddy our expectations of the reclining nude archetype. For embedded in this dyad before us is an Orientalist fear and desire for interracial erotic fantasy. So while the western eye bristles at being cast as the black ex- slave, this is tempered by the suggestion of illicit and transgressive relations between the two women.
I came across this image in Denise Murrell’s catalogue for the exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today- currently on show @museedorsayfrom @wallachartgallery . I’ll be talking about it this and other images concerning racial politics in this year’s Women and Art summer school @sothebysinstitute London .

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