“Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” at the Musée d’Orsay, builds on this kind of archival research to recover the biographies of models of African descent in canonical French painting. While Olympia, often considered the first modern painting, plays a central role in the exhibition, its scope, as the subtitle suggests, reaches far beyond that tableau. The show chronologically traces the depiction of black figures in French painting from the revolution to the mid-twentieth century. More than a project to uncover the identities of the unnamed subjects, “Black Models” inverts how biographical research is put to use.
Born in 1886 into an aristocratic military family in Tokyo, Foujita moved to Paris in 1913. At the Louvre, he copied old masterworks, particularly gold-leafed Madonnas. He became close friends with the painters Chaïm Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani. Among Foujita’s early works, from 1913–1924, are haunting and somber cityscapes of Paris. Unlike those of the Nabis or the Fauves, his paintings were drained of color, almost like photographic prints; he attempted neither abstraction nor cubism. He found his greatest success with oil paintings and ink and pencil drawings of women.
Gus Bofa’s drawings suggest the existential darkness that overtook a Europe defaced by war and modernization. The illustrations he made for Mac Orlan’s moody novel of espionage Mademoiselle Bambù—of spies, prostitutes, sailors, and drifters—compliment the tale of a web of interconnected characters as they circulated around Europe’s port cities, a depiction of the dark unease of the early twentieth century. Bofa’s contributions appear in rough black and white, sketch-like, as if somehow disappearing into themselves. In these drawings, his style is dark, almost resembling the aesthetics of film noir, though at times it is also goofy or playful.