Art Stories

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Discrimination not allowed!

A short reception history of the bronze statuette “Black Venus” (KK 5533)

From the Charta of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:

Article 21

1. Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.

Casually nude, dancing, in love with her own beauty and searching for her best view in her (now lost) hand-held mirror – this is how an anonymous, probably Netherlandish artist, probably around 1580, depicted a beautiful African woman in a bronze statuette. We do not have answers to any of the important questions related to its production. It is described and documented for the first time in the inventory of the Kunstkammer of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm compiled in 1659:

“A small image made of metal of a standing nude woman, in her right hand a piece of a stick and in her left / a kerchief” (‘Ein kleines Bildt von Metal einer nackhendten Frawen ganzer Postur, hat in der rechten Handt ein Stuckh von einem Stab vnd in der linckhen / ein Tüchel. […]‘).

What a surprising historical source. In the middle of the seventeenth century, at a time when we know numerous dark-skinned slaves (both male and female) led a miserable, unfree existence in Vienna (in the palaces of members of the nobility as well as in bourgeois households), the person who compiled this inventory of one of the foremost collections in Vienna described the statuette in a way that suggests he was familiar with modern sensitivities: he mentions neither her ethnicity nor her skin colour.

In other parts of Europe at that time, people were less circumspect: a total of fourteen versions of this statue are known, most of them identical replicas now housed in different European and American museums, including the Green Vault in Dresden. The 1733 inventory of the treasury of the Electors of Saxony describes its version quite differently, it does not beat about the bush when talking about the ethnicity of the depicted woman: “a small metal statue, a nude Moorish woman, in her right hand she holds a mirror, in her left hand a handkerchief[…]“ (‘Eine kleine metallne Statua, eine nackende Mohrin, hält in der rechten Hand einen Spiegel, in der lincken ein Schnupftuch […]’).

It is difficult today to determine how prerogative the term “Moor” was in the seventeenth century. However, it is interesting to note that in the inventory compiled under Maria Teresa, i.e. more or less at the same time as the Dresden inventory, the “nackhende Frawe” (‘nude woman’) was elevated to the ranks of the Olympian deities as the goddess of love and beauty: in the 1750 inventory of the imperial treasury, where the bronze statuette brought to Vienna by Leopold Wilhelm had by now been deposited, she is listed as “stehende Venus in Bronze” (‘standing Venus in bronze’).  This seemed appropriate because both the mirror, which connoisseurs by now knew they should imagine in her hand, and her nudity were among Venus’s traditional attributes. No other features are listed. In all later inventories of the imperial treasury compiled in the eighteenth and nineteenth century she remained a “standing Venus in bronze” or just a “Venus in bronze”.

It presumably reflects the changed intellectual climate in Vienna in the late nineteenth century (at the time the city witnessed an enormous increase in immigration) that the figure’s ethnicity first became a topic in 1875: when the statuette was moved from the imperial treasury to the “Ambras Collection” installed at Lower Belvedere Palace in Vienna, the appendix inventory prosaically degraded our bronze Venus to a “nude Moorish woman, in her left hand a kerchief” (‘Nackte Mohrin, in der Linken ein Tuch’).

Disillusioning as this step in the statuette’s reception history may seem, it would get worse: in 1910, Julius von Schlosser, the eminent Viennese art historian and director of the collection, described the figure as a “Negro Venus” (“Negervenus”). In the course of the eighteenth century, the word Neger/negro – today reviled as discriminatory – had established itself in both conversational and scientific language, although it was already based on racist stereotypes derived from slavery. Schlosser’s new description returned the statuette to her rank as a goddess, but he also branded her by introducing polemical differentiating categories. Our statuette remained the „Negro Venus” or sometimes the “so-called Negro Venus” (signs of an emerging bad conscience) throughout the twentieth century. Only with the reopening of the newly-installed Kunstkammer in March 2013 did the Kunsthistorisches Museum decide to rename the lovely statuette: she is now called “black Venus”. Let me add a final aside: in Dresden, which had lagged behind Vienna in the eighteenth century, they have now begun to overtake us regarding circumspection and delicacy: in an exhibition catalogue published in 2017 they called their statuette “African Woman with Mirror (so-called Black Venus)” (Afrikanerin mit Spiegel (Sogenannte Schwarze Venus)”).

written by Konrad Schlegel on 13.10.2022 in #Diversity in Focus
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