Glenn Ligon Lifts Formerly Unknown Black Parisians Into the Limelight in a New Show at the Musée d’Orsay

The artist has blown up the names of black models who influenced art history in celebration of the scholarship that went into the Orsay’s current exhibition.

Glenn Ligon, Some Black Parisians (2019). Courtesy the Musée d'Orsay.

Twelve names in neon take pride of place on two towers in the Musée d’Orsay’s central nave in Paris. While at first glance these names might not be recognisable, a visit to the museum’s current exhibition shines a light on their stories as it highlights the overlooked role of black models throughout art history.

The US artist Glenn Ligon was inspired by the deep scholarship that went into the exhibition titled “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which is on through July 21 at the museum. Ligon’s collection of white neons, which are based on the handwriting of some of the artist’s friends and colleagues, is titled Some Black Parisians (2019). The commissioned installation highlights the names of many of the models whose biographies have only recently been investigated thanks to the efforts of Denise Murrell, a scholar who conceived the exhibition from her grad school thesis at Columbia.

Throughout the duration of the exhibition, millions of people will see the names of some of the models, performers, and writers who influenced many important works of French art from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some, like Josephine Baker and Alexandre Dumas père, have enjoyed a more prominent place in the history books. Then there are others who were all but forgotten, such as a woman named Laure who modeled and posed as the maid in Édouard Manet’s masterpiece Olympia. For the exhibition, the museum has temporarily renamed the painting after this mysterious figure to emphasize the dearth of scholarship that has gone into the maid, whose surname is still unknown, despite the swathes of research that has gone into the overall painting. 

A statement from the museum explains that Some Black Parisians is an effort to redress the “highly visible invisibility” that is a reality for many of the black figures in French art, by casting their names up in lights. The museum has also renamed other masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and Cézanne after their black subjects for the duration of the show.

Alongside the 12 names highlighted by Ligon are the words “nom inconnu,” which means “name unknown,” to emphasize the many black subjects who still remain in obscurity.

Some Black Parisians (2019) and “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse” is on view through July 21 at the Musée d’Orsay.

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