This winter the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds will present The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture, bringing into focus sculpture exhibited and collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900, a rich yet largely overlooked body of work. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.
Artists in the exhibition: Harry Bates (1850–99), John Bell (1811–95), Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824–87), Sanford Biggers (b. 1970), Antonio Canova (1757–1822), Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–75), Charles Cordier (1827–1905), Sir George Frampton R.A. (1860–1928), John Gibson R.A. (1790–1866), Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854–1934), Ernest Normand (1857–1923), Luigi Pagani (1837–1904), Hiram Powers (1805–73), Antoine-Chrystome Quatremère de Quincy (1755–1849), Antonio Rossetti (1819–89), Maud Sulter (1960–2008), James Havard Thomas (1854–1921), Henri Baron de Triqueti (1803–74), George Frederick Watts (1817–1904)
In the second half of the nineteenth century, British sculptors began to move away from the whiteness of Neoclassical marble and started to incorporate colour into their work, using bronze, silver, gold, ivory and porcelain as well as semi-precious stones, tinted waxes, enamels and paint. The adoption of these materials has typically been attributed to the renewed interest in medieval history and craftsmanship, discoveries about the polychromy of ancient sculpture, the allure of exoticism in the visual arts and the introduction of new industrial processes. Anxieties about rapid social change, developments in science, threats to the established patriarchal order and imperial rule have been highlighted by many literary and social historians but have received less attention from art historians.
The Colour of Anxiety examines the rise of colour in nineteenth-century sculpture by focusing on how male artists responded to, and reinforced, a concept of the female body influenced by anxieties of the time. Despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity, women were often represented as both nude and sexualised, reflecting fears regarding degeneration, the changing role of women, and Black female sexuality and racial intermingling. Bringing together sculptures that either incorporate colour directly or imply it by means of subject matter and titles, the exhibition considers the fascination with colouring people and people of colour as a response to the perceived anxieties of the Victorian age.
This historical exhibition will see significant works reinterpreted for the contemporary world. The Colour of Anxiety features largely white male artists who drove the art world in the nineteenth century. The narratives that their works embody have come into scrutiny in recent years by contemporary artists reconsidering a Western art history that reveals both racist and sexist attitudes and the exclusion of women and people of colour. To highlight the relevance of these debates in today’s critical landscape, the exhibition will also feature several recent works, including the late photographer Maud Sulter’s Calliope 1989, to question the power of the European classical tradition and the contested figure of the Black female in Victorian visual culture.