Before photography, people who couldn’t afford to have their formal portrait painted relied on silhouettes as a way of capturing their likeness.
It’s an art form that mostly disappeared with the growth of paintings and photography but has endured with artists who love the interplay of white and black, of light and shadow.
Now it is an art form that is being explored with “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now,” an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit opened at the Birmingham Museum of Art Sept. 28 and will run through Jan. 21, 2020.
“In early America, silhouettes were more accessible than any other medium, leading to works that offer a lens onto the ideals of freedom, the trauma of slavery, and Americans’ political selves,” said Kate Crawford, curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Connecting past and present, ‘Black Out’ reveals that silhouettes remain relevant and widespread today. Having both historic and contemporary silhouettes in the exhibition asserts the continued prominence of this art form and draws connections between the past and present.”
“Black Out” primarily features works on paper but includes sculptures, prints and mixed-media installations. The art ranges from 1796 to today, with more than 45 unique objects.
“An integral part of our mission is to achieve greater inclusion and broader representation in the work we present and the audiences we attract,” said Graham Boettcher, R. Hugh Daniel director of the museum. “With many gaps and erasures in what we know of our collective American history, the work presented in ‘Black Out’ not only offers fascinating insight into the art of cut-paper profiles, but the exhibition expands the narrative of historically underrepresented individuals, helping us gain a more whole understanding of one another and ourselves.”
Visitors to “Black Out” will find:
- Historic silhouettes from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and other institutions.
- Works by Auguste Edouart and William Bache, two of the most well-known silhouette artists of the early 19th century.
- A double-silhouette portrait of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, the earliest-known likeness of a same-sex couple.
- A life-size silhouette of Flora, a 19-year-old enslaved woman, one of the few known portraits of a slave from the 18th century.
- Kara Walker’s panoramic wall murals that engage the silhouette’s associations with elegance and refinement to imagine violent episodes throughout history.
- Camille Utterback’s interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements to reemphasize people’s physical presence in this virtual age.
- Kumi Yamashita’s sculpting of light and shadow with objects to create mixed-media profiles of people.
- A scholarly catalogue produced by the National Portrait Gallery and Princeton University Press.
Admission to the exhibit is free. More information can be found at artsbma.org.