In 1960, the Menil Foundation launched The Image of the Black in Western Art
, a groundbreaking project that attempted to produce “an archaeological archive of racial relations, happy and unhappy.”1John de Menil to Dr. Ola Balogun, 25 August 1972, Menil Archives, Menil Foundation Business Office, Project and Grants Files, Box 1, Folder 29.
As a response to the persistence of segregation, a practice outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1954, the project was but one manifestation of John and Dominique de Menil’s civil rights activism. Its goal was ambitious: to create a photographic archive of every known depiction of peoples of African descent in the history of Western art. Amassing the archive was a relatively straightforward task; interpreting it has proven to be both challenging and rewarding over the past five decades.
In 1961, the Menil Foundation appointed the French art historian Ladislas Bugner as editor. He selected a team of experts and oversaw the publication of Volume I, covering antiquity, in 1976. Three years later, Volume II, dedicated to the medieval period, appeared in two parts. In 1989, Volume IV was completed, also in two parts, surveying the late eighteenth to the twentieth century. The fact that Volume III was not produced in chronological order and is being published only now, fifty years after the project began, attests to the contentious nature of its sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century subject matter, the slave trade and abolition. The present publication, Part 3 of Volume III, concentrates on the eighteenth century (Part 1, with contributions by Joseph Leo Koerner, Paul Kaplan, Victor Stoichita, David Bindman, Elmer Kolfin, and Joaneath Spicer, and Part 2, written by Jean Michel Massing, have recently appeared). The long delay in the publication of Volume III can be partially attributed to an expanding scholarly discourse on race and representation during the 1970s and 1980s, a trend that was affected in no small way by the publication of The Image of the Black in Western Art itself. Recognizing the project’s importance within the academic community and the Foundation’s changing priorities, resulting from the opening of the Menil Collection in 1987, the Menil Foundation transferred the administration of the project to the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University in 1994. It has flourished there under the guidance and vision of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, and Karen C. C. Dalton, editor for the Image of the Black Research Project and Photo Archive. She moved with the project from Houston, where she had managed the Image of the Black in Western Art office since 1973.
The authors of this volume make important contributions to our understanding of depictions of peoples of African descent during this time. These experts document a shift from allegorical images to representations of historically situated individuals. Such changes not only reflect the fact that European cultures were increasingly defined by markets as opposed to courts, but also reflect the impact of the Enlightenment, an expanding knowledge of Africa, and the politics of antislavery movements. This volume adds significantly to our knowledge of art’s role in the long process of abolition. In contributing to the overall chronology of the image of the black in Western art, the authors have had to struggle with the ways in which certain aspects of the original project have become outmoded. Notions such as “Western art” and “the black,” which appeared as given frames of reference in the 1960s, are today viewed by scholars as problematic for their essentialist, monolithic assumptions. In this respect, Volume III will become an important lens through which to reflect on the history of the project itself. John and Dominique de Menil would undoubtedly take great satisfaction in knowing that changes in our understanding of race and representation have opened new avenues of inquiry into the archive that is the Image of the Black in Western Art project.
If the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute had not generously volunteered to take over the Image of the Black in Western Art archive, this long-awaited volume surely would not have been published. We are grateful to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Karen C. C. Dalton, and Sheldon Cheek for their skillful direction of the project since 1994 and for their long-standing and passionate commitment to its goals. Thanks to their efforts, the archive is an active one, a resource for international scholars pursuing studies of race and representation. We join them in thanking David Bindman, a talented and thoughtful author and editor, and Bruce Boucher, Thomas Cummins, Charles Ford, Paul Kaplan, Rosalie Smith McCrea, and Helen Weston for their insightful essays. We also recognize the significant contributions of Ladislas Bugner, editor of the project from 1961 to 2005; Geraldine Aramanda, Menil archivist, who worked as project researcher from 1973 to 1993; and Francesco Pellizzi, who played an important editorial role in this volume in its early stages. Finally, we acknowledge John and Dominique de Menil for their conviction and generosity and for recognizing that, as Dominique de Menil stated in the first volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art, “The making of a more human world requires rigorous studies.”
Director, Menil Foundation and Collection
KRISTINA VAN DYKE
Curator for Collections and Research