It is strange and entirely delightful that the silhouette still enchants us. The shadow form, which reduces the three-dimensional world to lines and contours, dates back millennia before it became a popular medium for making portraits in the late 18th century. And despite the emergence of powerful new technologies for representation, including 3-D films and virtual reality, silhouette remains a vital form even today, used by artists and photographers to simplify, clarify and often alienate us from our usual habits of looking at the world.
An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery focuses on the silhouette in American life, its prevalence as a cheap way of producing a portrait likeness before the advent of photography, and its persistence as a visual medium in contemporary art. “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” is a fascinating show that successfully uncovers the strange cultural history of the form, especially its intersections with the foremost social crisis of the age, which was slavery. It was odd that white bourgeois families reveled in the form, which rendered them as black; it was odd that some of the most powerful abolitionist images used silhouettes to represent slave ships; and that runaway slaves were depicted in newspapers by their silhouettes, as if any more visual information would overly humanize them.
Curator Asma Naeem suggests that silhouettes flourished in America because they were cheap and easily made and were distinct from the genteel European tradition of formal portraiture. Americans during the era were also self-conscious about political representation, and perhaps saw a connection between representing themselves in visual form and being represented as political actors in the emerging democratic system. Silhouettes allowed families to keep a memento of loved ones, but also to assert their presence as individuals in an age that celebrated the rise of a new political class and identity. The making of silhouettes also seemed to attract artisans who would otherwise have been marginal to the artistic and economic mainstream, including the mixed-race Moses Williams, who was born a slave and later became both free and a prolific maker of “profiles,” and Martha Ann Honeywell, a woman born without arms and only three toes, who nevertheless managed to use scissors with such dexterity that she too became a master of the form.
The exhibition mentions photography, which was introduced after 1839, only glancingly, which is a strange omission. Photography would, of course, change the game entirely when it came to personal representation. As Naeem notes in her catalogue essay, prescient figures such as Frederick Douglass, who sat for more than 160 photographs, eagerly embraced the new technology as a tool for self-fashioning. But photography didn’t simply displace silhouette, it has retrospectively altered our understanding of it. One can’t see silhouettes today but through the prism of a century and a half of photographic imagery.
Both photography and the silhouette seem to offer a direct impression of the living being, either traced from the person’s shadow, or captured on a chemically prepared plate. The first commercially published book of photographs was called “The Pencil of Nature,” which is also a perfect description of the silhouette process, which involved tracing then cutting an image of the person’s shadow. Even the verb “to take” was used in both cases, to take a silhouette and to take a photograph, as if something material from a human being was removed in the process. The magic of both media was their peculiar mix of the occult and the technological, which remains to this day part of the reason that we still find ourselves reduced to stupefaction before particularly successful photographs and silhouettes.
A few of these stunners are on view, especially a faintly rendered, life-size image of an enslaved woman named Flora made around 1796, which is one of the earliest images of a slave made in the United States. Her neck is bent forward, her head straight, and the peaks and valleys of her tightly curled hair are clearly visible on the faded paper, which was found folded up in a cellar in the home of the family that once owned her. One senses in this document, which is as evocative as any of the professionally made silhouettes nearby, not the cheapness of the form, but the urgent need to remember and transcend mortal suffering that its creation fulfilled. Unlike millions of other enslaved people, Flora did not leave without a trace, though little else is known of her.
A double silhouette of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, made in the early 19th century, shows two young women in profile, facing each other, their images attached to a piece of silk, with thin braids of hair framing them, forming a heart shape. They were a lesbian couple who lived in Vermont, memorialized both as individuals and partners, a relationship confirmed in the words of Charity’s nephew, William Cullen Bryant, who said they “took each other as companions for life,” and their “union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsided, in uninterrupted harmony for more than forty years.”
The exhibition divides neatly into a 19th-century gallery and four installations by contemporary artists who are inspired by the form. The art star of the 19th-century space is a Frenchman, August Edouart, who traveled in the United States for a decade beginning in 1839, making almost 4,000 elegant, detailed and artistically ambitious silhouettes. Many of these are portraits, often of renowned people of the age. But he also assembled silhouettes into composite pictures, sometimes capturing a whole family, or vignettes of family life (one includes a parlor image of people looking at projected lantern slides). He often places his figures on printed paper to give them social context, and imagined fantastical or exotic scenes, including one of “South Sea Islanders” engaged in combat. The last of these, perhaps a work of his own invention, strains against the inherent two-dimensionality of the form by including figures of various size, suggesting their recession into the distance of a perspectival picture.
The four contemporary artists represented in the exhibition amplify the dualistic sense of technology and the occult seen in the 19th-century work. The most stunning of the works are by Kumi Yamashita, who conjures convincing shadow images using light and gently folded pieces of origami paper, or the carefully carved edge of a chair, or letter and number forms glued on the wall. The shadows give the uncanny suggestion of a living being, while they in fact are ensorcelled from inanimate material. A room of work by Kara Walker plays with the nostalgia inherent in shadow shows, silhouettes and magic lanterns, to make real the grotesque and violent history of racism and slavery — the economic engine that produced the leisure that made it possible to revel in these entertainments.
One senses in this exhibition the core of an even larger show, that would better distinguish the American silhouette mania from the making of silhouettes in Europe at the time, and draw out connections between the older, artisanal form made with candlelight and cut paper and its close cousin, the photograph. Naeem makes some large claims for the silhouettes, not least of which is that they “attempted to reconcile” the “discomfiting polarities” of American life. It’s not clear that they did that, though this show more than adequately demonstrates that the form was enormously popular, that it caught up in its abundance a remembrance of people who would not otherwise have been memorialized, and that like so many cultural habits of early America, the making and collecting of silhouettes was often wild and strange and slightly surreal.
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through March 10. npg.si.edu.