PhD research / promotie-onderzoek Universiteit Leiden

Terribly repulsive but wonderfully vigorous

Reverse Engineering Fremiet’s Gorilla’s

Emmanuel Fremiet’s (1824-1910) Gorille enlevant une négresse (1859) is a gruesome image of a gorilla carrying off a black woman. This sculpture, an autonomous sculpture which was shown in the Parisian Salon behind a curtain as a way of delaying the cruel shock for the audience, is seen as the first King Kong image in visual history. In a way, it is an unproblematic depiction of the bigotry of French society, with its inherent racism and sexism. In contrast, a closer ‘reading’ (‘observation’) of the sculpture (and its sculptural ‘offspring’) reveals and produces a new cloud of questions. Within different research disciplines, questions arise of biographical, anthropological, biological, racial, historiographical, sculptural-historical, nationalistic and gender-related nature. Also, the histories of the relation of nineteenth-century French (and of lesser importance English, and ‘German’) pet-owners, animal-keepers, zoo-founders intertwine and are concurrent with the attitudes toward (and histories of) colonialism, slavery and prehistory. For the final dissertation text, my strategy of breaking down the problem has resulted in five different chapters. Each of these chapters is involved in a different domain, in which the gorilla sculpture is a central (theoretical) object.

The first domain is the artist’s biography. The central problem is the description of his life, education and artistic growth. In the existing biographies, every author entertains his own thoughts and theories as to why and how Fremiet’s artistry has resulted in his work. All conclusions have strong connections with the imagined audience of each biographical text. The second domain is the history of biology, which is strongly tied to the history of prehistory. Of course, the development of theories on human evolution imply a strong link with other primates, but gorilla’s were relatively newly discovered, as their living grounds lie in central Africa. Theories of acclimatisation, tied to the role of colonies in France, are the foundation of the importance of the Jardin des Plantes as a zoo, a museum for natural history and a research institute for biology and anthropology. Artists were never far off in the Jardin des Plantes, and artists like Fremiet were educated there, in a scientific way. The third domain is sculpture itself. In France, what was the function and aesthetics of sculpture, and in what way does Fremiet comply to and resist the conventions and modes of making a sculpture? In what way does Beaux-Arts-sculpture relate to biology, and in what way is sculpture different from painting, for us the dominant mode of thinking about art in the nineteenth century? In what way is Fremiets sculpture of confrontation an art of virtuosity? The fourth domain is related to nationalism. Fremiets gorilla is subject of a discussion on good and bad art in Germany. This newly founded state, result of the Franco-Prussian war, needed an aesthetic which confirmed the new nation state as sound and healthy (and France as unhealthy, a beast). The newer version of the gorilla, Gorille enlevant une femme (1887), was a great success on the Salon, and was shown in Munich in 1888, inspiring a critic to a miraculously unfactual, nationalistic fiction of the genesis of this sculpture. The fifth domain is reserved for the history of the rape, an ancient iconography of violence, which has resulted in powerful and famous sculptures, of which the Bernini’s in the Galleria Borghese in Rome immediately spring to mind.
As a general ambition, my research puts in perspective the dominant paradigm of impressionist painting as a modernist art and as the dominant art form. An expression of contemporaneity is not only to be found in impressionist painting, but also in the art of the Animaliers. The exclusion of sculpture, the heroization of Rodin as the only great sculptor of the age, and the division of academic art history and that of the auction houses and of the galleries, obstructs the writing of a history which is directed towards an audience interested in the society, the people and the art world in which these sculptures could exist.

Begeleiders: Prof. dr Kitty Zijlmans, prof dr. Jan Teeuwisse