Silhouettes, drawn from Louis XV’s Minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette, are bodily shapes constructed as (or rather cut down to) profiles. These crafted profiles began as hobbies, as was the case with Monsieur Silhouette, and were utilized variously to read physiognomy, to memorialize lovers in lockets, or as a cheap alternative to pre-photographic portraiture. Sometimes called “shadow portraits” or merely “shades,” such work was unique in creating likeness via reduction. The focus of this kind of portraiture is in scene, as in Johann Anthing’s Silhouette, wherein clothing, hairstyle, posture, and activity are the telling the aspects of the portrait.
Silhouette served for many artists like Anthing (1753–1805) as an auxiliary manner of court portraiture. Perhaps the most famous of these was his contemporary Auguste Edouart (1789–1861), who specialized solely in the art of silhouette portraits. He was perhaps the most notable portraitist, traveling widely and cutting down black paper to create likenesses of such notables as H.W. Longfellow, Daniel Webster, or Niccolò Paganini.
Walker’s use of the silhouette tradition, though, is entirely different, mining the archetypal forms of silhouette and the reductive nature of the art for her own explorations. It is useful to look at Walker’s use of silhouette in terms of what Renaissance Society Curator Hamza Walker describes as “the historical mis-en-scène.” The mise-en-scène is the visual theme and narrative, as often applied to theatre or filmmaking. And the theatrical is certainly a part of Walker’s work; characters perform as archetypes of themselves, their forms caricatured, their actions reduced to obvious visual signification. Sex acts are not obscured, nor defecation, violence, or other explicit activity. Walker creates a stage in which her silhouettes, like shadow puppets, engage in a deliberate historical misinterpretation. The silhouette, thematically akin to the collage of Cubism, is an essential reduction of visual field to space and shape. Yet unlike the visual multiplicity of cubism, Walker’s silhouette seeks after deliberate red herrings, alterations, and viewer-conjured stereotypes which can (and often aim to) make the viewer rather uncomfortable.
The creation of silhouettes is a necessarily violent act, a cutting down of the whole into pieces. The violence is inherent in each scene, it is representative of an entire history of violence which marks the denizens of Walker’s silhouettes. Like theater, the visual mise-en-scène incorporates space, costume, style, and mood. And, like theater, the visual cue can often hide the more disturbing layers and themes behind appearance; the “southern romance” which stylistically typifies Walker’s work is mere backdrop to the thematic phantasmagoria which occurs in each of her scenes. For that is part of the necessity of silhouette, and its cartoonish, caricaturing style. It provides a necessary distance to allow the viewer to enter a disturbing underlying narrative and reality, one too horrible to confront with realism. Silhouette allows Walker to engage, or rather haunt, our collective historical imaginations, as the viewer works to peel back the layers of hazy forgetting, romanticization, and sublimation to uncover and recover the reality of antebellum racial relations and human perversity.
Curator Hamza Walker describes: “her cut-outs, for all their clarity, in the end become a Rorschach test whose highly subjective readings are consciously over-determined.” How then do we approach the silhouettes of Walker’s work?
Walker, Hamza. “Kara Walker: Cut It Out.” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 2000.11-12 (2000): 108-13.
Walker, Kara E. After the Deluge. New York: Rizzoli, 2007. Print.