New-York Historical Society Offers New Perspectives On Commemorative Traditions In Two Winter Exhibitions

In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, Jan. 17 – April 5, 2020

Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry, Dec. 20, 2019 – May 10, 2020

This winter, the New-York Historical Society presents an exhibition and a special installation that take a fresh look at traditions of remembrance. The exhibition In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes (January 17 – April 5, 2020) traces the development of the late 18th- and 19th-century art form and how artists are reinventing the silhouette today. The special installation Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry (December 20, 2019 – May 10, 2020) displays jewelry featuring human hair that was used as tokens of affection or memorials to lost loved ones.

New-York Historical is taking a deep dive into our expansive collection to explore 19th-century traditions of portraiture and remembrance,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The art of silhouettes has long been popular, and this exhibition traces both its history and how gifted, contemporary artists are currently revitalizing the art form. Mourning jewelry may have fallen out of fashion, but this installation showcases how it was once the height of elegance.

In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes

Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763–1846) and Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852), Unidentified woman, 1795 Black ink, gouache, graphite on paper laid on thin card. New-York Historical Society, Purchase, The Louis Durr Fund, 1945.344
William Bache (1771–1845), Alexander Hamilton (ca. 1755–1804), ca. 1800. Black ink with touches of white gouache on ivory paper. New-York Historical Society, Z.2459

The art of silhouettes—usually black cut-paper or painted profiles—emerged as a popular form of portraiture in 19th-century America when there were few trained portrait painters. Drawn mostly from New-York Historical’s significant collection by Curator of Drawings Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, In Profile traces the development of this popular art form and explores its contemporary revival through over 150 silhouettes of both famous and everyday people—from a depiction of Alexander Hamilton to full-length silhouettes of the students in a Gramercy Park girls’ school.

Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Édouart (1789–1861), Philip Milledoler Beekman (1845–1846), 1846. Black prepared paper cut-out with graphite, laid on yellow paper with lithographed background and gray and brown wash. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1948.515

The exhibition showcases works by professional practitioners, such as master of the genre Augustin Édouart and Charles Willson Peale (who employed, among others, Moses Williams, an enslaved man who earned his freedom and produced silhouettes at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia). Édouart’s 1846 Philip Milledoler Beekman (1845–1846), which captures a domestic scene of a toddler playing with a jack-in-the-box in a grand drawing room, was created in memory of a child who died when he was just 14 months old.

Unidentified artist, Students and teachers, selections from Miss Haines’s School silhouette series, 1859. Black prepared paper cut-outs laid on beige paper. New-York Historical Society, Z.2611, Z.2613a, Z. 2614a, Z.2617a, Z.2628, Z.2622, Z.2616a, Z.2625b, Z.2637a

Also on display is work from self-trained artists like Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, a gifted paper-cutting artist. Famous for his fairy tales, he also created imaginative, whimsical compositions like Acrobats (ca. 1835–60). Martha Anne Honeywell, a woman born without arms and only three toes, cut profiles for 60 years in America and Europe and managed her successful career. On view are two of her intricate cut-outs of the Lord’s Prayer, one featuring delicate needlework (1845).

Kumi Yamashita (b. 1968), Origami, 2020. Paper, cast light, shadow. Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Mitch Ranger

Contemporary featured artists—who are expanding the size, subject matter, and media customarily associated with silhouettes—include Béatrice Coron, who captures the dynamic synergy of New York City; and Kara Walker, who harnesses the silhouette tradition to investigate the legacy of slavery. Coron’s Hi Five! Stories from the Five Boroughs (2019) are hand-cut, eight-foot-long panoramas that capture vignettes from the five boroughs. Walker’s maquette for The Katastwóf Karavan (2017), a public art project created in New Orleans, displays a calliope (steam organ) housed in a horse-drawn wagon, with laser-cut sides that recall cut-paper silhouettes and feature provocative imagery. Also on view is a wall piece by light sculptor Kumi Yamashita, who shapes colored origami papers to cast dramatic shadow portraits of specific individuals.

Kara Walker (b. 1969), Maquette for The “Katastwóf Karavan”, 2017. Painted laser-cut stainless steel. Private collection

Visitors also have the opportunity to “silhouette themselves” as 19th-century practice meets 21st-century technology by projecting their profile onto a screen to create a silhouette that can then be captured by a cell phone camera.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), manufacturer; William Hackwood (ca. 1757–1839), designer. Antislavery medallion mounted as a pin: Am I Not a Man and a Brother?, 1787. Jasperware, metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Selma H. Rutenburg, MD, given in memory of Nina & Jack Gray, 2013.21
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The ‘Future’ As Seen by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Award Lawrence Abu Hamdan the Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo announced that Lawrence Abu Hamdan has been awarded the 2022 Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media. This is the third in an ongoing series of commissions offered jointly by the two institutions to support the creation, production, and acquisition of new work by international artists working in the expanding fields of video, film, performance, and sound. Abu Hamdan has received many accolades and a number of commissions throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. This project, in particular, stands as a singular and significant opportunity that will enable the artist to further develop, refine, and expand his growing practice and the subjects with which he works.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Photo by Miro Kuzmanovic. Courtesy of the artist.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Lebanese/British, born in Amman 1985) lives and works in Beirut. His work is distinguished by the ways in which he experiments with voice and sound to create complex political narratives. In these he employs surveillance technologies and archival materials to explore the juridical implications of listening and the role of sound as a tool to silence, suppress, and resist. Combining science, journalism, a commitment to social justice, and art, Abu Hamdan’s aural investigations have served as evidence at the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and advocacy for organizations such as Amnesty International. His research has also contributed to the work of the multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture.

Performance still from Natq, a live audiovisual essay, 2019, by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Courtesy of the artist.

For the Future Fields Commission, Abu Hamdan has proposed an installation, tentatively titled How to Hear Impossible Speech: Lessons from the Division of Perceptual Studies, which aims to expand our understanding of testimony and witness through narratives of reincarnation—a belief in the transmigration of the soul from one life to the next. Though distinct from the artist’s more widely known acoustic investigations, this commission will maintain a focus on ideas of resonance as Abu Hamdan charts the transmigration of speech, not through walls, but across time, bodies, and complex histories of unrest, subjugation, and colonization.

Video still from Once Removed, 2019, by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 14. Courtesy of the artist.

Abu Hamdan is developing the commission in close consultation with Amanda Sroka, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, as well as Irene Calderoni, Curator at the Fondazione. The work will premiere at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in spring 2022 and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin during the following winter. It will be jointly acquired by the two institutions.

Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO, Philadelphia Museum of Art, stated: “Lawrence Abu Hamdan has emerged as a powerful voice in contemporary art, and in this regard, he is the perfect choice for our Future Fields Commission. We look forward to the realization of his provocative project proposal, and are delighted both to partner once again with the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, and to share the outcome of our collaborations with visitors.”

Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, said, “Future Fields is an extraordinary tool to explore contemporary art exactly where it is most vital, in the works of a new generation of artists, across the globe, developing new forms of visual production. We are delighted that Lawrence Abu Hamdan has accepted to be part of the already notable roster of artists that have received the commission.

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, President of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, said: “We strongly believe that institutions today have a responsibility to support and foster art practices that are imaginative, daring, and committed, and Future Fields offers us a significant international platform to fulfil this aim. Lawrence Abu Hamdan is one of the most significant and innovative figures of his generation and we look forward to working with him on this ambitious project.”

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