Profiles in Profile
Whether the medium is cutout paper silhouettes, intricately carved gems or well-honed language, rendering an image in profile epitomizes the credo Less is more. Those who master the art of profile, from ancient cameo cutters to contemporary artist Kara Walker and poet Lily Ladewig, leave us with images that, because of their artful lack of detail, are paradoxically rich in nuance.
Quite unintentionally, Etienne de Silhouette, a cost-cutting 18th-century French finance minister, lent his name to a popular new art form. His austerity measures, including controversial taxes on the aristocracy, earned him a reputation as a penny-pincher, and soon the term à la Silhouette was being applied to things perceived as cheap. Silhouette soon became the common word for a type of inexpensive portraiture in which a profile is cut from black paper.
A stark outline with an interior lacking in detail, a silhouette functions largely through suggestion. This is what appeals to Lily Ladewig. In “Good Winter,” a poem in her collection The Silhouettes (2012), she writes, “I am the silhouettes / of two girls / in black coats clicking / down a Roman side street.” Ladewig says she is drawn to the ambiguity of silhouette representation: “I find art and poetry to be the most effective when it inhabits a shadowy space, when we are given hints of narrative or persona but our responses are not explicitly dictated.” As Ladewig explains, “When the poet gives us clues, or outlines, and then we have to fill in the blank with our own ideas and memories.”
Cutting figures out of paper was a popular pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the spirit of Etienne de Silhouette, the namesake minister of finance who struggled to save the French economy by taxing the aristocracy, silhouettes provided a cheap and easy way to produce a portrait in an age before photography. An artist needed only to draw the subject’s outline—usually the head in profile—so sittings took just a few minutes, and with a little practice, even an amateur could master the technique.
Artist Kara Walker chooses the genteel art of silhouettes to explore the sordidness of slavery, focusing on atrocities that took place behind the stately facades of plantations, where cutting out profiles was fashionable among Southern belles. The relevance of Walker’s depictions of the persistent myths of racism was undeniable when, in 2013, leading TV personality Paula Deen said she wanted “a bunch of little ni--ers” to dress up in antebellum finery for an Old South–style wedding. As Walker has said, “As long as there are people saying, ‘Hey, you don’t belong here,’ to others, it only seems realistic to continue investigating the terrain of racism.”
Joseph Cornell said he remembered looking into the rooms of New York City tenements as he sped past them on the elevated train, glimpsing in one, he wrote, “an unexpected and confusing bareness…that etched the fragment of action of the occupants so strongly, like a memory of childhood. And it was all over in less than a split second.” At least in part, the experience inspired the shadow boxes he created over a period of 40 years. He often filled them with images fashioned from old engravings, along with three-dimensional objects, such as feathers and twigs, to evoke dreams and visions. His boxes are microcosms that capture a moment for an eternity, providing glimpses that are incomplete yet memorable, like those from the speeding el.
Lily Ladewig’s Silhouettes (2012) includes a series inspired by Cornell entitled “Shadow Box.” In one of the 18 box-shaped poems, Ladewig, who is also a dancer, mime and yoga instructor, writes, “At nightfall our shadows turn into choreographers. They instruct the dancers not to touch but to imagine touching.” Ladewig often accompanies her readings with shadow puppetry, the ancient art form in which stationary and moving silhouettes are backlit onto a translucent screen.
Looking at a Joseph Cornell box is like stepping into a fantasy world. A stamp depicting a butterfly may evoke flight or travel; dangling brass rings, a starry firmament. Black lines crisscrossing a Renaissance portrait may represent the emergence of perspective in art or perhaps a yearning for rational order. Small bottles of scent beneath an image of Cleopatra suggest exoticism and the trinkets Egyptians placed in tombs. The dreamlike scenes illustrate real and imagined places—a Coney Island arcade, foreign hotel rooms. Despite their dimensionality and detail, Cornell’s shadow boxes, like silhouettes and profiles, limit what they reveal and are intriguing because of it.
Kara Walker exploits the suggestive language of silhouettes to depict nightmarish scenes of subjugation. In her room-size installations, walls are pasted with hundreds of black paper cutouts, a technique often associated with staid likenesses of revered figures or family members. Walker’s silhouettes explode with violence: A young woman fellates her master, slaves are raped, blades of grass resemble weapons. Her images are all the more powerful for being only partially detailed. Walker has said, “As soon as you start telling the story of racism, [you] keep creating a monster that swallows you.”
Kara Walker’s silhouettes are based in part on minstrel shows, in which white actors wore blackface and presented an idealized version of slavery. The minstrel tradition still haunts popular culture, conflating fact and fiction, which Walker also combines in her part-historical, part-imagined depictions that confront conventional thinking about racism. As The New York Times has commented, Walker finds a “chaos of contradictory ideas and emotions.” New York magazine says her “silhouettes don’t just broach America’s touchiest subject—they detonate it.”
Andy Warhol engaged in social commentary too, often through silk screens of celebrities and paintings of mass-produced everyday objects. Unlike Walker’s work, Warhol’s is understated to the point of reductionist monotony. When asked why he chose Campbell’s soup cans as a subject, Warhol replied, “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and that was it.” Critics claim that while Warhol was a brilliant social observer and marketer, he didn’t have much to say about anything—he himself was the essence of nothing. He is considered the Pope of Pop, and for many critics and fans, his apparent superficiality is an artful reflection on modern life.
Kara Walker’s depictions of slavery are particularly disquieting because she renders them in silhouette, an art form practiced by members of the 19th-century gentility whose lifestyle depended on slaves. Silhouette artists were often women who made images of loved ones, carrying on a tradition that, according to Roman writer Pliny the Elder, goes back to the fifth century B.C., when a Corinthian girl, Dibutade, traced her lover’s shadow before he left on a journey so she could keep his image with her.
Since ancient times, lovers have also prized cameos, the outlines of likenesses carved into gems and other materials. A particularly charming cameo from the fifth century B.C. by a Greek carver, Epimenes, depicts a young athlete adjusting his sandal. Cameos were coveted by wealthy merchants throughout the Middle Ages and became affordable for the middle classes in Victorian England, when craftspeople began mass-producing them from shells. Like Walker, artist Charlotte Potter gives the profile a 21st-century twist in her 2012 piece Charlotte’s Web. She carved glass cameos of her 864 Facebook friends, arranged them on a wall map of the world and connected them with fine chains—a visual testimony to the interconnectedness social media produces.
In the Great Cameo of France, carved out of sardonyx around A.D. 23, deceased Roman emperors Augustus and Drusus II float above the living Tiberius and Caligula, who in turn surmount the barbarian hordes they overcame. It’s a terrific piece of propaganda for the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Cameos made rulers, deities and other lofty, often long-forgotten subjects into cultural icons, ensuring their fame lasted longer than the 15 minutes Andy Warhol predicted for future generations.
In his way, Warhol did the opposite: The pop artist and his dozens of assistants created silk screens of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley and stamped them out into series of paper-and-ink “cameos” that made them feel commonplace. Justifying his quick-stroke approach (he once hand-painted the exterior of a BMW race car in 24 minutes), Warhol said, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.” That might seem like sacrilege to the unknown artist who masterfully fashioned the Great Cameo, which now enjoys pride of place in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Then again, Warhol’s many Marilyns and Elvises have fetched as much as $80 million and $100 million, respectively, at auction.
When she wasn’t trying to establish her right to the throne or dealing with the notorious infidelities of her husband, George II, Queen Caroline of England amassed an impressive collection of cameos. A century later, Queen Victoria began collecting Jasperware, developed by English potter Joshua Wedgewood; it typically features cameo-like portraits silhouetted in white against a pale blue background. Soon cameo collecting was all the rage, and no Victorian lady thought of going out in public without donning one.
Joseph Cornell also had a penchant for collecting disparate things: “I collect anything of human interest.” He conceived of filling shadow boxes with engravings and found objects after passing an antiques store and noticing a pile of compasses in the window. “I thought, everything can be used in a lifetime, can’t it, and went on walking,” he said. “I’d scarcely gone two blocks when I came on another shop window full of boxes, all different kinds.… Halfway home on the train that night, I thought again of the compasses and the boxes. It occurred to me to put the two together.” The resulting dioramas are tauntingly enigmatic, and as with cameos and silhouettes,the viewer must supply the story.