Milwaukee Art Museum painting says a lot about black life then and now

Noir. Lives. Matter.

Black Lives deserves to be seen. Black Lives deserve to be safe. Black Lives deserves to be powerful. The Black Lives deserve to be defended.

About a month and a half ago, I drove through Kenosha to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum. As I walked through the galleries, I was drawn to the other side of the room by a powerful portrait highlighted in the space. I drank in the beauty before stepping forward with a smile to learn the details of this exquisite painting.

On the wall, a label reproduced the name of the painter and part of the history of the work:

Max Pietschmann

German, 1865-1952

Study of a Model, November 1885

Oil on canvas

Purchase, with funds from Avis Martin Heller in honor of the Fine Arts Society M2020.39

“Max Pietschmann was a young student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden when he painted this sensitive study in 1885 during a particularly busy historical period in Germany. Indeed, the previous year the Germany had established its first colonies in Africa, and visitors to Germany from Africa not only increased, but was also viewed with great curiosity by German citizens. Although we do not know its identity, the model for this painting was probably an African circus artist who passed through Dresden in November, the month Pietschmann completed the painting. The artist’s study provides a window into a complex social moment, creating an image of ‘a black man who puts forward his dignity and his composure at a time when such a representation was far from common in German art.

There was so much to study and consider in this living, life-size window into another life.

How the dull spots on the subject’s skin at the elbows and under the arms evoke speculation that he might have been a circus performer, consistent with the abrasion and chalk marks typical of a skilled acrobat.

How he likely sought prosperity in Germany that he couldn’t find in his country of birth and how the nation discouraged people of African descent from settling, catching him in a fleeting life, which would make it difficult more a century later to learn a clear identity and associate a name with his face. (Work by Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhafts, “Black Germany”, is an excellent source for understanding the African presence in Germany during this time.)

How, while some individuals of African descent begin to appear in the photography of the time, the portrayal of individuals of African descent in 19th century Western art (or really any century) is limited, this which makes this remarkable painting so precious to everyone today who needs to know that black people have lived, worked and loved and died alongside those in Europe and the Americas who were born into a privilege they would never expand beyond their own family.

It takes each of us, it takes all of us, to fight against white supremacy, to fight against the erasure of black lives in history, to fight against the erasure of black lives in our communities and places of power.

A great and terrible wrong has been done in Kenosha – a sobering reminder that what is legal is not the same as what is just and moral.

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A single painting hanging in an art museum cannot cure this ailment, but know that a German painter from the 19th century, an accessible public institution dedicated to sharing the beauty and power of art, and, well , me –– we are firm in the knowledge that Black Lives Matter, that they always counted. Through violence and vast injustices, we will continue to amplify this message until these words truly mean something in our cruel world.

Tanya Klowden is a physicist in transition to the technical analysis of art. She is researching works at the Milwaukee Art Museum for a new project. She lives in the Los Angeles area.

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