Deborah Silverman Lecture: Art of Darkness
27 June, 2012
6.00 - 7.30pm
Art Nouveau, “Style Congo,” and The Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, 1897-2011
In 2005, The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, mounted a major exhibition, "Memory of the Congo," that attempted to confront for the first time a brutal colonial history in the center of the existing institution of official national denial. As part of this inaugural revision of 2005, the Museum's rarely exhibited core collections of Art Nouveau ivory sculptures and wood furnishings were reclaimed to public view. These objects exemplify a complex and understudied mix of artistic innovation, political radicalism, and imperial enthrallment shared by members of the fin-de-siècle Belgian avant-garde, and they form part of a distinctively Belgian design style made from the raw materials of empire. This lecture, drawn from extensive research and a forthcoming book, identifies the origins of Belgian Art Nouveau as a specifically Congo nature style in the 1890s, and the ways that stylistic forms of modernism expressed a displaced encounter with a distant, but encroaching, imperial violence–what I call the return of the repressor in visual form. More broadly, the lecture brings back to the interpretive field a surprisingly unexamined cultural history of violence in nineteenth century Belgium and suggests its interaction with patterns of violence in the Congo Free State.
Professor Silverman is Distinguished Professor of History and Art History at UCLA, where she has taught since 1981 and holds the University of California President's Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture. Silverman is currently Marta Weeks Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center for the Humanities where she is working on completing her upcoming publication Art of Darkness: Art Nouveau, Style Congo and the Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa, 1897-2011.