In 1839, the world experienced the advent of photography, making it possible to immortalize one’s image while sparing the high expense of painted portraiture.
Before that, cut-paper profiles, or silhouettes, offered a nearly instantaneous likeness of everyday Americans and could be crafted from inexpensive materials.
An exhibition celebrating the history of the silhouette art form will open at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Sept. 28.
“Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now,” organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, is the first major museum exhibition to explore the historical roots of silhouettes, as well as their presence today.
“In early America, silhouettes were more accessible than any other medium, leading to works that offer a lens onto the ideals of freedom, the trauma of slavery and Americans’ political selves,” said Kate Crawford, curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “Connecting past and present, Black Out reveals that silhouettes remain relevant and widespread today. Having both historic and contemporary silhouettes in the exhibition asserts the continued prominence of this art form and draws connections between the past and present.”
The exhibit showcases works from 1796 to the present day, including pieces crafted from paper, sculpture, prints and mixed-media installations.
Two of the most recognizable silhouette artists of the 19th century, Auguste Edouart and William Bache, will be showcased in the historical section of Black Out. The section explores the boundary-breaking history of silhouettes, including the earliest-known likeness of a same-sex couple and one of the few known portraits of an enslaved person from the 18th century.
Contemporary works by female artists have been incorporated to highlight the relevance of silhouettes today. Modern works use re-imagined silhouettes and explore issues of slavery, gender, modern alienation and technology.
According to BMA Director Graham Boettcher, “An integral part of our mission is to achieve greater inclusion and broader representation in the work we present and the audiences we attract. With many gaps and erasures in what we know of our collective American history, the work presented in Black Out not only offers fascinating insight into the art of cut-paper profiles, but the exhibition expands the narrative of historically underrepresented individuals, helping us gain a more whole understanding of one another and ourselves.”
A preview party will be hosted Sept. 27 to celebrate the opening of “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now,” and the exhibition will remain open through Jan. 21.
For more information, visit artsbma.org.