Milwaukee Museum of Art painting speaks volumes about black life past and present

Noir. Lives. Matter.

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

About a month and a half ago I drove through Kenosha to visit the Milwaukee Museum of Art. As I wandered through the galleries, I was drawn to the other side of the room by a powerful portrait displayed prominently 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 gave the name of the painter and a bit of the history of the work:

Max Pietschmann

German, 1865-1952

Study of a model, November 1885

Oil on canvas

Purchase, with Avis Martin Heller Funds 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 charged historical period in Germany. Indeed, the year before, the germany had established its first colonies in Africa, and visitors to Germany from Africa not only increased but were also regarded with great curiosity by German citizens.Although we do not know his identity, the model of this painting was likely an African circus performer who passed through Dresden in November, the month Pietschmann completed The artist’s study offers a window into a complex social moment, creating an image of a black man who puts in before his dignity and self-control at a time when such depiction was far from common in German art.

There was so much to study and consider in this vivid, 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 as they were with the abrasion and chalk marks typical of a skilled acrobat.

How he was probably looking to Germany for prosperity he couldn’t find in his native country, and how the nation discouraged people of African descent from settling down, taking him on a transient life, which would make it difficult for more a century later to learn a clear identity and associate a name with his face. (Robbie Aitken and Eve Rosenhafts’ work, “Black Germany,” is an excellent source for understanding the African presence in Germany during this period.)

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

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 right and moral.

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

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

Mildred D. Field