Jan Wiegers 1893 –1959 Bal Nègre 1930 Wax paint on canvas, 87 x 60 cm Groninger Museum Collection, on long-term loan from Stichting De Ploeg,
Because I receive more and more requests from abroad for the exhibition catalogue Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas from 2008, I will publish, again, some of my research and writings in this book. The book has become unaffordable on Amazon. The exhibition and catalogue provided an overview of seven centuries of imagination of black people in Dutch art. It now appears to have become an important reference work for many.
Above painting by Jan Wiegers shows two couples dancing intimately on the dance floor. Their mixed race instantly gives the work an urban feel, for such sights were only to be seen in the 1920s and 1930s in major modern cities. The title of the picture betrays the city in which this scene is set, Paris.
Wiegers had just been in the French capital with his colleague Hendrik Werkman and they had probably visited Bal Nègre, the Antillean bar where Africans and African Americans danced with French ladies. By this time avant-garde ladies considered it highly modern to dance with a black man, while a relationship with such a man was also an option. Black music, black form, black dance, black history and black people were hot in Paris, Amsterdam and other European cities.
This work appears to develop both Wieger’s visit to Paris and the poster which he designed in 1925 for Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the ballet composed by Darius Milhaud in 1919 and staged in Groningen by the composer Daniël Ruynemann.
Milhaud was known as a composer who combined African American (North and South) Music styles with classical European music. The ballet’s story (by Jean Cocteau) is set in a bar and the roles include a ‘negro boxer’, a ‘negro playing billiards’, a red-haired lady and a lady with a considerable decolleté. (see also http://daniellathompson.com/Texts/Le_Boeuf/Au_Temps_du_Boeuf1.htm
Wiegers’ poster for the production showed two white ladies dressed for going out; in the background are three gentlemen, one red, the other two dark blue. Five years later, when Wiegers painted Bal Nègre, he reused the motif of two white ladies whom he now combined with two men, one red-brown, the other black.
Wiegers’ love of dance scenes was inspired by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was fascinated by country dancing, ‘primitive’ dances and even the ordinary dance halls in the Swiss city of Davos. Wiegers met Kirchner in Davos in the early 1920s and was introduced by him to new techniques, new subjects and new principles whose origins lay in such fields as the art of the ‘primitives’.
An important technique which Wiegers adopted from Kirchner was the use of wax paint, which gave paintings a more matt finish that brought out colour planes to greater advantage. In Bal Nègre these colour planes have been pushed to the extreme, engendering a strong affinity with the work of decorative French expressionists and that of Hendrik Werkman, in whose company Wiegers had just been in Paris.
Esther Schreuder in the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas exh. cat (2008) see also >Bal Negre by Raedecker<
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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