Spicer said that a colleague at the Walters reported feeling furious and upset after reading the wall text that revealed that the supposed "curse of Ham" — which asserts that the dark skin of African people is a mark of sin — came from forged documents that were passed off as ancient writings.
"If it makes you mad," Spicer says, "if it makes you livid, that's the point."
Ben Vinson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Africana Studies, is one of several community leaders who became involved in the exhibit in 2008 as a consultant on issues of historical accuracy. He thinks that the Walters has handled potentially explosive material sensitively.
"People have seen these images individually in books, but they've never been able to walk through a museum and see them and experience them together, and for that I commend the Walters," he says.
"It's the role of a museum to put hard issues out there so we can think about them. And, when we're talking about race, nothing is hallowed ground. We need to be honest in our conversation and put our cards on the table if we're ever able to achieve reconciliation. I believe that this exhibit will further the debate about race in our community."
For artists, beauty has never been skin-deep. For instance, Spicer says, Renaissance sculptors who worked with such naturally copper-colored materials as bronze or iron often chose African subjects for their statuettes. These artworks celebrate the proportions and burnished complexions of their human models.
And, it's equally clear that the painters were as likely as the sculptors to perceive their African neighbors not as stereotypes, but as individuals.
One of the many treasures of the exhibition is Rubens' 1609 oil sketch of a turbaned North African diplomat. The sketch was prepared for the artist's own use and seems to have been dabbed on whatever paper was at hand. (In this case, the rows of vertical writing seem to indicate that Rubens painted over a text of some kind.)
Viewers' eyes rest first on the white turban swaddling the man's face. Then, we notice the teeth exposed in the partially open mouth and the gleam in his right eye. The implication is unmistakable: the artist has caught this canny politician in mid-calculation.
A portrait of a very different sort is on display in an earlier gallery, Durer's study of a 20-year-old slave named Katharina.
Spicer says that if museum visitors look at just one painting in the exhibit, it should be this portrait, which is being exhibited for the first — and perhaps the only — time in the western hemisphere. (This sketch will not travel to Princeton with the rest of the exhibit, but will return to Florence, Italy in January.)
It's clear that Durer took immense pains to capture every plane and shadow on Katharina's beautiful face, from the way her nostrils flare delicately, to the network of fine cross-hatchings with which he depicts her eyelids.
The girl's expression of a soft melancholy is rendered so exquisitely, that the viewer would give anything to make her smile.
"Durer spent his whole life trying to define ideal beauty," Spicer says. "Finally, he gave up. I like to think that this was one of the portraits that convinced him that there isn't just one ideal, but multiples."
If you go
"Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe" runs today through Jan. 21 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Tickets cost $6-$10, with children 17 and younger admitted free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org
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