For this year’s Francoise and Georges Selz Lecture on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Decorative Arts and Culture, Bard Graduate Center had the pleasure of welcoming Charles Kang, Curator of 18th- and 19th- Century Drawings at the Rijksmuseum.

As an aspiring curator myself, I found Kang’s visit to the BGC to be immensely inspiring. Kang has a warmth and a cheer that exudes from him and throughout his visit with us, he was more than happy to be approached with questions about life as a curator. The day before he gave the Selz lecture centered on the dialogues that existed among different media in the eighteenth century about a series of portraits of King Louis XIV of France, created by Antoine Benoist, Kang spoke to the BGC community about his current work at the Rijksmuseum and a particular curatorial challenge he is facing at the moment.

Henrik Pothoven, Portrait of a Servant, c. 1780, paper and chalk, Rijksmuseum.

Kang explained that just as he took up his current position, the Rijksmuseum acquired this 1780 drawing by Henrik Pothoven. Pothoven was known to have painted two black servants in the court of the Oranges and what was believed to be a portrait of one of these boys, William Frederik Cupido, had already been identified. The tantalizing prospect of naming this portrait as the other boy, Guan Anthony Sideron, was therefore difficult to resist. Kang, however, faced with the question of what to name this work in the collection revealed a refreshingly self-reflexive approach. Kang did not feel he had enough evidence to comfortably call this a “Portrait of Sideron” and so he spoke us through his thought process of trying to choose the least charged terms, ultimately landing on “Portrait of a Servant.” In doing so, Kang offered us invaluable insight into the challenges of navigating the many conflicting interests acting on a museum: those of the directors, the donors, the curators, the visitors, and so on. Despite the obvious temptations in making claim to such a grand discovery, Kang made a convincing case for the value of remaining critical of one’s own thinking and of the limits to the arguments one can make with insufficient information. Perhaps what struck me the most was the fact that the Rijksmuseum restricts all of their object labels to seventy words, so it is impossible for Kang to inform the everyday museum visitor of these fascinating and complex debates underpinning the identity of the portrait’s subject. This draws us to the very heart of the question “What is the role of the museum?” and how do the parameters set by institutions help us understand their aims and objectives.

Kang inspired me with his thoughtful insights into what it means to be a curator, the constantly evolving nature of curatorial research, and the care and attention that is required when speaking for people who can no longer speak for themselves.
The next day, Kang presented the Selz Lecture as part of the Wednesdays @ BGC series developed by the newly-formed Department of Public Humanities and Research. Having written his doctoral thesis at Columbia University on the ways in which the use of wax by eighteenth-century French artists and artisans redefined conceptions of fine art, the relationship between wax and other media, particularly drawing, has long been a fascination of Kang’s. We can see this unique approach to drawings and portraiture not as static but as ongoing negotiations of technologies of seeing and representing in Kang’s previous projects, including the 2010 exhibition “Works as Progress / Works in Progress: Drawing in 18th- and 19th-century France” which he co-curated at the Williams College Museum of Art.

The entire lecture centered around one particularly striking wax portrait of the Sun King. This relief portrait made for an imposing presence throughout the talk, difficult to get out of one’s mind both for its peculiarity and for its eerie life-likeness.

Antoine Benoist, Louis XIV, c. 1705, painted beeswax, glass enamel eye, human hair, white lace, silk, velvet, pins, nails, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Created in around 1705, when the king was sixty-eight years old, Benoist’s portrait invites the eye to move over different media - velvet, silk, wax, even human hair - to create a richly textured impression of the sitter. As Kang began his discussion of this portrayal of the king and of the history of wax as a material used to create likenesses of important individuals, my mind couldn’t help but return again and again to the work of Georges Didi-Huberman. Writing in 1999, Didi-Huberman, French philosopher and art historian, meditates on the material properties of wax and the meanings which the material becomes imbued with as a result. He recounts the words of a Sicilian wax-worker who said, “it is marvelous, you can do anything with it…It moves.” These simple yet revealing words provide the launching point for Didi-Huberman to explore the unsettling nature of wax, in all the senses of the word. Wax is “unsettling” in its ability to mimic human flesh: “the material of all resemblances…the unstable material par excellence.” It is also unsettling in the way it physically “moves” in its plasticity, but also in the way it “moves” its viewers emotionally. Its verisimilitude can upset, provoke, or excite. In these various ways, wax emerges as a medium of representation that permits a greater sense of human connection with the image.

In Charles Kang’s lecture, however, this particular wax portrait also “unsettles” in that it challenges us to think critically about exactly what message such royal portraits communicated. Kang’s central thesis here was that to understand the role of this captivating portrait of King Louis XIV in communicating Benoist’s skill and social standing, it cannot be approached on its own but must be contextualized as one example in Benoist’s long career of depicting the monarch in diverse media. By drawing together depictions of Louis XIV in paper, wax, and bronze created by Benoist at various points in the king’s life, Kang inventively argued that Benoist was more interested in positioning himself as a chronicler of the king’s life than in fashioning himself as a highly skilled wax portraitist. Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that Kang showed us in my opinion was a series of gilt bronze medals produced of Benoist’s portraits of Louis XIV at ten different ages. We should consider the possibility, then, that the power of this portrait was not wrapped up in its materials and techniques but rather in the fact that it illustrated Benoist’s unparalleled access to the king’s likeness at multiple stages across his life.

Antoine Benoist, Portraits de Louis le grand suivant ses âges, 1704, parchment, horn, gilt bronze, wood, glass, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

You can watch Charles Kang’s full lecture, “From Wax to Paper: Antoine Benoist’s Portraits of Louis XIV,” on our YouTube channel now.

Bob Hewis is a first year BGC MA student.