Debora L. Silverman will be presenting at the Modern Design History Seminar on Wednesday, April 27 at 6 pm. Her talk is entitled “Diasporas of Art and ‘The Great Forgetting’: Violence and the Visual Unconscious of Belgian Colonialism at the Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa and Beyond, 1897-2014.”

Debora L. Silverman is Distinguished Professor of History and Art History at UCLA and holds the University of California President’s Chair in Modern European History, Art and Culture. She received her BA, MA, and PhD from Princeton University. Her books include Selling Culture, Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland, and The New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America (1986), Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (1989), and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (2000), which was awarded the 2001 Ralph Waldo Emerson National Prize for Best Book in the Humanities, the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major book prize in French History, and the 2001 PEN American Center National Prize for “outstanding writing on the visual arts.” She is currently completing a book on Art Nouveau’s “whiplash style” as “Congo Style,” the cultural history of violence, and the politics of memory in Belgium and the Tervuren Museum entitled Art of Darkness. This material first appeared in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. She has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Getty Research Institute Scholars’ Fellowship, and the Marta Weeks Senior Fellow award at the Stanford Center for the Humanities. She was named a Historical Studies Member at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is currently a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, and was elected to the American Academy of Art and Sciences in 2008.

A multi-city exhibition of 2013–2014, Kongo Across the Waters, brought objects from a Belgian colonial museum to demonstrate the impact of West Central African arts on America and the world. The 111 items displayed formed a tiny minority of the vast treasure troves amassed by King Leopold II and officers of the Congo Free State (1885–1908), whose collections’ history is only beginning to be investigated. In 2005, this Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, mounted a major exhibition, Memory of the Congo, which attempted to confront for the first time a brutal colonial history in the center of the existing institution of official national denial. As part of this inaugural revision of 2005, the Museum’s rarely exhibited core collections of Art Nouveau ivory sculptures and wood furnishings were reclaimed to public view. This lecture, drawn from extensive research and a forthcoming book, identifies the origins of Belgian Art Nouveau as a specifically Congo nature style in the 1890s, and the ways that stylistic forms of modernism expressed a displaced encounter with a distant, but encroaching, imperial violence—what Silverman calls the return of the repressor in visual form. More broadly, Silverman brings back to the interpretive field a surprisingly unexamined cultural history of violence in nineteenth-century Belgium and suggest its interaction with patterns of violence in the Congo Free State. In this lecture, Silverman aims to remind the audience of the entangled histories of Belgium and the United States in the Congo Free State, and to subvert a new pattern of global forgetting that may be accompanying the new international circulation of the Tervuren collections.