Oct 172008

Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave

One of the most popular works of sculpture of the 19th century was Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave, circa 1843.

To forestall any shock and dismay over the statue’s nudity, Powers helpfully included a pamphlet explaining how his work was to be interpreted, a short narrative sketch of virtue-in-distress.

Powers astutely explained, in the pamphlet that accompained his statue on its American tour in 1847, that his slave’s nudity was not her fault: she had been divested of her clothes by the lustful and impious Turks who put her on the auction block; thus her unwilling nakedness signified the purest form of the Ideal, the triumph of Christian virtue over sin. This sales pitch, aimed point-blank at Puritan sensibilities, worked so well that American Clergymen urged their congregations to go and see The Greek Slave.”

The humor magazine Punch has always been in touch with the British middle class psyche, and and it made a perhaps unwittingly clever satire of the sculpture when it ran a cartoon entitled, The Virginian Slave. Remember, the original statue and its replicas and miniatures were created when slavery was in full bloom in the American South, and people who demonstrated their sensitivity by clucking over The Greek Slave’s virtue-in-distress couldn’t care too much about the actual slaves across the Atlantic.

The Virginian Slave

Now, was this an example of “unconscious pornography”, that the Victorian American and British viewers needed a pious gloss to gaze upon a naked woman in chains without guilt? Or did they really look it in a different way than us cynical moderns? Or can the image be viewed in multiple ways?

I’m a little influenced by Harold Bloom’s idea of strong and weak misreading, or misprision. It could be that BDSM pornography is a misreading of earlier genres like the novel of sensibility and the Gothic.

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