Blog / Instant Recognition

Posted by Ryan Elizabeth Bennert

This post is part of an on-going series to accompany the student-curated exhibition Masculinities: Mainstream to Margins. 


Study for Stalin with Bear's Leg / Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall

From the outset of curating this exhibition, I desired to showcase the portrayal of individuals who command authority or wield power due to a direct association with a title (such as “king” or “president”).  However, I wanted to dispel the notion of the esteemed, ultra-masculine, refined leader and grapple with images of powerful men that may surprise or shock the audience. I hoped to have achieved my objective of unconventional portrayals of men in power through the juxtaposition of two particular pieces: Leonid Sokov’s Stalin with a Bear’s Leg and Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin’s Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Installation photo by J Caldwell

I will only mention a few things I considered while choosing to put these two pieces in conversation with one another because I hope each individual viewer will allow for the points of connection and tension between them to develop organically.  First and foremost, the visual aspects of the works struck me as a point of conversation between the works.  While Stalin is shockingly forward with its glittering gold and rough-hewn quality, Marshall is a quiet piece rendered in the beautiful, delicate detail of crayon.  In terms of cultural and societal associations, I wanted to play with the notion of instant recognition. That is to say, I want the audience to allow whatever the associations of the individual rendered in each of these two pieces to arise naturally before toying with the notion of both embracing and dispelling what one knows about these historical figures.  What I’ve come across is that while the sculpture of Stalin might evoke an immediate and sometimes visceral reaction from many viewers due to instant recognition of who many consider to be an infamous leader, the portrait of Marshall is, in a way, protected from its audience as fewer individuals will immediately jump to conclusions or have instant associations about the Chief Justice. I hope that our audience will allow themselves to engage in the conversation between these two powerful works in whatever way each individual sees fit.

by Ryan Elizabeth Bennert


Leonid Sokov, Study for Stalin with Bear’s Leg, c.1990. Gold foil on plaster. 20 x 5 x 4 1/2 inches (50.8 x 12.7 x 11.4 cm). Gift of John Schwartz. 1997.34.2.

Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall, 1807 – 1808. Black and white crayon on pink paper. 22 x 16 inches (55.9 x 40.6 cm). Gift by transfer from Duke University Law School. 1978.4.1.

Installation photo by J Caldwell

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