Sugar, Its Bitter and Sweet Sides

“Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar.”
—Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

In 1843 the sugar cube, a.k.a. a lump of sugar, was invented by a Swiss-born Czech, Jakub Kryštof Rad in the Moravian province of Datschitz, located within the Austrian Empire at the time; today it is part of the Czech Republic.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

In the hip and happening Brooklyn area known as Williamsburg the 1882 Domino Sugar Factory has stood empty since 2004. The plant is slated for demolition, to be replaced by a 55-story condominium tower with views of the East River and the Manhattan skyline. A section of this 19th-century factory—still smelling overly sweet with its walls partly covered in molasses—has been given over to the display of a work of art by Kara Walker.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

With an enormous, sugarcoated sphinx, having the physical features of a stereotypical mammy, the 44-year old artist connects the production of sugar with its bitter side, slavery. Thousands of enslaved African slaves toiled in the fields and the boiling houses of the Caribbean, supplying the muscle that sugar production required.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

In addition to adult workers, child labor was used wherever possible in the sugar making process. To illustrate this point Kara Walker created child-sized sculptures; they depict black children carrying baskets and stacks of sugar cane. These figures are made of polymer resin coated with brown sugar and molasses.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

The outdoor signage for “A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Made of styrofoam blocks then coated with bleached sugar—sugar is brown in its raw state—the figure measures 75.5 feet long and 35.5 feet high. The title of the work—“A Subtlety”—is taken from the sugar sculptures called subtleties. Such elaborate confections were made for northern Europe’s royal courts as early as the first quarter of the 15th century.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

The Domino Sugar Company is a direct outcome of the sugar empire built by the Havemeyer family, whose dominance began just before the U.S. Civil War. Brooklyn was selected as the location for their processing plant because the City of Brooklyn, now the Borough of Brooklyn, offered cheap real estate to expand a booming business.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Yes, the Havemeyers grew rich from the labor of enslaved people. With some of that wealth certain members of the family, which had its roots in Bückeburg, Germany as sweet bakers, created one of the finest art collections ever in the United States.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Henry Osborne Havemeyer (1847–1907), an amateur violinist, was the third generation of Havemeyers to be involved with the family sugar business. His grandfather and great uncle had established a sugar bakery in Lower Manhattan in 1807. In the mid- to late-19th century, the family expanded its business, becoming involved with all aspects of the sugar industry.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Henry Havemeyer began collecting art when he visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Among his first-time purchases were carved ivory figurines, Japanese lacquered boxes, and swords. Along the way he developed a keen interest Islamic art. His second wife, Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer took an interest in modern art, which at the time meant the little-appreciated Impressionist works by Renoir, Monet and others.

Sugar, Brooklyn, Domino Sugar, Kara Walker, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Williamsburg, Havemeyer Collection, Art, Public Art

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker

Mr. Havemeyer died suddenly in 1907. His widow continued adding to their considerable art collection; she was assisted by her long-time Philadelphia friend, the ex-patriot Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt, who had been working in Paris for many years. Upon Mrs. Havemeyer’s death in 1929, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was willed nearly 4,500 paintings, sculptures and other prized objects the couple’s stellar collection. The gift has been called one of the greatest any museum has ever received. This is the sweet side—and I do not refer to taste—of sugar.

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