By Mursi Saad El-Din
Since its establishment in 1995, the Dahesh Museum has hosted successive exhibitions, seminars, lectures and courses, succeeding in turning Dr Dahesh's ambition to create an Arab lighthouse in the heart of New York into reality.
One thing the Dahesh Museum is famous for is the reinstatement and popularisation of academic art, which sometimes faltered in the face of the newly-emerging art schools' attacks. The Dahesh Museum came as a life-saver of that noble art -- its 1500 artworks have managed not only to revive, but also to draw the attention of art critics to the value of this art.
One of the latest exhibitions of the Dahesh Museum was "Facing the Other: Charles Cordier (1827-1904) Ethnographic Sculptor". Lasting four months, the exhibition drew thousands of visitors and was reviewed by dozens of art critics.
I did not have a chance to see the exhibition, but received a copy of the superb book accompanying it, containing 600 illustrations, including 200 plates in full colour. Incidentally, the exhibition was organised with the cooperation of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec.
The exhibition brought together 60 sculptures, as well as paintings, prints and photographs, on loan from collectors and organisations from 18 countries, including Algeria and Morocco.
Now to the artist himself: Charles Cordier was a leading sculptor of 19th-century France. His work, devoted to the depiction of various races, used men and women of North and Sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean as his subjects.
During his lifetime Cordier was celebrated by many critics and artists, including Auguste Rodin. Now a century after his death, there is a revival and great appreciation of the "aesthetic egalitarianism" reflected in his works. "Because beauty is not the province of a privileged race, I convey to the world of art," he wrote, "the idea of the universality of beauty. Every race has its beauty which differs from that of other races. The most beautiful negro is not the one who looks most like us."
In 1848, Cordier caused a sensation at the Paris Salon by exhibiting the bust of a Sudanese man from Darfour. It scandalised society at first, but the work was soon valued for its artistic worth, especially when France declared the abolition of slavery in the same year. When in 1851 Queen Victoria saw this work, titled Said Abdallah, she purchased it, along with another bust, as a 33rd birthday gift for her husband Prince Albert.
The two busts, on loan to the current exhibition by Queen Elizabeth II, depict the beginning of Cordier's unique ethnographic work. Recalling the sensation his bust of Said Abdallah created, Cordier wrote in his memoirs: "It was a revelation for the whole art world. My genre had the novelty of a new subject, the revolt against slavery, anthropology at its birth."
In sculpting Said Abdallah and African Venus, Cordier caught their nobility in pensive poses, "adding only a touch of gilt to Venus's earrings, although he sometimes coloured his bronzes by galvanising and enameling and even used semi-precious stones for special effects," writes Frederick Winship.
Among the exhibit is a lovely statue in bronze, silvered by electrolytic process, depicting an Egyptian peasant woman wearing a necklace and bracelets set with turquoise and corals. Another piece, Arab Woman, is a larger than life sculpture which was acquired by Empress Eugénie, consort of Napoleon III, to illuminate the entrance hall at the Château du Compiegne. Another beautiful bust is that of a Greek woman rocking her baby.
Cordier travelled widely and was particularly drawn to North Africa and the Middle East. But these voyages, as mentioned in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, "reflected an impulse far from the conventional 'orientalism' which sought in 'the other' exotic reflections of oneself. His task was to study the various indigenous people from the standpoint of art."