Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Mirages of orientalism

The nineteenth-century orientalist painter Benjamin Constant is the subject of a giant overview in the French city of Toulouse, writes David Tresilian


Al-Ahram Weekly

The nineteenth-century French orientalist painter Benjamin Constant, now forgotten except by art historians but once one of the best-known artists of his time, is currently the subject of a giant exhibition at the musée des Augustins in his home town of Toulouse. Organised in cooperation with the Montreal Fine Arts Museum in Canada, where it moves in January, the exhibition is the largest ever held on this versatile orientalist painter who reached the top of the French artistic hierarchy by supplying theatrical compositions to a public avid for exotic sensations and colour.  

But the exhibition is far more than simply an opportunity to review the work of this once important painter. Supplied with a suitably oversized catalogue, it also enables visitors to understand more about the workings of the French art system in the second half of the nineteenth century and how these could be exploited by an unusually talented and ambitious artist. Orientalism was one such strategy, and it allowed Constant to gain important commissions through large-scale pieces such as his Entrée du sultan Mehmet II à Constantinople le 29 mai 1453, a vast and highly dramatic picture originally exhibited in 1876 and on show in the present exhibition.

However, there were also many other ways to secure advancement, and Constant’s talent for dramatic compositions won him commissions to decorate the public buildings that the French Second Republic was then erecting at impressive speed. These included buildings of the Sorbonne, refunctioned as a national and republican institution, the new Paris town hall, rebuilt to replace the original burned down in the revolutionary commune of 1871, and the Opéra comique. Constant later became a celebrity painter in North America, producing lavish portraits of American industrialists. The last section of the exhibition shows him substituting expensive-looking portraits of East Coast businessmen for his earlier Moroccan harems.

Born in the southern French city of Toulouse in 1845, Constant began to enter history paintings on literary and biblical themes in the Paris Salons of the 1860s after training at the city’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, his career only took off in the 1870s when he shifted from historical to orientalist subjects following a trip to Morocco and produced a series of works that showed a predilection for scenes of high drama or violence realised on an often monumental scale. These he combined with harem and street scenes along with studies of individuals – “oriental types” – posed amid collections of oriental-looking bric-à-brac in fact purchased in Paris.

The exhibition looks at Constant’s journey to Morocco and his discovery of Arab subject matter via a visit to the mediaeval Arab palace of the Alhambra in southern Spain, a kind of European antechamber to the Orient. Back in Paris after a two-year stay in Morocco, Constant produced pictures such as Entrée du sultan Mehmet II à Constantinople le 29 mai 1453, Le lendemain d’une victoire à l’Alhambra, Les derniers rebelles, scène d’histoire marocaine and Le roi du Maroc allant recevoir officiellement un ambassadeur européen that were designed to show off his talent for brightly coloured compositions, their deliberate scale being a way of angling for official commissions.

Writing in the exhibition catalogue, the French art historian Christine Peltre contrasts these works, depending for their effect on their size and their dramatic deployment of human figures, with works by the French artist Eugène Delacroix painted after a similar visit to Morocco 40 years earlier. Delacroix’s orientalist pictures, less marked by “theatrical gigantism,” show characters “in dialogue with each other,” she writes, whereas Constant’s focus is on the allegedly oriental violence, cruelty, and despotism that was the other side of the “civilising mission” used at the time to justify French colonialism.

The Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, for example, shown entering Constantinople after the fall of the city in 1453, is presented as leading a procession across a mass of dead or dying bodies, his magnificence contrasting with the suffering around him. Constant seems to have been attracted to such ceremonial scenes, using them to signal the oriental despotism or political feudalism they could be thought to imply. Les derniers rebelles, scène d’histoire marocaine, for example, painted four years later, shows the Moroccan sultan arriving in procession to view the bodies of dead Moroccan rebels. Le lendemain d’une victoire à l’Alhambra, described as “lacking historical precision” in the exhibition catalogue, shows the arrival of a gorgeously dressed victor to take possession of the palace after a military victory.

Le roi du Maroc allant recevoir officiellement un ambassadeur européen, showing Moroccans prostrating themselves in advance of the arrival of the sultan, also focuses on the spectacle of feudal power. The European ambassador is nowhere to be seen. Another picture, Le cortège du Pacha de Tanger près de la grande mosquée, shows off Constant’s penchant for grand entrances, as the pasha’s cortege, flags held aloft and gorgeously attired, advances towards the viewer. Prisonniers marocains, one of several prison scenes, seems to emphasise the cruelty and tyrannical character of the sultan’s rule, further evidence of oriental despotism, while La soif, a desert scene, underlines the harshness of the oriental climate, implying that this is somehow a correlative of the political regime.

Constant’s pictures of Tangiers are among his most famous orientalist works, and he returned to the city for a second visit after his first stay there in the early 1870s. According to art historian Jordi A. Carbonell writing in the exhibition catalogue, Constant became “one of the most important propagators of the orientalist image of Tangiers,” his pictures of the city’s famous terraces making up a significant sub-genre within the larger body of his work. However, Constant was not the only European painter to be attracted to the city in these years as swifter and more reliable forms of transport, along with the city’s unique political status, led to its becoming awash with orientalist painters. By the 1880s, Carbonell writes, Tangiers had become an easily accessible “little Orient” and a natural port of call for European artists.

Most of these “painted more or less the same things,” Carbonell says, listing “the most exotic and traditional activities, such as buying and selling in the bazaars, religious processions, celebrations, and characteristic human types.” Constant, too, promoted such images of the city, adding to his market and ceremonial scenes pictures showing prisoners, “human types” replete with ethnographic detail, and women. The latter pictures are unusual within the wider orientalist canon because they show Arab women outside, often on the Tangiers terraces, and not languidly reclining in harems. However, even though these women are shown outside and fully clothed, a departure from the harem pictures, their postures are still marked by what was believed to be an oriental listlessness and languor.

Discussing one of the best-known of these pictures, Le soir sur les terrasses (Maroc), the Canadian art historian Nathalie Bondil, co-curator of the exhibition with Alex Hémery, writes that it shows “mistresses, servants, and black slaves, sumptuously accoutered in jewels and rich fabrics, gathering fruit and stretching themselves out on carpets and animal skins. One fiery beauty wearing a gold mdama, a kind of traditional Moroccan belt, is shown in a posture as hieratic as that of the colossus of Memnon, emphasising the mystery of this inaccessible space… In her silence and her dignity, she is an icon of an oriental dream world.”

Other pictures display conventionally orientalist images of harems, their female residents shown listlessly eating, drinking, talking, anything other than engaging in sustained activity or eating a full meal, and all the time waiting for the arrival of their male masters. According to a stimulating essay in the exhibition catalogue, “Une féminité orientale, érotique et exotique, en suspension,” by the French art historian Christelle Taraud, the peculiar atmosphere of the orientalist harem, a mixture of perpetual boredom and physical fragility, is the other side of orientalist constructions of masculinity that emphasise domination, violence and aggression.

Works by Constant such as Intérieur de harem au Maroc, Les Chérifas, and Le flamant rose, among many others, capture this typically orientalist conception of femininity. An interesting note in the catalogue by Christine Peltre also draws attention to Constant’s treatment of animals, notably the “stuffed leopards” that figure in many of his pictures. These animals, Peltre notes, carefully posed in relation to their owners and as part of the oriental décor, are designed to add a further measure of exoticism to the compositions. In Les favorites de l’émir, the “favourites” in question are not oriental odalisques but a pair of domesticated leopards. According to Bondil, writing on Le Flamant rose, a picture of two women feeding fruit to a pet flamingo, for the orientalists women were often seen in similar terms, caged up but decorative like the pet leopards, gazelles or birds in their pictures. This was “an animal conception of femininity,” she remarks, “in which women were seen as being submissive to their instincts.”

A further essay in the lavishly produced and hugely informative exhibition catalogue, surely the most comprehensive work on Constant ever published and also an essential work on nineteenth-century orientalism, is entitled “How to Succeed as a Painter at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” taking Constant as a case study. Clues are scattered throughout the catalogue essays, with Constant not only having a keen eye for the commercial possibilities of orientalist picture-making but also knowing when to abandon the genre for the more lucrative possibilities offered by state commissions and, later in his career, private portraiture.

Like his fellow orientalist Jean-Léon Gȇrome, a major exhibition of whose work at the musée d’Orsay in Paris was reviewed in the Weekly some years ago (November 2010), Constant was very much aware of the commercial possibilities offered by the new technologies of his time. A note in the catalogue indicates how readily some of his orientalist pictures could be turned into engravings for wider circulation, and an essay by Constant from the New York Harper’s Magazine for April 1889, illustrated with engravings of Tangiers, indicates the artist’s readiness to find new audiences for his work outside the limited public attending the Paris Salons or private galleries.

Perhaps unlike Gȇrome, however, Constant always wanted to work on an altogether grander scale than simply providing staged images of the Orient. According to the Canadian art historian Samuel Montiége writing in the exhibition catalogue, in creating grand-scale pictures like Les derniers rebelles, scène d’histoire marocaine, an epic, almost Hollywood-style panorama, Constant wanted to “raise his harem scenes and scenes of desert environments to the rank of a ‘major genre’ like traditional history painting.” This ambition may explain the unusual scale of his pictures, the range of his work, from architectural decoration to portrait painting, and the wide geographical scope of his career.

Benjamin-Constant, merveilles et mirages de l’orientalisme, musée des Augustins, Toulouse, until 4 January 2015

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