Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A century of wonders

David Tresilian reviews two recent 19th-century exhibitions held in Paris: of the work of Eugène Delacroix and on Qajar Iran

A century of wonders

Everyone knows the early 19th-century French painter Eugène Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People”, first shown at the 1832 Salon in Paris, an official exhibition of that year’s paintings, and picturing a scene from the 1830 Revolution that had put paid to attempts to restore the ancien régime in France. 

The regime ushered in by the revolution, presided over by the unheroic figure of new king Louis-Philippe, was just as queasy about liberty as the regime it replaced, however, perhaps explaining why Delacroix’s painting was swiftly packed away into storage. It was brought out again with the return of revolutionary energies in the 1848 Revolution, and today it is perhaps the best-known painting from this period in France.

It greets visitors to the major retrospective of Delacroix’s career, the first on such a scale since 1963, currently at the Louvre in Paris. Other paintings could not be moved, among them the 1827 picture “The Death of Sardanapalus” that established Delacroix’s reputation as the enfant terrible of French painting and a leading exponent of the Romantic school. This painting is still hanging on the walls upstairs. 

Having fought their way through the crowds to see the Delacroix exhibition in the Louvre’s main temporary exhibition spaces, visitors will still have to make the additional journey to the 19th-century painting galleries above to see this picture in the flesh. However, other pictures for which Delacroix is best known are shown off to good effect, among them “Liberty Leading the People”, “The Massacre at Chios”, commemorating an episode in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, and “Women of Algiers in their Apartment”, his famous 1834 picture of Algerian women in a house in Algiers.

There are 180 pictures in the exhibition, covering all periods of Delacroix’s career. According to the catalogue, the idea is to present a panorama of the artist’s achievement, “identifying the painter’s intentions and the strategies he used, whether simultaneously or successively, to realise them”. There is certainly a lot to understand, including Delacroix’s abandonment of major political or contemporary subjects, among them revolutions, after 1832, and his subsequent apparent indifference to political or artistic developments in France.

He produced elaborate paintings of flowers in response to the 1848 Revolution — despite this providing what might have been thought of as obvious opportunities for the painter of “Liberty Leading the People” — and then spent the remaining years of his life (he died in 1863) working on state commissions or religious paintings. All this is a source of puzzlement for art historians, and curators Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre comment that “there is still a lot that remains misunderstood about the way Delacroix carried out, evaluated, and redirected his career.” Bringing together so many pictures by Delacroix in one place might help to solve such puzzles. 

In the meantime, many visitors may be most intrigued by the new outing the exhibition provides for Delacroix’s “oriental” pictures and particularly for the later burgeoning field, becoming a kind of sub-genre of 19th-century European art, of pictorial orientalism. Later French painters, perhaps most famously Jean-Léon Gérôme (whose work was reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in October 2010), turned this into a kind of industry, producing colourful pictures of oriental harems, slave markets, picturesque buildings and street scenes in response to the European taste for exotic imports from the rest of the world.

As is well known, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said saw a sinister side in this, feeling that the European collectors who hung pictures of oriental scenes on their walls were at the same time indulging in fantasies of Western domination. 

The Western European taste for oriental materials, and its constitution of a whole set of oriental motifs that may have had little or no relationship to reality, was the reverse side of European political domination, Said wrote in his book Orientalism, expressed through 19th-century European imperialism in the Arab world and the brute realities of colonial control.


VISITING ALGIERS: Delacroix was not an orientalist painter in the mould later made famous by Gérôme, but in the uncertain decade of the 1820s when he was struggling to establish his career oriental subjects certainly offered one way forward.

Great things were expected of Delacroix, as the exhibition catalogue explains, his father having been a senior administrator under the French Empire established by Napoleon and his elder brother a general and “baron of the empire”. When such dreams collapsed with the French defeat in 1815 and the subsequent restoration of the ancien régime, Delacroix, perhaps like Julien Sorel, the protagonist of Stendhal’s restoration novel Le Rouge et le Noir, had to look elsewhere to realise his ambitions.

Painting was one possibility, the catalogue says, particularly after the exile of previous stars such as Jacques-Louis David in 1816 and the early death of Théodore Géricault, the then great hope of French painting, in 1824. However, Delacroix, a young man in a hurry with a considerable though rather shabby-genteel pedigree, was too impatient to take the established route of state commissions and academic prizes. The yearly Salons seemed to offer a better way, especially if the aim was to make an early splash in the hierarchical world of 19th-century French painting. 

A series of scandalous paintings established Delacroix’s reputation, including “The Massacre at Chios”, a “confused and multi-coloured mass” of figures, the catalogue says, identifying the painter as ready to break accepted academic norms, “The Death of Sardanapalus”, establishing “a new grammar for painting based on colour”, ”Liberty Leading the People”, in which an allegorical figure of Liberty, breasts bared, “leads the people across a barricade scattered with corpses”, and “Women of Algiers in their Apartment”, according to the catalogue bringing together the separate genres of “paintings of modern life and paintings of ancient history” and achieving an “abundance of decoration” and a “monumentality of figures”.

Unlike the later orientalist painters, but surely with images that had been coming out of Egypt in the wake of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of the country in mind, when Delacroix accepted a commission to accompany a mission to Morocco from January to July 1832, he did not have a particular artistic agenda to hand. He visited the country towards the beginning of the tradition of European orientalist painting, and not, like when the later French painter Henri Matisse visited Morocco in 1906, towards its end. He was also a young man who had proved his skill, but who was still perhaps looking for a direction at the beginning of his career.

Morocco made a huge impression on Delacroix, as is evident in the mass of sketchbooks he produced during his visit to the country and his subsequent full-scale pictures. “Scenes of everyday life in Morocco possessed something of the nobility that was proper to painting,” the catalogue says, with Delacroix finding in them “living resurgences of the Mediterranean civilisations of antiquity”. Even the neo-classical heroes of David’s paintings, in which figures from the revolutionary generation of 1789 took on antique airs, faded in the company of people found walking in the streets of the cities of Tangiers and Meknes, Delacroix says, some of them looking like the ancient Roman politicians Cato and Brutus.

There does not seem to be much here of the condescension detectable in later orientalist painters, though Delacroix perhaps loses sight of the brute realities underlying what the catalogue calls his “spatio-temporal experiences” in North Africa. Algiers had been invaded and then occupied by French forces in 1830, and so it was a city already under European colonial control when Delacroix visited on his way back to Europe.

It was in Algiers, however, that he produced probably his greatest orientalist painting, the ever-fascinating “Women of Algiers in their Apartment”. This has been the object of ample, perhaps too ample, commentary, and it has also been reinterpreted by many subsequent artists, perhaps most famously by the Spanish painter Picasso in his 1955 series “Women of Algiers”. 

Brought down almost to ground level, with the frame just inches above the floor, this painting occupies one wall of a smallish room. According to the critic of the French newspaper Le Monde, the new experience of this picture (among others) that the exhibition offers — normally it is hung much higher up in a much larger room — in itself justifies the Louvre’s decision to stage a special exhibition of such already very well-known works.

The catalogue comments on the picture’s mysterious force, which seems to rely “neither on drama nor on the emotions”. Three Algerian women, seated in the women’s quarters of what seems to be a traditionally furnished house (though there is a large European-style mirror on the wall behind them), face the viewer, as a fourth woman, her back three-quarters turned, pulls back a curtain to reveal the scene to the painter’s eyes. 

“Forbidden gaze, severed sound”, wrote the late Algerian novelist Assia Djebar in her well-known description of this painting in 1980. “The distant and familiar dream in the faraway eyes of the three Algerian women, if we make an attempt to grasp its nature, makes us in turn dream… as if behind these bodies, and before the servant lets the curtain fall, a universe is displayed in which they might still live before they take up their pose in front of us, we who are looking on.”

A century of wonders

Delacroix (1798-1863), Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 23 July.

Visitors to France this spring may be surprised to learn that the most rewarding exhibition in the country at present may not be in Paris. Instead, the satellite branch of the Louvre Museum in the northern French town of Lens, which has already established itself as a necessary port of call for visitors to this part of the country, may be hosting an event that better deserves that accolade.

The Empire of Roses, an exhibition on the art and culture of 19th-century Iran, has been drawing enthusiastic visitors to the Lens Museum, still just five years old, since it opened at the end of March. Designed to showcase the art and culture of the Qajar Dynasty that ruled Iran from the late 18th century until its overthrow in 1925, the exhibition raises intriguing questions about the political, social and economic experiences of 19th-century Iran, inviting comparisons with other Middle Eastern societies.

Historically fragmented and vulnerable to pressure from powerful neighbours such as British India and the Russian Empire, Iran under the Qajars succeeded in creating many of the institutions of a modern state, including a centralised administration, modern armed forces, and educational institutions that at least stood some chance of providing trained personnel for economic and industrial development. However, when compared to the modernisation efforts being made at the same time in comparable societies, for example the Ottoman Empire and Mohamed Ali’s Egypt, the Qajars broadly failed in their efforts to develop Iran.  

According to US historian Nikkie Keddie, a specialist in the history of modern Iran, the reasons may have included greater western interference and political, economic and geographical fragmentation, as well as a lack of human and other resources. However, she also gives the impression in her book Modern Iran that the country’s Qajar rulers may have been at least in part personally to blame, commenting that they made few real efforts at modernisation or centralisation, failed to support the development of modern educational institutions and industrialisation, and did little to build a modern military establishment, unlike, for example, Mohamed Ali in Egypt.

While Iran’s weakness and vulnerability to British and Russian interference did not deal them a strong hand, the Qajars may have failed to capitalise on the country’s strengths. There were “far fewer self-strengthening measures or steps to promote economic and social development than were to be found in 19th-century Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, or Tunisia”, Keddie writes. “While this was partly due to the strength of decentralising traditional forces in Iran, it was also due to the character of the Qajar rulers.”

It may be that some visitors at least to the Lens exhibition will approach it with such judgements in mind. However, while it seems possible even from the evidence provided in the exhibition, much of it having to do with the art and culture of the Qajar court, that the later 19th-century Qajars were as mediocre or indolent as Keddie suggests, this does not seem to have been true of the founders of the Dynasty. Here the early Qajars may even have excelled, and the early rooms of the exhibition recount an impressive tale of the reunification of Iran by members of this originally Turkic Dynasty and their efforts to carve out at least some degree of self-determination in a region dominated by avaricious and unscrupulous neighbours.

The exhibition opens with Western, mostly French, views of 19th-century Iran, describing it as being in many respects more closed to outside influences than the Ottoman Empire or Egypt, largely for geographical reasons. Strangely enough the exhibition has been designed by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, and presumably it was his idea to open the show with costumes from a recent production of the Russian composer Rimski-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, as choreographed by Michel Fokine in the last century for Les Ballets Russes. 

However, this part of the exhibition also includes valuable early images of Iran by 19th-century French visitors Eugène Flandin, Jules Laurens, and especially Pascal Coste. These make for an atmospheric opening to the show and draw attention to some of the challenges facing the early Qajar rulers.


MODERNISING IRAN: It was the second Qajar ruler, Fath-Ali Shah, who laid the real foundations for Qajar rule, leading both the establishment of central rule from the new capital Tehran and early attempts at national reunification.

Fath-Ali Shah dominates the exhibition’s first section, entitled “Building an Empire”, which focuses on attempts to secure Iran’s political and economic self-determination. Convinced that it was only by playing Russia and Britain off against each other and securing the support of a powerful third party that Iran could achieve political independence, Fath-Ali Shah attempted to woo Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire, which at the time was looking for ways to stymie British rule in India, including, of course, by invading Egypt.

As it turned out, Fath-Ali Shah backed the wrong player in this 19th-century “great game”, though not before a flurry of diplomatic activity had taken place that included Iranian ambassadorial missions to Paris. This part of the exhibition includes a selection of diplomatic letters sent between Tehran and Paris between 1806 and 1815 looking for French support against Britain and Russia. It also includes pictorial evidence from the Qajar court, showing how the Qajars used images of themselves to create an iconography of dynastic power while at the same time suggesting continuities between Qajar rule, only dating from the end of the 18th century with the coronation of the first Qajar ruler Mohamed Khan, and the glories of Safavid Dynasty rule centuries earlier.

It is the third section of the show, “the Shah, the Court, and the Image”, the exhibition’s largest, that is the most visually stunning. The creation and circulation of an appropriate image of the ruler has always been important in Iran, the exhibition suggests, possibly going back to the country’s ancient kings as recorded in the national epic the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The Qajars continued this tradition, producing huge and fascinating images of themselves that are unlike those of other Middle Eastern dynasties. 

Most of these images show the Qajar rulers with resplendent beards, often seated and gorgeously dressed, and often also surrounded by groups, sometimes dozens, of sons. A magnificent image of Fath-Ali Shah by artist Mihr Ali (1800-1806), now kept in the French national collection at Versailles, is a good example. The dynasty’s device of a superimposed lion and sun, adopted from older Iranian traditions, appears throughout.

Elsewhere in the exhibition are copies of the enormous frescoes of the Qajar ruler and court officials from the Negerestan Palace in Tehran, associated with the magnificent Golestan Palace Complex in the Iranian capital that was once the Qajars’ main residence. This, the exhibition says, was designed as a “theatre of power”, a place where the magnificence of the Qajar court could be put on show as well as one containing private quarters and extensive gardens.

The Louvre Lens show emphasises the culture of the Qajar court together with the development of what it calls “Qajar art”, a category thought to show a kind of hybridisation of traditional Iranian motifs, notably flowers and birds (the rose, gul or gol in Persian, and the nightingale), and manufacturing techniques introduced from Europe. Perhaps there was a style of this sort, and perhaps it is exemplified in some of the artefacts in the exhibition, these including lacquer work, jewellery, textiles and dress design, carpets, ceramics and so on. According to Gwenaelle Fellinger, the curator of the show, much of this material is little known in Europe, and some of it at least has in the past been dismissed as kitsch.

However, for some visitors at least the real interest of this exhibition may not lie in the development of Qajar art, extraordinary though some of this no doubt is. Instead, and perhaps particularly for visitors interested in the wider Middle East, the exhibition may be of interest most for the sometimes melancholy questions it raises about 19th-century Iran.

There is so much here that is broadly familiar, including efforts at top-down modernisation, for example in the foundation of the Dar Al-Fonoun college in Tehran in the 1850s that was supposed to kick-start efforts to modernise education and the Majma Al-Sanayi that was supposed to provide an incubator for industry. There were also many efforts at bottom-up political and institutional reform, for example in the 1905 Constitutional Revolution that aimed to establish a parliamentary system in Iran and end the absolutist character of Qajar rule.

However, it seems that most of these efforts at reform ran into the sand, with the exhibition suggesting that “the history of the Qajars can be summed up as a series of missed opportunities for reform, whether in the military, the economic, the financial, or the social spheres.” Keddie says in her book that more research is needed on 19th-century Iran. Perhaps this exhibition will help to stimulate the necessary interest.  

L’Empire des Roses, chefs-d’oeuvre de l’art persan du 19eme siècle, Louvre Lens, until 23 July.

add comment

  • follow us on