Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1438, (11 - 17 April 2019)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1438, (11 - 17 April 2019)

Ahram Weekly

New outing for orientalism

The Musée Marmottan in Paris is the venue for a welcome new outing of 19th-century orientalist painting, writes David Tresilian


The 19th-century orientalist painting
The 19th-century orientalist painting

Best known for its outstanding collection of 19th-century French painting that includes the world’s largest collection of work by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, the Musée Marmottan in the French capital’s 16th arrondissement is a familiar destination for art lovers worldwide.

It is also home to the painting that was responsible for the naming of one of modern European art’s best-loved movements, since hidden away in the Museum’s basement galleries is Monet’s 1874 painting Impression, soleil levant, a work that perhaps more than any other set out a manifesto for the painting of modern life.

Capturing the effects of light in paint on canvas and suggesting the industrial port of Le Havre in northern France as a suitable subject matter for painting, this was a picture felt to be quite at odds with the traditional repertoire, and it eventually gave its name to the Impressionist movement.

For the next few months (until 21 July), visitors to the Museum have an opportunity to immerse themselves in a rather different style of painting, however. Set out in its temporary exhibition spaces on the ground floor is a manageably proportioned exhibition of mostly 19th-century orientalist paintings by largely French artists that follows the development of the genre from its foundations in the early 19th century to its final iterations in the early 20th.

On the way, it takes in works by the founders of the genre, the French painters Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix, as well as by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a French mid-19th-century painter who perhaps more than any other made the east into a career and whose works epitomise the heyday of European orientalist painting.

Broadly speaking, the argument is that European, particularly French, orientalist painting needs to be seen in formal terms as well as in terms of subject matter. Far from being a lucrative sideline, as it surely was for Gérôme, or at best a tributary only tenuously attached to the main lines of 19th-century painting, the paintings of the orientalists contributed to and paralleled the mainstream tradition through their interest in formal experiment, their study of light and colour, and their eventual movement away from realism and towards geometrical abstraction.

The exhibition opens with two works, one from the early 19th century and one from the early 20th, designed to serve as reference points for the wider argument. The first of these, Ingres’s La petite baigneuse (1828), one of his many harem scenes and lent to the exhibition by the Louvre, is a “prototype of orientalist beauty” curator Emmanuelle Amiot-Saulnier says, establishing not only a motif that was to have a long and productive afterlife, not least in the works of Ingres himself, but also one that served as a manifesto for the attentive study of the effects of light on the human figure and its reduction to geometrical forms.

Ingres later produced variations of the motif in his famous work Le Bain turc (1859), now in the Louvre, and it is referenced in the paintings of many others, not least in Félix Vallotton’s 1907 work Le Bain turc, lent by the Geneva Musée d’art, which ends the show. Described as a tribute to Ingres, this is said to show a “certain extravagance in the accumulation of bodies within an exiguous space,” perhaps something that is also true of other treatments of human figures by the orientalist painters.

Though it is not in the exhibition, being too large and too precious to be moved from its moorings in the Louvre, Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), an endlessly fascinating work, also crams human figures, this time fully clothed, into a confined interior space. There are also the semi-pornographic works by Gérôme, such as his Le Marché aux esclaves (1866), lent to the exhibition by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in the United States, which surrounds a naked human figure with groups of others who are fully clothed. This painting seems at least as interested in the painting of textiles as it is in the painting of the human form, however, and Gérôme apparently spent long periods posing human models in oriental dress in his Paris studio to achieve the effects he wanted.

Something similar might be said of Gérôme’s ambiguous painting Le Charmeur de serpent (1879), also lent to the exhibition by the Clark Art Institute in the US, which as Amiot-Saulnier notes was selected by the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said for the cover of his book Orientalism (1978), a famous study of historical European attitudes towards particularly the Arab world.

In this painting it is hard to say whether Gérôme’s main focus is the central figure of the snake-charmer, the group of elaborately attired figures watching him, or the gorgeous expanse of decorated tiles behind them, according to Amiot-Saulnier inspired by decoration in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.


ABSTRACTION: The second painting opening the exhibition, Innenarchitektur (1914) by the early 20th-century Swiss painter Paul Klee, emphasises a different aspect of the orientalist tradition of painting, which is its movement away from realism towards formal study and eventually abstraction.

As is well-known, Klee was encouraged, even made, to be a painter by a visit to Tunisia before the First World War, when he became fascinated by the potential for geometrical reduction of the country’s land and cityscapes and the effects of its strong Mediterranean light.

The European “dream of the Orient,” evident in all the paintings in the show, was not just a dream of exotic landscapes of palms and camels, of richly attired or naked human figures crammed into tiny interior spaces or los

in vast desert environments, or of picturesque, if fading, architecture and elaborate decorative schemes. There was also a “desire for the new, for the unknown,” Amiot-Saulnier suggests, and for a “stripping back of motifs and colours” to their most essential forms.

Writing of a visit to Algeria by the French painter Auguste Renoir in 1881, for example, she notes that Renoir, associated with the Impressionist movement but never really of it, was never attracted by the camels and palms, the decaying architecture, the odalisques and harems, of his orientalist peers. For him, the true revelation of Algeria had to do with colour and light, even if the main work by this artist in the present show is something of a cliché in subject-matter terms (Champ de bananiers, “banana plantation,” 1881).

For such artists, the exhibition notes say, “the Orient was not so much a reservoir of picturesque motifs as an opportunity to think in terms of colour and composition.” Violence, however, was everywhere, and this may be apparent to visitors to the present exhibition, especially if they are attuned to it or have learned to read the images for what they may not say directly or only say in allusive terms.

Even the work of apparently hardwired orientalists such as the writer and painter Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876) reveal intriguingly different qualities when looked at in such terms. “When it was first exhibited at the 1859 Salon, [Fromentin’s] La Rue Bab al-Gharbi à Laghouat,” lent to the present show by the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai, “made a strong impression because it avoided the ‘commonplaces’ of the orientalism of the time,” Amiot-Saulnier writes.

She quotes the 19th-century critic Théophile Gautier on the painting’s unusual architecture and abrupt framing, showing “tiny black windows set into blank white walls, mysterious low doorways, and one side drenched in sunlight and the other in deep shadows.” She notes the work’s piles of heaped-up, apparently sleeping figures in the foreground, adding that “at the end of 1852, Laghouat, a centre of native resistance to the French conquest of Algeria, was taken by the French army and part of its population massacred.” Fromentin’s painting hovers somewhere “between a siesta and a massacre” as a result.

The exhibition ends more happily with the research into shape and colour conducted by the French painter Henri Matisse and inspired at least in part by visits to Algeria (1906) and Morocco (1912-13). Here the Orient becomes decorative and ornamental, a stage in Matisse’s long career and part of his life-long programme to make painting above all about painting.

Matisse, critic François Legrand says in the notes accompanying the exhibition, “rejected the facile and picturesque tradition of orientalist painting, but discovered the conditions for a renewal of his vision in a form of ‘orientality’.”

This “orientality,” a kind of abstract whiff of the Orient to replace the more full-blooded “orientalism” of earlier generations, thus became a default mode for the more cerebral and probably intellectually more ambitious early 20th-century European painters who looked to the Arab world for inspiration.

L’Orient des peintres, du rêve à la lumière, Musée Marmottan, Paris, until 21 July.

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