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University of California Press
Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930 / Edition 1

Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930 / Edition 1

by Roger Benjamin
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Lavishly illustrated with exotic images ranging from Renoir's forgotten Algerian oeuvre to the abstract vision of Matisse's Morocco and beyond, this book is the first history of Orientalist art during the period of high modernism. Roger Benjamin, drawing on a decade of research in untapped archives, introduces many unfamiliar paintings, posters, miniatures, and panoramas and discovers an art movement closely bound to French colonial expansion. Orientalist Aesthetics approaches the visual culture of exoticism by ranging across the decorative arts, colonial museums, traveling scholarships, and art criticism in the Salons of Paris and Algiers. Benjamin's rediscovery of the important Society of French Orientalist Painters provides a critical context for understanding a lush body of work, including that of indigenous Algerian artists never before discussed in English.

The painter-critic Eugène Fromentin tackled the unfamiliar atmospheric conditions of the desert, Etienne Dinet sought a more truthful mode of ethnographic painting by converting to Islam, and Mohammed Racim melded the Persian miniature with Western perspective. Benjamin considers armchair Orientalists concocting dreams from studio bric-à-brac, naturalists who spent years living in the oases of the Sahara, and Fauve and Cubist travelers who transposed the discoveries of the Parisian Salons to create decors of indigenous figures and tropical plants. The network that linked these artists with writers and museum curators was influenced by a complex web of tourism, rapid travel across the Mediterranean, and the march of modernity into a colonized culture. Orientalist Aesthetics shows how colonial policy affected aesthetics, how Europeans visualized cultural difference, and how indigenous artists in turn manipulated Western visual languages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520222175
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/03/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 373
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 1.13(d)
Lexile: 1590L (what's this?)

About the Author

Roger Benjamin has been appointed Power Professor of Art History and Visual Culture and Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney. He is author of Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee (1997), Matisse's "Notes of a Painter": Criticism, Theory, and Context (1987), the forthcoming title, Renoir and Algeria, and winner of the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize of the CAA for his article "The Decorative Landscape, Fauvism, and the Arabesque of Observation" (1993).

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Orientalist Aesthetics

Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880â"1930

By Roger Benjamin


Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92440-6


Orient or France? Nineteenth-Century Debates

Romantic Critics before a Desert Street

I myself am suffering to some extent from a nostalgia which drags me towards the sun; for I find an intoxicating mist arising from these luminous canvases, which soon condenses into desires and regrets. I catch myself envying the lot of those men who are lying outstretched amid their azure shades, and whose eyes, neither waking nor sleeping, express, if anything at all, only love of repose and a feeling of blissful happiness inspired by an immensity of light. – CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, "The Salon of 1859" (translated by Jonathan Mayne)

Few writers did more to suggest a psychology for European exoticism than Charles Baudelaire. The desire for expatriation is strong in his contemplation of an oil painting, nostalgia for a sun so absent in a wet Paris spring, envy for the lot of men understood as creatures entirely given over to their senses. Baudelaire looks to the East as a place to repair the deficiencies of life in modern France, a mentality continued in his poems of longing for distant climes. In his "Parfum exotique," "La chevelure," and the celebrated "Invitation au voyage" from his book Les fleurs du mal of 1857, imaginative escape is conjured by meditations on the poet's Creole lover, Jeanne Duval. Images of ports and ships, of half-glimpsed tropical foliage, abundant fruit, and warm seas arose as he contemplated the body of his sleeping mistress and her origins elsewhere. They entered the French imaginary in a powerful way, suggesting subjects for many a painter, sculptor, and later writer on Orientalist art.

The picture that inspired Baudelaire's reverie in the epigraph to this chapter was Eugène Fromentin's Bab-el-Gharbi Street in Laghouat (La rue bab-el-Gharbi à Laghouat) (1859; see Plate 1). Fromentin had a way of presenting the physical intensity of color, the direct fall of African light on sun-warmed buildings so that viewers of the painting, in the filtered light of the Paris Salon, were momentarily transported down there, to a land of altered existence. Théophile Gautier also stopped in front of this painting. A leading romantic novelist, travel writer, and poet whom Baudelaire admired, Gautier was probably the most influential art critic of the Second Empire (Fig. 1). In a characteristic witticism he confronts regimented European modernity with haphazard African life: "The Street at Laghouat will never please lovers of progress, who demand for each town in the world the same footpaths, tarmac, street alignment, gas lamps, and enamel house numbers." The street itself is "as jumbled as the bed of a dry watercourse," while in the deep shadow cast by the wall of crumbling mud brick, the critic discerns a row of "practical philosophers," lying as inert as "cadavers enveloped in their shrouds." These words resound today, first, for predicting French colonial urbanism and, second, for alluding to the sack of Laghouat by the French army some years before the painting was made. Not that Gautier, though a seasoned traveler, necessarily knew of the oasis town's tragic history. Early in a series of journeys to Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and Russia, he spent three months in Algeria in 1845, fifteen years after the French capture of Algiers, the corsair capital, and just two after the first long war of colonial pacification, which crushed the Emir Abd-el-Kader's jihad, or holy war. The siege and sack of Laghouat did not take place until 1852, as a response to one of the sporadic rebellions in the region.

Gautier's early visit to Algiers had alerted him to an aspect of French colonization that he was one of the earliest writers to regret: the modernization of the ancient corsair city (captured in elegiac mode by Emile Lessore and William Wyld, Fig. 2). Although echoing his friend Gérard de Nerval, perpetually disappointed as he traveled through the Near East encountering peoples and visiting sites that failed to live up to his expectations, Gautier varies the theme. His disenchantments resulted from the depredations of Europeans. Orientalist paintings — like those of William Wyld, who had painted View of Bab-Azoun Street (Vue de la rue Bab-Azoun) in 1833 — were the visual documents that allowed Gautier to judge the depressing march of civilization: "Having seen [Bab-Azoun Street] recently, I can say that it has not gained from our civilizing presence.... So varied, so picturesque, so interesting in former times, [it] will soon be nothing more than a prolongation of the Rue de Rivoli.... That abominably fine road, which cannot stretch past the Louvre, has jumped the Mediterranean and toppled the elegant Moorish buildings so as to continue its frightful arcades." As if in a prelude to the arguments over Baron Haussmann's demolition of old quarters of Paris to make way for the great boulevards in the 1860s, Gautier in 1849 regretted the passing of old Algiers. The most glaring act of destruction there was the razing of the Turkish Palace of the Deys to open up the vast Place du Gouvernement (soon ringed with Haussmannesque buildings).

Adrien Dauzats was one of the early artists to depict this much-painted center of public life in Algiers (Fig. 3). The recently erected statue of the duc d'Orléans (a leader in the war against Abd-el-Kader) and the masts of ships beyond contrast the French presence with the Mosquée de la Pêcherie, with its stately domes and soaring minaret. The motley crowd — French soldiers, civilian men and women, Turks, biskris (members of the guild of porters, originally from the town of Biskra), Bedouin (nomadic Arabs), and Berbers in full costume — gives a sense of the polyglot city ignored by most artists. In 1846 in his account of the city, Alger extra-muros, Gautier lamented the incongruity of the new French buildings (encroaching at far left in Dauzat's painting) and the loss of historic buildings like the forbidding fortress Bab-Azoun.

Thus in viewing the Street at Laghouat Gautier rejoices in what offends those "lovers of progress" the French colonists, who were settling the temperate hinterlands of Algeria. Gautier did not oppose modernization as such: he lauded the new steam technologies that powered the passenger boats, enabling rapid scheduled crossings of the Mediterranean. "Steam-power, so often belittled as bourgeois and prosaic, has carried off [artists] with the spin of a propeller or a wheel, with more speed than the legendary hippogriff. Today the Sahara is dotted with as many landscapists' parasols as the Forest of Fontainebleau in days gone by." European modernity, preceded (as Gautier conceded) by military conquest, had done much to enlarge the horizons of art by giving artists new subjects. But the march of modernity itself in the Algerian colony was generally not a valid subject for serious art (Fig. 4). The romantic critic expected paintings to image otherness — architectural, ethnographic, or climatic. Insofar as Gautier and the traveling Salon artists he applauded were tourists, that requirement of the cultural tour has changed little in a century and a half.

In the Fromentin painting, the shadow where the sleeping Arabs lie is, metaphorically, the shadow of a violent past of which the artist was well aware. Fromentin was the first major artist to sojourn in Algeria for extended periods after the war with Abd-el-Kader. Most of Dauzats's or Horace Vernet's paintings in the earlier 1840s had been commissioned to celebrate the campaigns of the duc d'Orléans, the duc d'Aumale, and Field Marshal Bugeaud — Vernet produced huge military canvases of a kind execrated by Baudelaire. Fromentin, traveling as a private individual, instead imaged a more peaceable Algeria, its landscapes and above all its Bedouin people of the plains. But France's pacification was provisional: there was intermittent military action in the Saharan zone and, later in the century, in the populous mountains of Kabylia and the Aurès, in particular the great Kabyle Insurrection of 1871 and its aftershocks.

The Siege of Laghouat of 1852 was such an action, with bloody repression following the taking of the town. Like most of the French campaigns it was depicted in now largely forgotten military paintings. In his travel book Un été dans le Sahara Fromentin noted the devastation of the desert town, put to the sword by the French just months before his arrival there in 1853. Fromentin gave no sense that he thought the French were wrong in their massacre of inhabitants, carried out with the collusion of tribes "friendly" to the French. To do so would have been impolitic, given his own reliance on the French military presence for his security. Traveling with a small armed entourage, he could have journeyed to the Sahara only with the permission of the military officers of the Bureaux arabes who administered the Algerian territories. In his apparently timeless image of Laghouat peace is restored, and the age-old afternoon siesta resumes, allowing a concentration on such aesthetic issues as the opposition between the intensely blue sky and the parched mud-coated desert buildings. Fromentin's material vision made the romanticized Moroccan landscapes of Delacroix (Fig. 5) seem dated and presaged the early impressionists' experiments with light in the next decade.

Fromentin and the Aesthetics of Travel

Between his debut in 1847 and his painting Bab-el-Gharbi Street at Laghouat of 1859 Fromentin became the figure around whom debates on the merits of the Orientalist genre crystallized. While his paintings gave rise to passionate discussions, his writings on Algeria essayed an aesthetic of Orientalist practice. By the time his novel Dominique was published in 1862, Fromentin had established a unique reputation, being recognized equally as a writer and a painter. He is best remembered by art historians for Les maîtres d'autrefois (1876), a work on the seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish schools that Meyer Schapiro called "a masterpiece of criticism which may be read beside Baudelaire's." Of his two travel books, Un été dans le Sahara (1857; Sahara hereafter) and Une année dans le Sahel (1859; Sahel hereafter), the first received eloquent reviews from George Sand and from Gautier, who quipped that Fromentin as a writer "has become a master without ever being a student."

Fromentin's role as a theorist of Orientalism has yet to be given its due. If the studies of Léonce Bénédite at the turn of the twentieth century are any guide, Fromentin was the most influential voice on this issue in the nineteenth century. Delacroix, who preceded him as a painter and writer who traveled to North Africa, offered no systematic discussion of the problems of painting in the East. Whereas Fromentin published two travel narratives that are as complete as novels, Delacroix attempted nothing more than private letters home, fascinating though they are, and artist's notes published posthumously as part of his Journal.

In his pages on what he calls "la peinture orientale" Fromentin systematically explores the parameters of the category. He had journeyed to Algiers and Blida in the spring of 1846 with Armand du Mesnil, returning to make his Salon debut with two Algerian landscapes. He went back to Algeria for the 1847–48 winter, traveling farther south with the painter and early photographer Auguste Salzmann to the near Saharan oasis of Biskra (about which see Chapter 7). His last and longest stay, of 1852–53 — in the company of his wife, Marie Cavallet de Beaumont, who remained in the temperate Sahel while Fromentin ventured south to Laghouat — became the basis for his Sahara.

He wrote Sahel, however, five years after leaving Algeria, in the form of letters backdated to the time of his travels to give immediacy to his text. Elisabeth Cardonne emphasizes Sahel as "the fruit of a profound work of memory, which draws the data of experience into mental compositions of exceptional acuity" — a mnemonic feat much admired by the Goncourts and others. Although Fromentin traveled to Algeria primarily to paint, he recounts very little of that activity in his books, moving about the country, once he has left Algiers, less as a purposeful traveler than a flâneur of the open spaces whose aims are not revealed. Key passages, however, address the problems of painting the Orient. The most important of them, in Sahel, begins: "The Orient ... has the fault of being unknown and new, and of evoking at first a feeling foreign to art — dangerous to it — that I would like to forbid: a feeling of curiosity." Curiosity in this now dated sense is the attraction of the new and peculiar and involves a quickening aroused by novelty that might seem trivial in the grand scheme of art. For the Orient, Fromentin continues, "is exceptional, and history shows us that nothing beautiful or durable has been made with exceptions. It escapes general laws, the only ones worth following. ... Even when it is very beautiful, it retains a certain modicum ... of exaggeration, of violence that renders it excessive. This is an order of beauty that, having no precedents in either ancient literature or art, strikes us initially as bizarre."

Fromentin's skepticism about the project of painting the East is surprising. He gains his conviction from measuring the task against a familiar system: the academic tradition he had imbibed in the painting studio of Louis Cabat. He responds to scenes that "escape general laws" and "have no precedent in either ancient literature or art" with an alarm similar to that of classicist and neoclassicist critics confronting an excess of brute, vulgar detail (whether in the paintings of Caravaggio in the seventeenth century or in the realism of Fromentin's contemporary Courbet). The task of painting, in this academic tradition, was not merely to copy nature in all its unselected, chaotic form, but to assimilate the visible to ideas of the beautiful, le beau idéal, by selectively adjusting natural elements. Classicist criticism rates academic precedent and the active forming of material above any truth inassimilable to the tradition it represented.

Fromentin nevertheless had the resources to go beyond academic tradition, and in treating the new class of subject, he generated a critique of "documentary" painting of the exotic. In the 1850s Fromentin had argued forcefully against an ethnographic approach to painting. He thought it dangerous to present to the European viewer aspects of life in the Orient so bizarre as to be inassimilable to the art of painting. Displaying something without precedent in the history of European representation would risk revealing "de périlleuses nouveautés" — dangerous novelties (a phrase later taken up by Léonce Bénédite). As Fromentin argued, the public might come to expect of painters information proper to travel diaries, "pictures composed like an inventory, [so that] the taste for ethnography will end up being confused with the feeling for beauty."

Fromentin called the manifestations of the taste for ethnography documents, meaning "the visual signal for a country ... the exact type of its inhabitants ... their foreign and strange costumes, their attitudes, their postures, their customs, their duties, which are not ours." Clearly, Fromentin had little tolerance for the scientific image making that for well over a century had been part of the task of exploration in the Pacific and elsewhere. In that attitude he differed from Gautier, who proclaimed that the old national schools of Europe must be succeeded by a universal school, in which all types of humanity will be represented, the "monotony of the European type" being varied by "the exotic charms of Hindu beauty, Arab beauty, Turkish beauty, Chinese beauty."


Excerpted from Orientalist Aesthetics by Roger Benjamin. Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
List of Illustrations, xiii,
Introduction, 1,
1. Orient or France? Nineteenth-Century Debates, 11,
2. Renoir and Impressionist Orientalism, 33,
3. A Society for Orientalists, 57,
4. Orientalists in the Public Eye, 79,
5. Colonial Panoramania, 105,
6. Traveling Scholarships and the Academic Exotic, 129,
7. Matisse and Modernist Orientalism, 159,
8. Advancing the Indigenous Decorative Arts, 191,
9. Mammeri and Racim, Painters of the Maghreb, 221,
10. Colonial Museology in Algiers, 249,
Conclusion, 275,
Notes, 283,
Selected Bibliography, 325,
Index, 337,

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