Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 352 pp.; 16 color ills., 123 b/w. $49.95
Scholars of Western imagery of lands and peoples beyond the conventional West occupy a position in the study of 19th- and 20th-century art both central and marginal, both straightforward and uneasy. Their focus is a class of art and visual culture that is by definition exceptional and different from the norms of a given home culture. Defining the nature and boundaries of such exceptionalism in its own time is a challenge in its own right. Such now familiar terms as Orientalism and primitivism, while they mark the beginning of a consensus, are by no means completely defined or delimited. In fact, as perhaps best demonstrated by a succession of major exhibitions, exoticism is an artistic phenomenon that can be found much more widely diffused throughout the art of Europe and North America during the period, broadly imbricated under many forms in a variety of contexts beyond those best known today. (1)
It is hardly surprising that the art of the period that began with European expansion and colonialism displays a considerable interest in the peoples and places then coming into view for the European public. But for just the same reason, considering it today becomes all the more complicated. For much exoticist imagery is replete with the tendency toward stereotyping, racism, and general assumptions of cultural inequality taken as given during the time. Exoticism, in its many varieties, is in this sense far more "loaded" than, say, Cubism, and thus a further challenge to the historian. The exotic, too, must be understood in its proper historical context, even if that may require a degree of suspension of more contemporary assumptions. At the same time, one could hardly wish to ignore how exoticist imagery still plays an often disquieting role in contemporary culture, in which entertainment, fashion, and cigarettes, as well as broader economic and even military actions are sold and partly justified via tropes and gambits much like those familiar to any student of modern exoticism. The study of Orientalism, then, confronts us with an aspect of the 19th century that is in many ways still present, indicating something of the stakes involved in writing today on the representation of places and peoples colonized by Western powers.
In art historical literature Orientalism has most often been conceived as a primarily 19th-century phenomenon (lingering, perhaps, into the early decades of the 20th century). This has many causes, among them the disciplinary and institutional distinction that has always kept art history a bit aloof from the art of the contemporary world. Not the least effect of this development has been to relegate Orientalism to history, distancing its concerns from those of contemporary representation and cultural life.
However, a countertendency is also at work: the effect of postcolonial studies. On the inspiration of works such as the last section of Edward Said's seminal Orientalism of 1978, provocatively entitled "Orientalism Now," we have a clear precedent for approaching the history of exoticist representation in present-centered terms, as a way of connecting with and making relevant the past to the present. This does not in any way obviate the writer's debt to the historical nature of her or his material but rather complicates and enlarges its relation to the contemporary reader. In a way that might seem out of place in other topics, much writing on the exotic today strives to make clear the writer's own stance to the material in question.
Roger Benjamin's work clearly encompasses such contemporary tendencies, and it is worth considering both in its own right and as a response to the quandaries posed in contemporary historiography of the exotic. As even its intriguing title suggests, Orientalist Aesthetics is conceived as a synthesis between the overtly political concerns signaled in its first word (which, after Said, tends to be taken not as merely descriptive but as a negative, judgmental term) and the more traditional concern with aesthetic valuation, which has long cast Orientalism as a paradigmatic art of the later-19th-century Salonniers. Just as it stands between past and present, Benjamin also roots his study between concerns of politics and aesthetics. Precisely how he positions himself within this framework is telling, as we shall see.
Orientalist Aesthetics, an account of a variety of representational projects staged in and on behalf of French North Africa, is in many ways an important contribution to the literature on Orientalism. Clearly the product of years of painstaking labor in museums, libraries, and archives, it is the first detailed study to offer anything like a full picture of the complexities of art and representation during half a century in French-colonized North Africa. The author follows many European artists, from Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse through Eugene Fromentin, Gustave Guillaumet, and other established Orientalist artists (notably, Etienne Dinet, much of whose life and work was focused on Algeria), to many others with shorter-lived interests in the area. Further, Benjamin allots an entire chapter to the work of two leading indigenous artists, Azouaou Mammeri and Mohammed Racim. who have long deserved more notice. Another equally innovative chapter treats the circulation and promotion of indigenous decorative arts, such as ceramics, metalwork, and weaving. This results in a fascinatingly heterogeneous array of objects and artists, which by itself does much to dispel stereotypes of a monolithic Orientalism. Moreover, the discussion of formative interactions between artists, particularly between Dinet and Racim (pp. 237-38), is key to seeing them as active agents in the complex, fluid situation of colonized and colonizer.
Benjamin calls the book "a series of micro-studies" (p. 6). But while the author largely devotes himself to individual agents and historical circumstances, the work is hardly about artists alone. The book ponders key institutional and ideological factors, including the representation of the region in Parisian expositions in 1900 and the 1930s, French governmental stipends, and the establishment of the Villa Abd-el-Tif (designed as a sort of Algerian Villa Medici), and the foundation of the National Museum of Fine Arts in Algiers in 1930. It further accords much attention, woven throughout several chapters, to an institution that has long been obscure, the influential Society of French Orientalist Painters, and its president, the critic and museum director Leonce Benedite. This well suggests the book's rich variety of topics and contexts.
Yet, perhaps because of the daunting range of objects and kinds of questions he considers, Benjamin does not clearly succeed in assembling them coherently. In the brief introduction, which contains his only general statement about the book, he tends to make claims about his approach and findings that can be puzzling, going in opposite, and seemingly incompatible, directions. Benjamin begins and ends the book comparing his view to the camera eye of a satellite, presenting himself as a similarly objective observer. "In my work on this project, my being neither French, nor Algerian, nor indeed American, may have given me a clearer view of cultural traffic in the Mediterranean during an earlier era" (p. 2).
The essentialist claim here is puzzling for two reasons. Would an American's account necessarily be foggier? Benjamin himself concedes his lack of Arabic language skills, while telling us that he was educated in the United States and that he has based his research almost completely on French sources. As he himself states: "the overwhelming voice, when it comes to painting in North Africa, is a 'French' one, as I have translated it" (p. 5). This calls into question the avowal of impartiality above, while also alerting the reader to the presence of apparently conflicting claims.
Further, the concept of the satellite's pan-optic gaze is paradoxical in light of the personal...