Oriental Dreams: Exotic 19th-Century Art at the Frye and TAcoma Art Museums
In a rare but encouraging example of cultural synergy, the Frye Art Museum and Tacoma Art Museum are teaming up this fall to display two large loan shows of 19th-century European art from an obscure New York museum, the Dahesh. "Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists and the Rediscovery of the Nile" at the Frye and "Oasis: Western Dreams of the Ottoman Empire" in Tacoma are both on view until January 4, 2009.
Visitors have a unique opportunity to educate themselves about Orientalism, the phenomenon that existed in Europe as early as the 15th century, but peaked in the mid- to late 19th century in France, England and Germany. Considered the key cultural movement that transitioned from Neoclassicism to Romanticism (and reflected the shift from the Enlightenment to the Victorian era), Orientalism was an influential mentality about "other" people: Egyptians, Persians, Turks, Syrians, Arabs and Algerians and Moroccans. These were populations that were variously conquered, colonized and lost by the Western powers.
France was the chief champion--or culprit, depending upon how one views such extended overseas adventures. With the U.S. embroiled in Iraq under what proved to be specious intentions, both shows couldn't be timelier. Just nine years after the French Revolution, General Napoleon Bonaparte set off aboard the "Orient" on July 1, 1798. After capturing Malta, the Corsican sought to "liberate" Egypt from the Turks and to demolish the British monopoly over Mediterranean shipping. He failed at both goals. Lord Nelson sank the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on the Nile the same year and, by 1801, Napoleon signed a peace treaty. The legendary Rosetta stone, which French archaeologists had discovered, ended up in the British Museum. Its translation led to the foundations of Egyptology.
Today scholars have a subtler, but still controversial, take on the Egyptian campaign: The colonial impulse may have been misguided and doomed, but the value of artistic riches and archaeological booty found far outweighs the mistaken intervention. "Napoleon on the Nile" has nearly 160 paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs and books from the era, most executed by the 150 scholars, engineers, artists, botanists and other scientists brought along for the ride. They constitute excerpts from the last great project of the French Enlightenment, The Description of Egypt (1809 - 29), the kind of giant encyclopedia called for by the original creator of encyclopedias, Denis Diderot, in 1751.
With some hand-colored, the prints are a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten world, one that soon set a craze for "Egyptomania:" clothing, decorative arts, furniture, and painting all in a Pharoanic style. Beautiful paintings by artists one may never have heard of such as Alma-Tadema, Pils, and Panckoucke depict harems, oases, bazaars, coffee houses, and scenes from the Old Testament. They are joined by busts and portraits of Napoleon before the pyramids, behind them, looking down on them, and, finally, overshadowed by them.
After all, Napoleon fell from power in 1815 and died (was poisoned?) on the isle of Elba in 1824. His reckless military marauding had changed the concept of Western civilization. Now we know that everything from monotheism to mathematics probably got its start in Egypt, long before the ancient Greeks received such ideas. Don't miss the priceless documents and letters in Napoleon's handwriting.
Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ: Judith, 1875. Oil on panel, 12.5" x 18.5". Dahesh Museum of Art. Photo: Robert Mates
José Baro: A Tangerian Beauty, 1876. Watercolor on paper, 26" x 18.5". Dahesh Museum of Art. Photo: Robert Mates
Isidore Pils: Seated Arab, c. 1862. Oil on canvas, 10.25" x 10.25". Dahesh Museum of Art. Photo: Kevin Noble
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Joseph, Overseer of Pharoah's Granaries, 1874. Oil on panel, 13.75" x 18". Dahesh Museum of Art. Photo: Kevin Noble
Since Napoleon's propaganda machine held that, because France had inherited the wisdom of classical Greece and Rome, she was entitled to Egypt, Neoclassicism was the initial artistic style to assimilate Egypt. However, as "Oasis" proves, once the painter Delacroix made his first visit to Morocco in 1832, northern Africa became the destination of choice for the new Romantic artists and poets in search of sensuous thrills.
As former Dahesh curator Lisa Small points out in her catalogue essay, the Orient was an "actual place. . . and an imaginary construct." A mixture of fact and fiction under the guise of "documentation" (especially after the 1839 invention of photography), the Orient intrigued young Romantic-era artists with its licentious atmosphere in Algeria, Morocco and the Holy Land. The show is filled with gaudy scenes of palm trees, snake charmers, temples, sunsets along the Nile, and groups of swarthy Arab men.
Take the harem paintings of Gérôme, Bridgman and Long. Men are either eunuchs or black-skinned guards. Women are white because fair-skinned Circassians or Georgians were the most desired by sultans--and American and European male art buyers. José Baro's 1876 Tangerian woman is dark-skinned, drenched in silks and gold jewelry with the sad facial expression of an imprisoned prostitute. Photogravure reproductions of works such as these sold enormous amounts in Europe and the U.S.
Outside the harem, Arab men are seen as bloodthirsty warriors or indolent hookah smokers to be vilified (or envied) by prudish Victorian-era businessmen art collectors. As the late critic Edward Said noted, such exaggerated stereotypes were required in the West to reinforce European notions of cultural and racial superiority.
Lush landscapes of the Sahara Desert, the Holy Land, and the Nile round out this thought-provoking pendant to "Napoleon on the Nile." Brilliant at capturing the blistering heat that defeated Napoleon's army as much as anything, they may come as a welcome break from the ubiquitous rains of a Northwest autumn.
With the distance of over 200 years from Napoleon to now, 21st-century artlovers can enjoy such over-the-top stagings of the exotic and contemplate the military catastrophes due to misunderstandings of the "near abroad" in our own day. Perhaps the next generation will learn from these exhibitions and be wiser than ours, let alone Napoleon's.
MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor for Art Guide Northwest, also writes for Art in America, Sculpture and Art Ltd., among many other publications. A new essay collection covering 70 years of Northwest art, Relocations: Selected Art Essays and Interviews, has just been published in New York by Midmarch Arts Press. Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2008
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