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

Article excerpt

Roger Benjamin. Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880-1930. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 352 pp. 16 color plates. 123 b/w illustrations. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth.

Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978, art historians have explored the political and cultural implications of Orientalist imagery. Many of these examinations have provided compelling new interpretations of canonical artists using sophisticated and sometimes confounding theoretical tools. Others have assembled broad exhibitions of Orientalist art, employing Said's cultural analysis to form a new category of art history. In the process, the subtleties of Said's theories can get lost, but the politics of colonialism and the images featuring the exotic inhabitants and terrain of the "Orient" have now been definitively linked.

Roger Benjamin has long been working on Orientalist art, and his catalog Orientalism (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997) is one of the most accomplished studies of this artistic phenomenon to date. Another beautiful exhibition organized by Benjamin, Renoir and Algeria, is touring the U.S. and France this year (Clark Art Institute and Yale University Press, 2003), making Benjamin one of the most-published authorities on the topic. Onentalist Aesthetics is his juggernaut, an exhaustive and definitive analysis of French Orientalist art depicting the Mahgreb between 1880 and 1930. This richly detailed text provides a complex array of studies, not only of famous and obscure French and Algerian artists (yes, finally, an analysis of Orientalism produced by Orientals themselves), but also of the cultural institutions and historical developments that contributed to the flowering of Orientalist art in France and the promotion of indigenous arts in the colonies. This is a defining work of cultural history examining the particularities behind the blanket term "Orientalist art."

Benjamin dispenses with the generalities that guide most studies of Orientalist imagery and rigorously situates both artists and works in very specific historical moments and geographical locations. he manages to produce a history of the politics and imagery of colonialism in the Maghreb that operates as a study of both colonial and artistic development. …