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

By Bohrer, Frederick | The Art Bulletin, March 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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

Bohrer, Frederick, The Art Bulletin

ROGER BENJAMIN 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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?