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

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

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

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


"Roger Benjamin's "Orientalist Aesthetics dramatically enhances our understanding of French colonial visual culture during the period of colonialism's greatest ambitions. It is a richly nuanced book, about the densely imbalanced connections between France and North Africa, full of fascinating images and elegant analysis, exemplary in its wide-ranging attention to art works, popular spectacle, institutions, scholarship, and the contradictory workings of colonial culture and power. This book should be read not only by art historians and North Africa specialists, but by anyone concerned with colonial cultures and their legacies."--Nicholas Thomas, author of "Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture

""Orientalist Aesthetics represents an impressive feat of research and a tale heretofore untold. Especially fascinating is Roger Benjamin's choice not simply to interrogate the institutional history of French Orientalist painting, but to consider more broadly the French management of indigenous artsas well as,some of the Algerian artists who fashioned careers during this period. This is an original and responsible reconstruction of a significant and complex history."--Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, author of "Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France

"At once broad and minutious, "Orientalist Aesthetics treats the major institutions and actors who brought about the encyclopedic Orientalist movement. Roger Benjamin's work has the potential to significantly advance the dialogue between Europe and the United States on current problems in post-colonial studies."--Francois Pouillon, author of "Les deux vies d'Etienne Dinet, peintre en Islam: L'Algerie et l'heritage colonial

"RogerBenjamin's engrossing and painstakingly researched book breaks new ground in the study of Orientalism. The fifty years of the book's novel compass have been virtually untouched by previous studies. Benjamin's subtle understa


The strangest library I have ever worked in is that of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers. It is bright, airy, and well-appointed, high up in the crumbling art deco building made to celebrate one hundred years of the French occupation of Algeria. The collection is not strange: this is a serious scholarly library on European (and to a lesser extent, Islamic) art, formed between 1930 and 1962, the year when over one million French abandoned the North African colony. The library as I found it in early 1993, however, was all but deserted. The young librarian graciously allowed me to photocopy, but because of a lack of toner the machine made almost illegible prints. The breezy silence was sometimes broken by the chanting of young Islamist cadres, demonstrating on the former Champ de Manoeuvres (French military parade grounds) nearby.

Like the museum and its collections, the library had changed function, all but lost its brief. A colonial cultural institution, it nowadays speaks to but a fraction of the people. Yet what treasures it contains for the seeker after Orientalist and French art! The Algerian staff were rightly proud of the nineteenth-century pictures, by major French artists from Gustave Courbet to Edouard Vuillard. They were doubly proud of the national heritage represented by the rooms devoted to the miniaturist Mohammed Racim and more recent works by Algerian abstract painters.

Yet the then director and her staff knew little of their museum's history. The French, I was told, had repatriated both the old records and the paintings. Although most of the pictures were later re-

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