MAGHRIB: Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880-1930, by Roger Benjamin. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. 352 pages. 16 color plates. 123 b/w illust. Bibl. Index.
Reviewed by Stephen Sheehi
Two analytical "axes" underlie Roger Benjamin's groundbreaking Orientalist Aesthetics (p. 5). The production and reception of French painting of North Africa is understood in its aesthetic and artistic context and its institutional, ideological, and political context. The author takes great pains in detailing the intentions and vision of specific artists, critics, functionaries, and schools. On the other hand, following Michel Foucault and Edward Said, Benjamin examines institutions, societies, and museums and excavates their origins. Moreover, the author gives voice to their founders and members through an almost overwhelming use of primary sources. These art societies, museums, salons, and institutions disseminated an Orientalist aesthetic that naturalized France's patrimony over its North African possessions.
Benjamin is extremely thorough in revealing the role of the state in producing art, the patronizing of artists, the organizing of exhibits and exhibitions, and the establishing of museums, schools, and academies to propagate colonial ideology through aesthetic-artistic means. In Chapter 3, Benjamin shows us that Léonce Bénédite's Society for French Orientalist Painters, founded around 1893, established "an aesthetic for Orientalist art"(p. 58), which would "situate Orientalism in the history of French painting" (p. 61). The author never allows the reader to think of Orientalist production as simply an aesthetic and artistic choice. If, in the eyes of Bénédite, "the East has supplanted Italy as a land of inspiration," he also "saw the link between exoticism and European economic structures" (p. 62). In the case of the Society, Benjamin highlights that "the Orientalist Painters had [a commitment] to promoting awareness of the colonies" and, as such, they had "many official attachments and its platform was so evidently tied to the politics of the colonial movement" (p. 66).
Chapter 6 meticulously describes the bourses de voyage, state scholarships awarded to "sculptors, printmakers, medal makers, and architects as well as painters" to underwrite a one-year creative sojourn in North Africa (p. 130). Benjamin discusses in detail a handful of these boursiers and their connections to the French consulate. Equally groundbreaking is the examination of Villa el-Tif, the "Algerian Villa Medici" (p. 145). While institutions like the National Museum of Antiquities and Muslim Art and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts encouraged French art production and organized exhibitions in Paris, the Villa became the home for French boursiers and the "School of Algiers," the "academic exotic" school "enlisted to furnish the iconographic and decorative needs of the [colonial] Algerian government" (p. 153).
The author does a masterful job in exposing how the two institutional and aesthetic axes are codependent. His methodology underscores "the connectedness of colonial personalities, art world organizers and works in a historically grounded theater of colonial activity" (p. 6). Mapping the institutional patronage, the educational pedigrees, the professional associations, and the market and audience responses to Orienalist art, Benjamin reveals how even the most banal, academic painting was intertwined with policies that justify or, in the case of the hivernage ( Winter tourism), sell French colonialism (p. 148). "The state patronized and perpetuated a specific aesthetic range at a time when new impressionist exhibitions and the Salon des Indépendants became venues for progressive painting" (p. …