Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Politics and Public Sculpture in Nineteenth-Century Colonial French Algeria

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Politics and Public Sculpture in Nineteenth-Century Colonial French Algeria

Article excerpt

In this article, I examine the Monument of Marshal Bugeaud (fig. 1), by Alexandre-Augustin Dumont, in order to understand better how, during the Second Republic (1848-52) and Second Empire (1852-70), the French government sought to use public sculpture to enact its power and extend its authority in colonial French Algeria. I also consider the intriguing evidence for the limits of the government's success. The sculpture represents someone who in the current era would probably be charged with war crimes. ThomasRobert Bugeaud (1784-1849) was a French politician and then military leader who orchestrated attacks and reprisals in colonial Algeria. He was appointed governor general of Algeria (1841-47) and made a maréchal, the highest honour of the French military. A sculpture such as this is rarely the domain of art historians today, being deemed either too aesthetically unappealing or too politically conservative for current taste. I argue for how a nuanced understanding of the meaning of this work, which was created by a prominent academic artist, allows us to examine the discursive politics of context and affords us considerable insight into how the political impact of the visual arts in nineteenth-century France extended beyond the metropole, the territory of mainland, continental France, to colonial Algeria.1

My research focuses on the labour involved to create Dumont's work and how the display of the monument in Algiers built on social prestige and military prowess to advance ideologies of authority. I am attentive to the specificity of location and I also offer a detailed analysis of the bronze statue unveiled in Algiers in 1852 as the Monument of Marshal Bugeaud, in order to reveal how it re-enacted political power in the colonial capital. I am particularly interested in an element that is often overlooked in such monuments: the pedestal. The materials for the monument required unprecedented efforts to locate, quarry and transport coloured stone, and demonstrate in part how a public sculpture was intended to serve as a symbol of France's military and administrative control. The pedestal for this monument was definitely not a neutral form and I will demonstrate its significant role in conferring symbolic value in a specific cultural context.2 I will also consider how aspects of the history of the monument offer unusual insight into the instability of France's authoritative power during the Second Republic and Second Empire periods.

Recent studies by John Zarobell, Nicolas Schaub and Peter Benson Miller have explored the complex issues around representations of colonial North Africa by French artists who either travelled to Algeria or lived there, or who worked from photographs, prints and their imagination - in entirety or in part - while based in their studios in mainland France.3 Their work has been particularly valuable for our understanding of landscape and history painting. Bonnie Effros has demonstrated how Roman antiquities in Algeria were often destroyed by the French military and when preserved were used to legitimize colonial rule.4 Nabilia Oulebsir studied the restoration and preservation of ancient Roman and historical Islamic architectural heritage from throughout Algeria during the first hundred years of French colonial rule, and Zeynep Çelik focused on the roles of urban architecture as a nexus of culture and identity specifically in colonial Algiers.5

My study investigates how a public monument erected in Algiers embodied inequities then in place in Algeria, specifically the legal status of indigenous Africans as French subjects rather than citizens, differences ultimately formalized through the code de ¡'indigenat, the 'Native Code' (senatus consulte 14 July 1865).6 My analysis of the history of the Monument of Marshal Bugeaud reveals how the office of the minister of war exercised its authority in colonial Algeria far beyond militarism, and used its financial power and exploitation of natural resources in ways that proclaimed and reinforced publicly the multifaceted inequities - legal, political, economic, social - between French citizens and Algerian subjects. …

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