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An Orientalist among the Impressionists in Barcelona

Orientalist paintings create a sensation at an exhibition of French Impressionists from the Clark Collection, held in CaixaForum Barcelona until 12 February

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Tuesday 20 Dec 2011
Painting 3
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The Orient: An imagined geography?

The international tour of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art gallery from Massachusetts, USA reaches CaixaForum Barcelona, Spain. The exhibition includes a number of Impressionist works as well as the exquisite paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The exotic scenes dominating Gérôme’s works come as a pleasant surprise in the exhibition, offering a radical deviation from the ethereal and soft compositions of the Impressionist works on show, while reviving the debate about Orientalism and the way Europe interpreted and presented the Orient to its people through art and culture: snake charmers, harems, slave markets, Turkish baths, popular coffeehouses and other scenes fill the canvases of painters like Gérôme, Ingres, and other French artists that were inspired both by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and Syria and by their own visits to countries like Egypt, Algeria, Turkey and others.

An aesthetic tour de force

Once inside the exhibition hall, one is greeted by the Fontainebleau-inspired paintings of Camille Corot and his Barbizon School companions, a necessary reminder of the role of this movement as a forerunner of Impressionism. Then, with no further delay, come the masterpieces, many of which had once adorned the Impressionist exhibitions (1874-1886). One comes face to face with the heavyweights of this movement, which started as revolution and ended as artistic legacy: Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and other names that bring to mind the aesthetic rebellion once staged against the French Academy’s formal style, giving rise to a new style practiced en plein air and culminating in a celebration of life through light and colour.

The exhibition is an aesthetic tour de force, but one artist seems to receive more attention and enjoy more presence that any other, and that is none other than Renoir, revered by Sterling Clark, who once said: “I am a very lucky collector for I have a fine lot of Renoirs.” With 39 Renoirs in his collection, one can hardly overestimate this passion for the French master. A Box at the Theatre (1880) is one of several works by Renoir that form part of the exhibition, some featuring figure painting and others in the still-life genre.

The Orient, again

Luckily, Sterling Clark was an art omnivore, and hence the diversity of his collection. Clark’s interest transcended Impressionism to other styles, and his fascination with Impressionist art did not limit his passion for collecting masterpieces of other styles, most notably (in the exhibition) the French Academicism, which was in sharp ideological contrast with Impressionism.

At the far end of the exhibition hall, a group of visitors is clustered around three large paintings, all by Jean-Léon Gérôme. A closer look reveals a scene all too familiar to the Egyptian viewer, all too exotic for a European audience: “Fellah Women Drawing Water” is the title of a painting depicting Egyptian women drawing water from the Nile, with palm trees and a striking Mamluk minaret at the back.

Another Gérôme entitled “The Slave Market” recalls the obnoxious examination of a slave girl before being bought by her new master, while “The Snake Charmer” is the culmination of an obsession with – and over-romanticizing of – everything oriental; a mosaic of a seemingly North African snake charmer with a wall covered with blue tiles from Topkapi Serai in Istanbul and a puzzling band of viewers of different colours and creeds. The warm colours, soft tones, attention to detail and profound naturalism are among the common features dominating these paintings, where oil (on canvas) was the medium of choice.

Approaching some of the audience, these paintings seemingly impress but fail to convince. Josefa Aspa, a retired Spanish teacher, admires the aesthetic quality of the paintings but, having visited the Middle East several times, she finds the paintings too exuberant, even within the timeframe within which they were created. Bárbara Magalhães, a Portuguese student of economics, has never been to the Middle East. “I believe the paintings are based on a common stereotype of the Arab World of that time having slavery as a strong component of its daily life. Probably the artist was (un)consciously driven to paint this scene given the stereotype, whether he saw it once or many times,” she says.

Stereotypes seem to be a magical word, one that featured heavily in Edward Said’s famous book on Orientalism – stereotypes about distant places and crowded bazaars where everything under the sun is bought and sold, where the One Thousand and One Nights is still alive and breathing, and where fantastic landscapes and impossible encounters become possible.

This exotic world was one in which the imagination thrived and the artist had the freedom of depicting whatever he wished without the need to justify anything to a readily-enchanted audience desperate for images of a “savage” realm. One must never forget the “perceived audience” in the artist’s head: the nobility and the bourgeois collectors wanted something “brute” yet aesthetically fit for their salons, and the artist had to go the extra mile to make the artwork exotic enough, improvising if necessary. One thing worked for the artist’s benefit, and that was the absence of the usual scrutiny to which other genres like history paintings are usually subject to.

Nowadays, the beholder is challenged to “deconstruct” these imagined geographies and decipher the multitude of Oriental codes that fill the canvas – a task that different people undertake with varying degrees of success. For others, it is always easier to please the eye and unleash the imagination without worrying about whether Gérôme’s slave market depicts a scene in Algeria, Syria, or elsewhere. Obviously, slave markets did exist, and so did snake charmers and fellah women, but the juxtaposition of a myriad of Oriental elements in each painting makes it more of a compact “cabinet of curiosities.”

In the hall of Catalan Modernism

One cannot possibly visit an exhibition at CaixaForum without first admiring the impressive building, a masterpiece of Catalan Modernism constructed by Puig i Cadafalch who –together with Antoni Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner – formed part of the holy trinity of this style in Spain. Originally a textile factory, Casaramona alludes to the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that turned Catalonia into an economic power.

Since 2002, Casaramona has housed the CaixaForum Barcelona cultural centre, one of several manifestations of “la Caixa” Foundation’s Welfare Projects. The cultural programming offers a full spectrum of activities and events ranging from exhibitions to cinema cycles, concerts and seminars, with the idea of bringing culture closer to people. Having established itself at the heart of the Barcelonese cultural scene, people flock to the venue to enjoy both the cultural activities and the Casaramona building.

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Mohammed Elrazzaz holds an MA in Cultural Management (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona) and is currently a PhD candidate and a professor of “Tools for managing Culture” at the same university. He also collaborates with the Andalusi Legacy Foundation (Granada) as a writer/researcher on history and culture.

Acknowledgement: Painting images were made available through the kind contribution of Ms. Sally Morse Majewski, Manager of Public Relations and Marketing at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

  1. Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904), Fellah Women Drawing Water, 1870 or 1875. Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 100.2 cm.  © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.52
  2. Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926), The Cliffs at Étretat, 1885. Oil on canvas, 65.1 x 81.3 cm. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.528
  3. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919), A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), 1880. Oil on canvas, 99.4 x 80.7 cm.  © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.594
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