New audiences for orientalist art

David Tresilian , Tuesday 12 Mar 2024

Nearly a century after his death, the French orientalist painter Etienne Dinet has been finding new audiences in Algeria, as a new Paris exhibition reveals, writes David Tresilian

Etienne Dinet

 

Sternly criticised by generations of art historians for their falsely picturesque paintings of Arab and Middle Eastern societies suffering from the violence of European imperialist incursions and direct or indirect colonial rule, the 19th-century European orientalist painters have long occupied a kind of guilty corner in European history of art.

Not usually artists of the first rank, and often choosing oriental subject matter as a safe haven in an art world otherwise swept by disorientating waves of innovation and technical change, the orientalist painters began providing candy-coloured oriental imagery for European purchasers in the early decades of the 19th century.

They reached a high point in the later decades of the 19th century with painters like the Frenchman Jean-Léon Gérôme and finally petered out in the early decades of the 20th when changes in the art market along with increasing protests against European colonialism and demands for national self-determination finally killed off the genre.

However, before that happened the orientalist painters had established a recognisable repertoire of images. While these can appear to be strictly Walt Disney to contemporary viewers, rather like 19th-century translations of the Thousand and One Nights their unapologetically kitsch world of deserts, camels, and harems can still offer a kind of lush enjoyment when taken on its own imaginative terms.

At the same time, they often still attract criticisms from those who see them as having been complicit in European colonialism in the Arab world. As the Grove Dictionary of Art, a standard English-language reference, puts it, orientalist “images of nomads and harems, exotic marriage customs and primitive means of transport could all be interpreted as pictures of backwardness, decay, and barbarism. The underlying assumption… is that colonialism was a civilising and modernising force.”

Perhaps much of the heat has now gone out of such debates, even in the academic world, such that even Gérôme can be more dispassionately appraised as a significant, though minor, European painter of orientalist themes. He was given a major show at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2010, for example, France’s most-prestigious institution of later 19th-century art.

With that of Gérôme have come other reappraisals, often of more or less forgotten figures such as fellow Frenchman Etienne Dinet, now the subject of an exhibition at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris, the first since his death in 1929. Curator Mario Choueiry treads carefully in defending Dinet’s paintings from charges of triviality or worse, and in addition to heading off negative criticisms he also makes a few perhaps surprisingly positive claims.

Dinet had a serious interest in the North African communities he painted during his stays in Algeria, then a French colony, Choueiry says, with this being indicated by his decision to convert to Islam. Not for him the provision of orientalist fancy-dress in the manner of Gérôme, mostly staged in the artist’s Paris studio before being transferred onto canvas. Dinet lived and worked for extended periods in Algeria, he adds, and his pictures are taken from life and are not the product of a fervid imagination.

Born in Paris in 1861 to a wealthy family, Dinet had a conventional training by the standards of the time, attending first the Lycée Henri IV and then the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While the late 19th century was a period of sometimes impassioned debate in the French art world, with painters refused the right to exhibit in the official venues revolting against conventional standards of taste and launching various oppositional movements and manifestos, such developments seem to have passed Dinet by.

Ignoring the new styles of painting and the noise that went with them, he continued to paint in the received academic manner. From the 1880s onwards, he carved out a niche for himself as an orientalist painter specialising in Algerian subject-matter, eventually spending extended periods in the village of Bou-Saada from the early 1900s onwards before returning to sell his canvases in Paris.  

Choueiry says of Dinet’s career that “a history of art that is limited to the avant-gardes would be incomplete,” defending the artist’s decision to paint in the traditional manner. Dinet “studied the paintings of [naturalist painter Jules] Bastien-Lepage and the impressionists, his slightly older peers” who had wanted to reinvigorate French painting, he adds, arguing that like the impressionists “Dinet attached enormous importance to colour.”

However, “the absence of firmly drawn lines and the dissolution of the subject in their paintings irritated him,” Choueiry says. “He thought that Cézanne and Gauguin had managed to balance contradictory demands” in their paintings, and this alone “showed that he was a real painter, even if he was one who did not draw the same conclusions from it as the [later artistic avant-gardes represented by] Matisse and Picasso.”

Dinet lived part of the year in Algeria for the rest of his life, continuing to produce a standard fare of oasis life and apparently frozen traditions even as the rest of the country developed and to a certain extent even industrialised, though its economic identity as a western tourist destination and provider of agricultural products to French markets was more or less fixed by colonialism.  

He died in Paris in 1929 shortly after performing the pilgrimage to Mecca and is buried in his beloved Algerian village of Bou-Saada.

 

Algerian canvases: Descending into the exhibition, held in the Institut du Monde arabe’s subterranean temporary exhibition spaces, the first painting visitors see is a self-portrait by Dinet dating from 1891 in which the artist presents himself in almost self-parodying terms.

He is seated before an easel, a palette in his hands and a brush between his teeth, and on his head is a French artist’s beret.

Perhaps this self-portrait is a kind of joke or form of knowing disguise behind which Dinet intended to carry out a more unconventional artistic programme. However, the exhibition that follows, made up of a few dozen canvases and various works on paper and studies taken from a 40-year career, seems short on irony or alternative ways of seeing.

Whatever else Dinet saw on his visits to Algeria, his gaze was mostly fixed on what seemed to him to be traditional rural life, even as the communities that he painted were being driven off the land by colonial appropriation and their lives were being forever changed by French capitalist penetration.

Algiers was already a major port by the time Dinet first visited Algeria in the 1880s with its urban workforce, often former peasant-farmers, serving the needs of the French-controlled export industry. The southern Algerian oasis town of Biskra, reachable by railway from the 1880s onwards, had become a fashionable resort for European tourists, and the local economy had been reshaped to meet their needs.

Local traditions and lifestyles were increasingly being performed to meet the needs of the tourist industry, with, as historian Michael Pierre writes in material accompanying the exhibition, there already being “multiple hotels and other establishments for wealthy tourists next to the old native oasis and the French military base” at the time that Dinet first visited.

“Having accomplished the ‘pacification’ of Algeria [by military means], tourism could now develop unopposed. As the Courrier de Biskra [a French newspaper] put it in 1897, ‘military Algeria has been achieved, colonial Algeria has been achieved, what we need to do now is create a pleasant Algeria” for the colonial leisure class.

“Biskra became a rendez-vous for artists and painters from across the world, among them French (Gustave Guillaumet, Maxime Maufra, Henri Matisse), Americans like Frederick Bridgman, a pupil of Gérôme, British (Frederick Leighton), Belgians (Henri Evenepoel), Italian (Gustavo Simoni), Polish (Adam Styka), Hungarian (Ferenz Blaskovits) and Russian (Alexandre Roubtzoff.”

Dinet was entering a crowded field and one made larger by the construction of the Royal Hotel in 1895, with “its tower in the form of a minaret from which one could see the seven villages making up the site,” as well as the Victoria Hotel, the Hotel de l’Oasis, and the Palace Hotel. There was also a neo-Mauresque casino, built in 1893, with a splendid oriental dome.

Wandering through the exhibition, visitors come across atmospheric desert scenes as well as images of traditional village life, an endless round of games and entertainments in native dress in Dinet’s view. These scenes of childhood games and lovers playing on swings transpose something of the chocolate-box atmosphere of paintings by the late 19th-century French artist Auguste Renoir to the Algerian countryside, but behind them there is the shadow of colonial domination, absent from Renoir’s carefree Paris scenes.

Writing in the material accompanying the exhibition, art historian Lydia Haggag takes on the subject of Dinet’s alouettes naives, young women constrained by economic circumstances to pose for visiting painters. While Dinet’s paintings have been saved from accusations of exploitation and voyeurism by writers emphasising his ability to “document forms of conventional femininity (housework, maternity, rituals, various daily tasks) in scenes reflecting an idyllic Algeria frozen in time,” this “complacency” only “makes my irritation grow,” she says.

Dinet’s images of these young women, “however marked by empathy, can only provoke post-colonial malaise,” Haggag writes. “In the paintings Dinet made of them, the young women are shown as smiling, richly dressed, and beautifully groomed… but the folklore that he presents in his canvases cannot allow the reality of the colonial situation to appear or the absolute poverty of his subjects.”

“What kind of realism are we talking about here? The aesthetisation of social life by concealing its actual characteristics (of poverty and violence) lets the viewer imagine an Algeria as it existed before the French presence. The French never appear in any of Dinet’s pictures of Algeria,” whether soldiers, tourists, or businessmen, “and the colonists and their wives are absent from every image he produces.”

There are of course different ways of reading such images, framing them either by reference to the circumstances of their production or the ways in which they have been subsequently seen. At the end of the Paris show, there is a section on Dinet’s reception in contemporary Algeria, where he has apparently been identified as a kind of forerunner of one national school of art.

Paintings by Dinet have appeared on Algerian postage stamps and have even figured in the background of television speeches by former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, representing a kind of imprimatur from the highest reaches of the state. Art historian Francois Pouillon explains this by reflecting on Dinet’s multiple guises from French orientalist to the more unlikely one of Algerian nationalist.

In his lifetime the “illustrator of a still-living native Algeria that he presented with accuracy and intensity in paintings appreciated by colonial society and the Paris art market,” in his afterlife Dinet has become “a master of Algerian painting” for those who consider contemporary Algerian art to be “too diffuse” and “too experimental,” Pouillon says.

Such people would prefer to see a return to “traditional scenes of children playing, men in prayer, and women dancing in their traditional costumes, all presented in a state of apparently primal innocence before the evils of colonisation.”

For Choueiry, the new popularity of Dinet’s paintings can be explained by exasperation with the official Algerian art of the 1960s and 1970s, “too abstract and intellectual,” he says, but also reflecting the top-down productivist priorities of the state. Now that that version of Algeria has perhaps also now been consigned to history, it may be time to look again at Dinet’s enchanted childhood world.

Etienne Dinet, passions algériennes, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until 9 June.

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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