Paris Pays Tribute to Tangier, Treasures of the Kingdom of Morocco
Review of Exhibition
Independent, May 1999
The great silhouette of Morocco's Bab Mansour gatehouse now overlooks the Place de Concorde, defiantly astride that Napoleonic ley-line of power that links the Arc de Triomphe with the Louvre's Arc du Carrousel. It is as if the Saracens have at last advanced north from their 732 defeat at Poitiers-Tours and stamped their first architectural mark on Paris. I pinch the arch, but it is no historical day-dream, but real - or rather not real. It is a massive 30 by 15 metre whimsy of stretched and painted canvas. Executions in Morocco were customarily despatched outside the principal gateways but is surely some macabre accident that this bank-sponsored construction stands over the site of the revolutionnary guillotine.
I cross myself and hurry along the last 500m to the exhibition, "The Treasures of the Kingdom of Morocco", in the Petit Palais.
The hundred year-old host of so many influential exhibitions looks fittingly care-worn and exhausted. The Petit Palais has clearly not been included in the fairy's wand of a 'grand projet'. Following a border of Saharan sand I am lost. Lost in wonder and delight. Here are my well-beloved icons, chosen or quested after in twenty years of Moroccan travel, gathered together. From dusty museums across the length and breadth of the country, from otherwise inaccessible national deposits and close-guarded private collections come these totems of a 3,000 year long artistic heritage.
The pre-historic stone carving of N'Kheila etched over all the surfaces of a grey tablet is bewitching. The standing man, encircled by expanding concentric lines from three centres, is a representation of our position amongst the force-fields of spiritual life. In Tangier Paul Bowles has recognized the almost tangible currents of magic that criss cross the landscape.
From the mud layers beneath the Roman ruins at Banassa, beside the slow moving waters of the Sebou, comes a golden flower medallion wrought by some Phoenician master-craftsmen. It speaks of Tyre and Carthage and their control of the secret Atlantic metal-trading routes that fetched tin from out of Cornwall and gold from West Africa.
The bronze of King Juba II is the most beautiful Roman portrait to have survived from antiquity. Recognizably North African, Juba yet also belongs to the wider Mediterranean world. Carried through the streets of Rome as an infant during Caesar's triumph, this orphan of the royal house of Numidia was later brought up in the household of Augustus. The bust was probably made at the time of his betrothal to Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, but before the pair of them ruled over the kingdom of Mauretania.
The graceful arabesque ornaments on the gravestone of a medieval Sultan present a graphically literal expression of the triumph of Islam. For the obverse is filled by a Latin inscription dedicated to governor A. Caecina Tacitus. From the same period comes a 14th century pulpit or minbar, a miracle of meticulous marquetry from Fez that fuses ivory, cedar and rare woods into a declaration of both piety and dynastic pride.
Calligraphy was ever the first of the Islamic arts. Its disturbing power can be felt even by the illiterate in an open folio of prayers composed by the Sufi master al -Jazouli. This extraordinary encapsulation of the power of the word with its massive dark shadows and attenuated line is executed in the traditional maghribi script.
By contrast the portable arts, especially the glittering displays of draped textiles and hung jewelry, speak of the ancient traditions of Persia and Byzantium rather than Mecca. The endless duality of the Moroccan countryside versus the Moorish city is everywhere to be seen: silver versus gold, geometric rather than floral, earth colours contrasting with rich pigments, weaving with embroidery.
The show closes with tributes from Morocco's admirers - some sketches of Tangier by Matisse and Raoul Dufy - and is dominated by Kees van Dorgen's portrait of a young Arab boy done in red. A final lingering exit is made past Bruno Barbey's contemporary photographs which remind us that romance, mystery and spiritual quests are not just made in the past.
Exhibition open 15 April-18 July, Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5.40pm. Petit Palais (Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris) is on Avenue Winston-Churchill, 75008 Paris. Telephone 01-42 65 12 73.
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