The Exploration of Light: European painters in North Africa, from Delacroix to Klee
Art Quarterly, Summer 1999
The first European painters came to North Africa on the back of 19th-century colonial conquest. Though many were of the artistic avant-garde they seldom, if ever, demonstrated any political sympathy with the people of North Africa. Their quest was for the effect of light on colour and their dialogue was essentially with each other. Indeed they can be considered to fit neatly with the colonial process of extracting resources. Instead of phosphates and olive oil they sought colours, subjects and images with which they could enrich their studios back home. They were to find that cavalrymen and harem girls sold better than mothers and farmers.
The earliest images of the Orient, though not specifically North African, were created by two French painters, Ingres and Gros, who never left the European shore. It is almost as if this state of ignorance allowed them to capture the collective imagination of Christendom more perfectly. The bathetic harem girls of Ingres and the swirling clouds of Napoleonic cavalry depicted by Baron Gros set standards against which subsequent painters would be judged whatever the reality of their observations. Eugene Delacroix would follow in their footsteps. Inspired by the romantic poetry and example of Byron he would create such emotional and highly coloured masterpieces as The Massacre of Chios and the Death of Sardanapulus. His combination of cruelty, sexuality, rich textiles and indolence virtually define the term Orientalism.
In 1832 Delacroix was given an opportunity to see for himself. Due to a friendship with an influential actress, Mademoiselle Mars, he was invited to join the delegation to Morocco led by her lover Comte de Mornay. The embassy rode from the port of Tangier to the inland capital of Meknes, giving Delacroix six months in which to observe the Empire of Morocco in all its undisturbed purity. It was a highly charged period. France had just invaded Algeria and would soon drift towards war with Morocco. Delacroix reported that "their prejudices against the art of painting are great" and "one always has to be escorted by soldiers. I am escorted every time I go out by an enormous crowd of spectators who do not spare me the insults of dog, infidel and who push towards me to grimace with contempt". On the other hand they were everywhere entertained with fantasia, the celebrated mock cavalry charges of Morocco, and lodged in traditional palaces. He wrote "I am like a man dreaming and who sees things he is afraid will esape him". There was no need to fear, for Delacroix would ultimately complete 80 pictures with North African themes. The Collection of Arab Taxes, a haunting stage-set with its elegant figures caught in a dream sequence was not to be finished until the year of his death. The Women of Algiers (a title which evoked their melancholic status as refugees) flickers with jewel-like intensity so that even the shadows are filled with colour. Although it has been used as a historical document in more than one ethnographic museum, some caution must be exercised. All painters found it virtually impossible to paint Muslim women or gain access to domestic space. Models were invariably recruited from among prostitutes or the more liberal Jewish communities.
It was Delacroix who also discovered that the Maghrebi daylight, far from acting in the presumed manner as an intense illumination of the true depth of colour, in fact acts as a filter that reduces the contrast of colours. Baudelaire was able to describe Delacroix'sThe Sultan of Morocco first exhibited at the Paris salon of 1845 "as grey as nature, as grey as the summer atmosphere when the sun spreads over each object a sort of twilight film of trembling dust".
That same salon also delighted at Theodore Chasseriau's portrayal of Ali ibn Hamid, Caliph of Constantine. It is an heroic image with which to balance the propaganda images of the French conquest such asThe Battle of Somah and First Mass in Kabylia that were produced by official artists such as Horace Vernet. It is informed by the artist's love of Renaissance murals rather than North Africa which Chasseriau had yet to visit.
Fromentin (1820-1876), who made a secret trip to North Africa in 1846, followedby two later travels, was a more knowledgeable defender of the old Muslim civilization that was being destroyed by the French colonization of Algeria. He is at his best in the depiction of Arab horsemen such as Arab Falconer , which confirms his description of "the accord of the two most intelligent and fully developed creatures God has made". Though highly regarded for his experience, his images are also fueled, like Landseer's with a romantic yearning for medieval values. He is now probably better known as the writer of Un Eté dans le Sahara and Une Année dans le Sahel than as a painter.
The role of the intelligent observer in the next generation was taken by Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887) who explored the south-eastern fringes of Algeria, especially the Hodna mountains and Biskra oasis. His first impulsive visit, taken as a 21-year-old student suppposedly heading for the drawing academies of Rome, gave him malaria and a lifelong obsession with the Maghreb. He depicted the ksour communities of the Saharan fringe with compassion. Guillaumet knew well how the strong light defines the bold forms of the indigenous architecture and how these communities existed amongst violent contrasts of colour, between verdant irrigated gardens and the burnt red soil, polished rock and dust of the desert.
None of Guillaumet's images, for all his experience, receive a tithe of the attention given to Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). It is ironic that all Renoir's most celebrated North African pictures : Woman of Algiers, The Jewish Wedding and Girl with a Falcon were created before his first visit. They form a painterly communion with Delacroix not North Africa. Once he arrived in 1881, he was struck by the nobility of the men, the mysterious veiled women and the austere nature of the architecture .
The gulf of ignorance between North Africa and Europe remained wide enough for surprise to remain the dominant emotion for most travellers. Delacroix had written, "the most beautiful pictures I have seen are certain Persian carpets". Gauguin had declared "O painters who are looking for a color technique, study rugs. You will find all the necessary knowledge there". Yet the first exhibition of Islamic carpets in Europe was only held in Vienna in 1891. The Munich exhibition of Islamic Art in 1910 came with all the force of a revelation.
Matisse delighted to recall the motivating force provided by that "extraordinary exhibition at Munich". The next year he travelled to Spain to inspect Moorish architecture before determining on a trip to Morocco in 1912. He had visited North Africa once before, in May 1906. This fortnight trip down to the Algerian oasis of Biskra had not been a success. Biskra, far from being off the beaten track as in Guillaumet's day, had become a central destination of travel. Aside from serving as the sensuous background to Andre Gide's L'Immoraliste , it was also a convenient base for prurient Europeans to investigate the institutionalized prostitution of the Berber Ouled Nail tribe. Matisse complained that the profligacy of British artists had pushed the price of models to unaffordable levels. In any case he found that "the light is blinding" and produced just one sketch. It would take him a year to digest his experiences and produce Nu Bleu, that disturbing blue odalisque set against a backdrop of Biskra palms.
By the time he landed in Tangier on 29 Januray1912 Matisse was better prepared. He knew Morocco through the works of Delacroix and the descriptive passages of Pierre Loti's Au Maroc. Once again Matisse was not to be alone. Tangier had become the sketching ground par excellence. He met up with an old student friend, the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice, who was staying by coincidence in the same hotel. In another incident he backed quickly out from renting a studio when he discovered that the building also housed eleven budding Belgian artists. Apart from riding in the surrounding countryside, there was nothing intrepid about his trip. Matisse stayed in Room 35 of Tangier's Grand Hotel de la Villa de France which was kept in scrupulous style by a Mme Davin. His ignorance of local affairs was nearly total. His time in Tangier coincided with the death throws of Morocco (the last independent state in North Africa) which was in the process of being absorbed into the French colonial Empire. There is no mention of this in Matisse's correspondence which instead dwells obsessively on the weather - a nasty patch of 15 days rain followed by an extraordinary verdant spring. Three days after he left Tangier, "thrilled by the flowers", the entire European community in Fez was massacred in a popular insurrection. Matisse would not have made a good newspaper correspondent.
He returned to Tangier that same October for another four months of painting. His technique was to sketch prodigiously in order "to gain possession of his subject" after which he settled down to paint. He painted mostly flowers as well as the view from his hotel window, the doorman of a neighbouring hotel and (with the permission of Mme Davin) a local prostitute, named Zohra.
Tangier proved to be an exceptionally productive time and is now regarded as the culmination of his fauve period.
It is now almost impossible for any European painter to approach North Africa except through Matisse's vision. That triptych composed of Porte de la Kasbah, the prostitute Zorah sur la Terrasse and the celebrated Paysage Vu d'une Fenetre (the view of the Anglican church of St Andrew set against the old walled city of Tangier the White) has become a triple archway into North Africa. His regal green portrait of a humble tribesman, Le Rifain debout soon acquired an iconic status that was to be confirmed by the heroic Rif rebellion of the 1920's. But perhaps the one image that best represents Matisse's power is Café Marocain, the largest, most abstract and contemplative of his Tangier pictures. It has a serene, ethereal quality as well as a disturbing affinity with Ingres' Oriental visions. Matisse described his work as "the search for myself through the probing of various motifs." It is a brutally honest confession of the limited role North Africa played occupied in the making of a major European artist.
For Paul Klee, North Africa, was not just a passing motif, however obsessive and productive, but a baptism into colour and light. Klee is at once one of the most documented of artists and the most sympathetic of individuals. He was shy, thin and gentle man, who shunned parties, cooked beautifully and brought up his son whilst his wife earned a living. A friend of Kandinsky, admired by Picasso (though their one meeting was a predictable disaster), he lived simply amongst an educated urban class devoted to teaching and music. As a conscripted German soldier he cut up crashed fighter aircraft into useful pieces of canvas for his paintings. He was also a near obsessive keeper of journals, diaries, inventories and account books. This left a formidable resource for art historians who this year will finnish the publication of his catalogue raisonné. Yet his images seemingly come as much out of his own rich internal imagination as the external world. In his own words "Art does not render the visible: rather, it makes visible".
This was all to be first made manifest in North Africa, during a modest two week Easter holiday in Tunisia in 1914, organised by two painter friends, August Macke and Louis Moilliet. They sailed to Tunis, staying with a Swiss doctor, Ernest Jaggi, who lived in the colonial garden suburb of St Germain. Klee described his host as "comical, dry, sober, feels alienated. Can only feel climate and money. Yearns for Switzerland and is stranger to me than any Arab beggar. " In his diary one can read his first impressions, "My head is full of the impressions of last night's walk..went to work at once and painted in watercolor in the Arab quarter". Like Delacroix his safety was only assured by a police guard.
The highlight of the trip was a three day stay in the holy Muslim city of Kairouan. He wrote in his diary: "What an aroma, how penetrating, how intoxicating, and at the same time simple and clear. Nourishment, the most real and substantial nourishment as well as delicious drink. Food and intoxication. Scented wood is burning." The following day in Kairouan Klee wrote "Color possesses me. I don't have to pursue it. It will possess me always. I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are at one. I am a painter". It is an unequivocal acknowledgement of the effect the majestic beauty of North Africa had on the soul of a delicate European.
Although he made watercolours and sketches throughout the trip his most celebrated Tunisian watercolors, such as Before the Gates of Kairouan, Red and White Domes, Garden in St Germain would be painted in Munich on his return. And that which possessed him on his short trip, color in the North African light, never left him throughout a long life of painting in Germany.
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by Barnaby Rogerson