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Fantasies of the East at the Art Institute

June 3, 2009

From Abraham Ritchie, the ArtSlant: Chicago City Editor :

In this week’s Gallery Hop for ArtSlant: Chicago, Robyn Roulo mentions the art history behind Lalla Essaydi’s solo exhibition at Schneider Gallery, “Les Femmes Du Maroc.” Roulo talks about the “centuries of women portrayed . . . from the languid and vulnerable to the sensual and stoic,” and how in Essaydi’s self-empowered work “lost are the slave-like harem scenes of art’s historical past.” So what are these sexist and stereotypical artworks that Essaydi is reacting to? I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to find out.

harem scene

Eugene Fromentin. Women of the Ouled Nayls, 1867. Oil on canvas.

This painting by Eugene Fromentin is on view in Gallery 223. In it, Fromentin paints tensions and stereotypes so palpable I’m not sure I really need to say much about it. The scantily clad white women loll about in the dirty and darkly light alley amidst fully clothed Middle Eastern men making the power dynamic obvious. This is a bit strange since my brief research has indicated that the Ouled Nails (another spelling) is actually a Berber tribe in Algeria whose women traditionally would dance for money building a dowry which would ultimately gain them a husband. They were guided by their mothers, not men. Why then are these white women? I believe that Fromentin conflates European “concern” (and no doubt titillation and attention) about white slavery with an equally titillating exotic flavor, the Ouled Nails women and their dances. It’s important to keep in mind that France had invaded Algeria in 1830 and the public would no doubt assume that this painting was set there (the identification of the tribe firmly sets it in that country) so this image would have served a propaganda purpose also. The result is an image that acts as a justification for France’s colonial occupation of Algeria by playing on racist feelings and stereotypes, yet doesn’t offend Victorian sensibilities because it is ostensibly decrying this made-up situation. Interestingly, according to one website: “In 1893, a man named Sol Bloom brought the first glimpses of belly dance to America by sponsoring various groups from the Middle East and North Africa to perform in the Chicago World’s Fair. The Ouled Nail were among these tribes.” This painting on view at the Art Institute was acquired shortly thereafter in 1894.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Odalisque, 1874. Oil on canvas.

This painting is also on view in Gallery 223, look up, it’s hung near the ceiling salon-style (hence the slight glare in the image). The title of the painting leaves no doubt about the subject, an odalisque is a concubine or female slave in a harem. Related to the J.A.D. Ingres portrait (Le Grande Odalisque of 1814) that Essaydi riffs on, Lefebvre also adopts the classical composition of the reclining female nude. We also see the classic signifiers of the “oriental”: incense burners (which Ingres also includes), decorative carpets and rugs, fruit and some pottery. However, whereas in the Ingres image the woman confronts us with her gaze, here Lefebvre averts the subject’s face away from the viewer, objectifying her as all we can see is her body. I would again suggest that the tensions, fascinations and fantasies about white slavery are a major subtext to this image.


Lalla Essaydi. The Grand Odalisque, C-print, edition 3/15, 30 x 40 inches, courtesy of Schneider Gallery.

If we contrast the Lefebvre work to the above by Essaydi, we can see that her simple gestures like depicting her subject with a feeling of self-possession, confronting the viewer’s gaze with her own, being clothed rather than naked (in the Kenneth Clark sense of the word) and even the dirty feet (in contrast to idealized and sterilized woman of Lefebvre) result in a unbalancing of the power dynamic between viewer and subject, diffuse the fetishization of the oriental, and upset the assumption of a male viewer. Essaydi reclaims history and directs our attention to historical inaccuracies and fantasies.

–Abraham Ritchie

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Richter Gorgon permalink
    November 11, 2009 5:01 pm

    You neglected to mention in your deeply-mined analysis that Odalisque by Lefebvre is a work of beauty while Essaydi’s is a work of ugliness. The difference being, when the tides of prejudice old recede, Lefebvre has left an image undisturbed, but when the prejudice of present retreats, diluted ink will be the only remnants of Essaydi.

  2. thebram31 permalink*
    November 14, 2009 11:25 am

    I don’t agree that “Lefebvre has left an image undisturbed” since painting itself is a work of complete artificiality. Moreover there are recognizable poses and props that signal certain meanings, as I mentioned. The painting’s veracity seems to be wholly untenable.

    I would also dispute that Essaydi’s work is “ugly” while Lefebvre’s work is an image of “beauty.” Lefebvre’s image is no doubt pleasing for a (white) male audience but I find the underlying tensions of colonialism and sexual consumption to negate the painting’s “beauty.”

    As to where the beauty in Essaydi’s image lies, that’s a whole other essay. . .

  3. Richter Gorgon permalink
    November 18, 2009 3:12 am

    If you view an image through a thousand lenses, you will see it a thousand times and never look upon it once. When you say a painting is artificial, I believe you.

    I don’t know why you sustain any interest in art when beguiled by what is factual. Better to pick apart bones and scrolls than unravel a tapestry for knowledge. You must give your favor to photographs, for they offer nothing but veracity.

    Beauty and ugliness are intentions of artists that only become qualities to their audience. The viewer will always wrestle meaning from the creator and adopt it for their own attainment. Only the rightful critic, humbled by wisdom, content in obscurity, can suppress the conquering urge and preserve the simplest meaning.

    I only remind you to suppress the conquering urge.

  4. thebram31 permalink*
    November 18, 2009 8:08 am

    thanks for weighing in again on this Richter, I’m enjoying hearing your viewpoint.

    However, again I must disagree with several of your points. Maybe I would like to view this painting and simply enjoy it as a representation of the human body, as if it were an ancient Greek statue. But to only enjoy the work for its beauty of depiction would be to ignore the other elements and implications that are also included, one should not be beguiled by beauty and lose sight of other elements of the painting. An more comprehensive approach requires that one consider additional aspects of a painting like its political and social moment.

    I’m also approaching this painting by way of explaining Essaydi’s precedents so it’s especially important to consider aspects like history and, in fact, multiple viewpoints of a painting. What a painting like Lefebvre’s may mean to you or I is quite different than what it may mean to Essaydi, and while I don’t know exactly what it does mean to Essaydi, it’s important to consider those kind of alternate viewpoints. I don’t think that there is a “simplest meaning” in that sense and that’s ok. Lefebvre’s is a pretty picture but it’s not just that and indeed its significance may lie beyond that.

    As to “photographs. . . offer nothing but veracity” that is simply not true. What about the Victorians of the 19th century and their “fairy photographs”? Not to mention Jeff Wall’s digitally manipulated photographic constructions. Nonetheless all of these human productions contain knowledge and information that we would be remiss to not try to unravel. This kind of searching for meaning(s) only enriches our understanding of the past, present and of art.

  5. May 18, 2010 10:51 pm

    very nice art so beautiful thanks for sharing

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