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Monday, 29 March 2010

The East, the West, Delacroix and Picasso

By Alexandra A Jopp

The East has been very tempting to Western observers for centuries. It is an eternal enigma, an eternal “other,” unknown, exclusive and hidden from the eyes of Europeans under the black, silky veil of tokens and legends. It has typically been seen as a hot, restless, extremely emotional, vigorous, sometimes aggressive but invariably seductive and attractive world. Everything draws to it: its exteriors and interiors, its softness and aggressiveness, its love and hate.

Delacroix Women of Algiers 1834 

 


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Most intriguing to European artists were often the East’s women. Almost always, there is a softness in the way they are depicted, but it is combined with a strength that is exhibited as they revel in the feel of their own glamour and essence. “Step back from the canvas, think, feel,” as Renoir would say (Nochlin 3). One must love a female body  in order to paint such scenes: “there is love for women in each detail of the canvas, and love for self, and there is joy, and there is a degree of sensual integration that makes you want to weep, so beautiful it seems, and so elusive,” continues Renoir (Nochlin 4.) These depictions became a key part of the art movement that would become known as Orientalism.
Explaining the term “Orientalism” could be a paper in itself, as it is rich with varying interpretations that often reflect the user’s own cultural attitudes. Even the more straightforward word “Orient” can lead to confusion, as Westerners, especially Americans, tend to think of the Orient as exclusively Asian. Much of the Oriental influence addressed in this paper, though, came from the Arab world. This paper leans most heavily on Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism, as developed in his landmark book of the same name: it is a term used “to describe the Western approach to the Orient; Orientalism is the discipline by which the Orient was (and is) approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery, and practice” (Said 73). Orientalist influences grew out of Eastern cultures, but, as will be noted, they were shaped by Western attitudes.
Eugene Delacroix is probably the definitive artist of the Orientalist movement. His first Orientalist painting, Algerian Women in Their Apartment (1834) offers a view of the Muslim harem and is “one of his most important works” (Vaughan 252). Perceptions of Islamic culture in the West resulted not only from the Arabic language, mosques and the Koran and stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, but also from the harem, an institution that played an important role in the formation of both the internal and external policies of the Islamic world. In his painting, Delacroix offered one of the only European images of this unique world that was produced by an eyewitness. The harem, in this image, represents a center of erotic pleasure and the absolute authority of a man over a woman. It was a symbol of power, luxury, wealth and fashion to have many women – commonly called slaves or odalisques – of different nationalities in a harem. Delacroix’s work cemented in European minds the image of the Middle East as a place of sensual delights. A century later, Pablo Picasso would reinterpret Delacroix’s painting, offering a new take on this exotic world. This paper will reflect on the role of women in Algeria and the domestic space they inhabited through an analysis of Algerian Women in Their Apartment, as presented first by Delacroix then by Picasso.
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Female images in Orientalist art are often presented in the context of the harem. As Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes in Harems of the Mind, though, “any study of the West’s relations with the harem must be in large part a study of the imagination” (Yeazell 1). Indeed, early Western harem images were produced without the benefit of the artists ever having seen an actual harem. This led to the harem being viewed in the West as “a sexualized space in which the husband [sultan] has sexual access to limitless women in condition of absolute despotic power” (Lewis 401). There is also a difference in the male and female views of the harem. If a woman sees the seraglio as a family place or a center of social gathering, the male’s view is just the opposite, and we can see this in European paintings in which male artists, in depicting nude women, would “playfully imagine themselves as participants in exotic adventures” (Dietrich 32). Richard Francis Burton, in Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Madinah and Meccah, offered an approving, though less titillating, view of the harem: “Europe now knows that the Moslem husband provides separate apartments and a distinct establishment for each of his wives, unless, one be an old woman and the other a child. And, confessing that envy, hatred, and malice often flourish in polygamy, the Moslem asks is monogamy open to no objections? As far as my limited observations go, polyandry is the only state of society in which jealousy and quarrels about the sex are the exception and not the rule of life” (Burton 326). Contrary to widespread perception in the West, however, critics insist that the harem was not the East’s precursor to the Playboy Mansion. As Reina Lewis noted in her review of Yeazell’s Harems of the Mind, “that the harem was in no way structurally linked to multiple sexual attachments, was resolutely ignored by Western writers and artists as they promulgated a vision of the harem as sexual prison affording the sultan unrestrained sexual activity” (Lewis 402).
In 1832, at the age of 33, Delacroix joined a diplomatic mission to Morocco that had been sent by Louis Philippe as an official artist. When the mission sailed on to Algeria, Delacroix “had the extraordinary fortune to obtain, when he had most despaired of it, the fulfillment of a wish which had haunted him during his journey” – the opportunity to visit a Moorish harem, a privilege granted to him by a local sultan. The impression of that visit would stay with him for the rest of his life.
The artist entered the interiors of apartments and private gardens, drawing as fast as he could in an attempt to capture “the shadows, the light, the mysterious and beautiful women, their richly embroidered robes, their grace, their animation and their lassitude … settings and costumes, visages and even such details as slippers were recorded in a series of watercolors of extraordinary richness and loveliness” (Mongan 23). Indeed, the colors of his Algerian Women in Their Apartment float in half shadows. The juxtaposition of the green door and red background creates a foundation for the pink and faded gold tones of the women. With this technique, Delacroix places colors in close proximity, allowing them to intensify each other. Light and shadow, as a result, have a sensual effect, to the extent that Tom Prideaux describes the painting “a triumph of sensual delicacy” (Prideaux 107). Cezanne remarked that the color of the red slippers belonging to the three women in the harem in Delacroix’s painting “goes into one’s eyes like a glass of wine down one’s throat” (Blake 3), and Renoir said that “he could smell incense in it – which is all the more disturbing when combined with the lassitude of the women as they lounge in their confined chamber” (Vaughn 252).
The painting gives a vision of Orientalism at a time when France had just conquered Algeria and claimed it as a territory. Delacroix wanted to give an idea of Oriental life by representing women of the harem in their exotic dress, sitting in a beautiful interior. The work is very descriptive, with attention to many nuances, and possesses a certain melancholy in addition to its beauty. Delacroix uses light and color to great effect, drawing the viewer into the picture “by its powerful harmony of color values, its completely baroque and asymmetrical yet balanced rhythm of bodies and space” (Friedlaender 121). Each of the women has her own colors: black, red and blue for the servant; pink, white and green for the woman holding the stem of the narghile; blue, red and yellow for the woman next to her; and red, white, brown and gold for the woman on the left. The combination of red and green has a particularly strong effect, conveying passion and sensuality. Eugene Fromentin gave a colorful description of Delacroix’s master work:
Imagine a collection of all kinds of precious materials, yellow damask, with black satin stripes and with gold arabesques on a black ground, and silver flowers on the lemon background; a whole array of scarlet silk with two strips of olive; orange beside violet, pinks crossed with blues, delicate blues with cold greens, half-emerald cushions, crimson, purple and garnet-red, all this put together with the imaginativeness that comes naturally to Orientals, the only true colorists in the world (Jullian 82).

Fromentin’s analysis, it is worth noting, in addition to describing the painting, also expresses some of the European attitudes that came to define Orientalism: a fascination with the exotic practices of a foreign people who are easily stereotyped, in this case, as “the only true colorists in the world” who have an “imaginativeness that comes naturally.”
The patterns of the rugs, cushions and tiles in the foreground contrast with those on the wall and the curtain in the background, which is left in shadow. The four women are almost on the same line, and Delacroix paints the foreground in much more detail than the background. When viewing the picture, one’s gaze passes smoothly from one figure to another, from the standing black servant to the woman with the narghile to the red slippers, carpets and pillows and to the two other women. The colors and light seem to run into each other, creating a shimmering, luminous effect. The viewer of the painting is left with the sense of having seen something intimate, even forbidden. Intricate Persian rugs, calm women dressed in silk clothes with make-up and jewels, the black servant and the richness of the interior all contribute to the splendor of the picture. As Darcy Gimaldo Grigsby wrote:
The power of the picture resides in its successful integration of discrepant descriptive and generalizing registers. On the one hand, the tableau flaunts Delacroix’s newfound knowledge in its plethora of sumptuous details that describe how things look: patterns of tiles, pillows, rugs, jewelry, and fabrics. On the other hand, those details are everywhere subordinated to the self-evidently painterly handling of the composition’s overall atmospheric lighting: the dusky late afternoon interplay between golden light and veiling, cushioning shadows (Grigsby 78).

In the image, three women sit on a Persian rug, appearing bored, and one gazes toward the viewer without looking into his or her eyes. Delacroix thus frustrates the spectator – he invites the viewer to observe the harem, but, at the same time, the image maintains its mystery. Renoir would later write that Arab women were “clever enough to know the value of mystery. An eye half-seen through a veil becomes really alluring!” (Stevens 18) The effect is heightened by the other two seated women, who, though close to each other, show no consciousness of the other’s presence. The black servant, meanwhile, looks backwards, hinting that her eyes might make contact with those of one of the women; their gazes, however, never meet. Even in the case of the woman whose pose and gaze most directly addresses the spectator, “her preoccupied expression suggests a person wholly absorbed in reverie” (Yeazell 27). Feminist writer Assia Djebar sums these effects in Femmes d’Alger Dans Leur Appartement: “Placing us in front of these women in the position of the viewer, [Delacroix] reminds us that ordinarily we do not have that right. The painting itself is the stolen look” (Djebar 150).
 Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, Assia Djebar
 L'Amour, la fantasia de Assia Djebar
Djebar extends her analysis by noting how Islamic customs confined women to their domestic spaces. For instance, she describes how women were allowed out only once a week to visit a bath, and how, while walking to the bath they had to be covered with veils with only one eye exposed. In that culture, a woman’s gaze was thought to have a power and sexual potential that must be regulated. John Erickson in “Women’s Space and Enabling Dialogue in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la Fantasie” quoted the Islamic prophet Mohammed, who called the female gaze “the zina of the eye,” with “zina” referring to “illicit sexual intercourse.” This helps to explain why none of the women in Algerian Women in Their Apartment look directly at the viewer. The women are impassive, remote and calm in a domestic interior. They are objects, specifically, they are objects of the male gaze. The presence of the black servant in the painting, meanwhile, is ambiguous; she may be a watchful slave or a kind of prison guard, showing that these women have no identity, no subjectivity in their confinement. For Djebar, even eroticism, so much a part of Western perspectives on the harem, is impossible, since “without freedom, there can be no female sexuality at all” (Best 876).
While a masterful piece of art, Algerian Women in Their Apartment also demonstrates how Orientalism could over-exoticize Islamic culture. While harem life, in Delacroix’s presentation, is mysterious, perhaps even glamorous, the reality is that life in a harem was rather unextraordinary. Concubines wearing flowery Arabic clothes had a strong influence on the artist, who saw in them much colorful charm and eroticism. Actually, though, they were just ordinary women onto whom Dealcroix’s European sensibilities projected the exoticism that was so much a part of his work.
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Pablo Picasso - Les femmes d'Alger (Women of Algiers), Variation "N"1955

Pablo Picasso - No.9 - Les Femmes d’Alger (J) 

In 1954-55, Pablo Picasso executed 15 paintings and several drawings of Delacroix’s Algerian Women in Their Apartment. This was a time marked by the death of Henri Matisse, so Picasso’s works were, in part, a tribute to color. In addition, the Algerian War of Independence from France had begun in November of 1954. During the war, Algerian women were encouraged by French authorities to go unveiled and take a more active role in society in defiance of Islamic tradition. Once the war was over, however, the Islamic government returned women to their domestic space. This cultural revolution and counter-revolution produced conflicts between the male and female universes in postcolonial Algeria. For Djebar, the significance of Delacroix’s painting from a century earlier is found in the relationship the women have to their bodies and the beautifully furnished Arab interior that serves as their luxurious prison:
These women, is it because they are dreaming that they do not look at us, or because, confined without hope, they are no longer able to perceive us? Nothing can be guessed of the souls of these women suffering so languidly, as if drowning in their element. They remain separated from themselves, from their bodies, from their sensuality, from their happiness (Djebar 150).

Picasso’s works offer a new perspective on the painting and domestic space in Islamic culture. With each painting, Picasso changed the number of figures and their positions on canvas. Now we have a seated woman and a sleeping woman, a nude woman and a dancing woman. The female forms change as well – this is Picasso, after all – as do the use of colors. (A sparkling combination of red, gold and blue has been seen as a tribute to Matisse.) Picasso transforms the scene into a dynamic, joyful and erotic experience. An interior scene with naked women, a curtain and the absence of the slave emancipates the women from the harem and obedience: “Glorious liberation of space where the bodies are revived in the dance, in the release of movement. For there is no longer a harem, the door is wide open and the light streams in. Even the spying servant is no more; there is simply another woman, mischievous and dancing” (Djebar 162). Picasso’s vision of space, however, remains purely aesthetic, and he uses the given theme to explore various pictorial styles.
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Eugene Delacroix perceived the harem as the site of a kind of exotic female sensuality that was unique to the East. For feminist critics, though, it was a self-alienated world that made women objects and denied them any opportunity for self-determination. Somewhere in between lies a third way of interpretation in which the harem was a relatively mundane aspect of Islamic culture. However we see the harem and, more generally, the domestic space as represented by Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, our perceptions will inevitably be shaped by the culture in which we were raised and the preconceived notions we bring to the project. Such is the nature of analysis. Such is the nature of art.

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