Friday, October 24, 2008

The Battle of Algiers

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

—From “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Like so many French artists of the middle of the nineteenth century, Eugene Fromentin wanted to be Eugène Delacroix, especially the Delacroix who brought the exotic world of the Middle East and Northern Africa to France. Born October 24, 1820, Fromentin created images such as Falconry in Algeria—The Spoils (above, from 1863) that celebrated the color and adventure of Algiers, the French colony in North Africa that fired his imagination and drew him back multiple times for more material and inspiration. In Falconry in Algieria, Fromentin shows servants pulling a rabbit from the talons of the trained falcon as two riders, members of the noble class, look on. Fromentin painted the falcons and falconers of Algeria many times, fascinated with the drama of the hunt. By the time that Fromentin painted this scene, however, falconry had become a thing of the past, reserved for only the highest members of the aristocracy. Fromentin’s depiction of Algiers tries to resurrect a romantic past that France’s colonizing has destroyed, much like the falcon rending apart the rabbit in his claws.

Five years later after Falconry in Algiers, Fromentin painted Muleteers Stopped, Algiers (above, from 1868). Showing a pack of drably dressed locals against a drab, sandy landscape besotted with ruins, Fromentin paints an Algiers totally devoid of color and excitement. Delacroix’s sumptuous color and detail disappear from this painting. While other French artists exploited the public’s taste for the spectacular in Orientalist painting, Fromentin seems as weary of that inaccuracy as the muleteers shown here resting with their animals. France took Algiers as a colony by force in 1827. Just thirty years later, Fromentin seems to be saying that the long occupation was one huge mistake—an imperialist crime against both the people of Algiers and the people of France. The War of Algeria waged between 1954 and 1962, depicted so stirringly in the film The Battle of Algiers, finally ended France’s reign over Algeria a little over a century later.

In many ways, Fromentin saw himself as the new standard bearer of French painting, much like his Algerian Standard Bearer (above, from 1860-1865). The banner once held so high by earlier artists such as Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres seems held just a little lower by Fromentin in these Algerian paintings. In addition to being a great painter, Fromentin wrote exceptionally well. Fromentin counted the novelist George Sand among his friends and admirers of both his painting and his writing. In his art history and criticism, Fromentin expressed his admiration for the Dutch painting, especially that of Rembrandt. In his Algerian paintings, Fromentin perhaps longed to capture the same innate humanity of his subjects as Rembrandt and other Dutch artists had captured in their countrymen. Making the imaginative leap across cultures, Fromentin stepped into the shoes of his subjects and restored the dignity that colonization had stripped from them.

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