AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism 1798-1836
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. 253 pp.; 20 color ills., 85 b/w. $55.00
DARCY GRIMALDO GRIGSBY
Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 400 pp.; 81 color ills., 139 b/w. $70.00
There is no doubt that questions of empire, rarely raised in traditional accounts of painting in the period, have now become matters of urgent interest in the study of early-19th-century French art. In his classic study David to Delacroix, Walter Friedlaender spent relatively little time on Antoine-Jean Gros's Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa, remarking rather cursorily on the artist's debts to, and divergences from, iconographic and formal traditions and adding that it was "a picture which, though based on an old tradition must, through its Orientalisms, its strange gothic setting, and its dreadfulness of subject, have had a strange and exciting effect." (1)
The nature and complexity of these "Orientalisms" take center stage in both Porterfield's and Grimaldo Grigsby's works, together with a new and subtle scrutiny of the "strange and exciting effect" of this and other complex grandes machines that structure our understanding of French history painting in the first half of the 19th century. Of course, much has happened since Friedlaender. Waves of revisionist accounts have been successively more acutely attuned to politics and to reception. However, work of a sociohistorical bent still tends to organize the history of French art in this period according to the categories and chronologies of domestic French politics. (2)
The two books under review here take a different tack, choosing a path made feasible by the profound influence of Edward Said's discussion of how the physical expansion of empires and colonization of peoples in the latter half of the 19th century was foreshadowed and prepared by a cultural creation of the Oriental "Other." The features of this discursive Orient were fixed in a set of binary oppositions that helped to fashion not only the identity of this phantasmic Orient but also that of the Occident as it understood itself in the 19th century. (3) Said's chronology deemphasized the differences and distinctions between the separate "local" regimes that held power in France and the rest of his "West" and instead focused on a more pervasive and unified imperial or colonizing identity shared by regimes that we might otherwise see as disparate, an identity established through representations (literary, visual, musical, and so on) of "the Other." Said's work and that of his followers, such as Homi Bhabha, while attracting many and vociferous critics, have undoubtedly shifted emphases and reinvigorated discussions of the period. (4) Such work has displaced emphasis not only from histories of "influence" but also from more explicitly Marxist-oriented models of a revolutionary politics of art (and, indeed, from Jacques-Louis David as linchpin for all that came later) toward a discursive history that can contain more complex discussion of previously neglected or simply awkward issues, like race, desire, and violence, as they act on and through the art of the early 19th century.
These two books exemplify, in different ways, the possibilities opened up for art history by such reframings of the period. Porterfield makes clear from the outset his debt to Said's account and its pertinence for art history. His broad assent to Said's central thesis is reiterated throughout his chapters as he consistently reads the French involvement in and fascination with Egypt manifest in painting, monuments, and museology in the early 19th century as part of those technologies of knowledge and power that he sees as instrumental in preparing a colonial empire in North Africa. In his discussion of the Luxor obelisk (his first chapter), for example, he argues, "The obelisk was the product of, and it in turn produced, an apparently disinterested cultural output that proffered historical, moral and technological rationales for French imperialism in the orient, in the same years that France was securing and expanding its imperial push in Algeria" (p. 40).
Grimaldo Grigsby, too, makes clear through her methods, her references, and her style what she owes to Said and to post-colonial theory, particularly to Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture (pp. 4, 65-66), but her book contests Said in many subtle and incisive ways. Both these works are also deeply indebted to the entire concept of "discourse" in a Foucauldian sense, and while they may challenge sociohistorical paradigms of understanding French culture, they remain indebted to new historicist interpretative paradigms of cultural "work," which necessitates a critical engagement not just with the artwork or cultural entity but also with the complexities of its reception and with the texts, habits, and orthodoxies it challenges or relies on.
Thus, in these works the traditional patterns of understanding of the course of French history in the early 19th century (from Directory to Consulate to Empire to Restoration to July Monarchy and beyond) are much less visible, and we must consider a different set of chronological markers. Porterfield gives us specific starting and finishing dates for his study in, respectively, the invasion of Egypt in 1798, when, he claims, "France's modern Empire began" (p. 3), and the partial conquest of Algeria in 1836, the eve of what might be called modern French colonialism.
And while the turbulent, even unfinished, process of revolution is a powerful, if spectral, presence throughout Grimaldo Grigsby's Extremities (which has "Post-Revolutionary" in its title), even more powerful, from first to last, is the turbulent history of the slave revolts of St-Domingue (Haiti), which provides a set of markers for her study of French understandings and representations of race and slavery. Not only do we find our chronological and political points de repere decentered in these studies, we must also rethink our traditional assignments of heroicizing liberal values to works like Theodore Gericault's Raft of the "Medusa" (thoroughly and convincingly reexamined in Grigsby's account). This, then, is no longer the "Age of Revolution," as the subtitle of a 1974-75 survey of French painting in the years from 1774 to 1830 called it, but the "Age of Empire." (5)
Todd Porterfield's book has four main chapters and an afterword. The chapters treat, in turn, the transportation and erection of the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde; paintings of the Egyptian campaign; the Musee d'Egypte; and, finally, a chapter devoted to Eugene Delacroix's Women of Algiers. The afterword discusses the persistence of the Orientalizing constructions of France's colonies beyond the 19th and into the 20th century and very recent responses to, and rewritings of, these constructions in the work of Algerian writers and visual artists of our own time.
From this bare outline of content it is clear that Porterfield's scope ranges from painting to a wider investigation of architecture, urbanism, and museology. Part of the point of this diversity is to encourage a sense of a general, unified direction in culture and discourse. The first chapter deals with the projects, ideas, and eventual erection of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. This chapter covers the entire chronological span of his book and introduces his key arguments. He argues in his pithy, often perceptive, and sometimes poetic discussion of the history of the Place de la Concorde and the plans to place the …