‘In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th-Century Egypt and the Holy Land’ to open March 24 at Lubin House
‘In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th-Century Egypt and the Holy Land’ to open March 24 at Lubin House March 10, 2009Ruth Kaplanrekaplan@syr.edu
“In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th-Century Egypt and the Holy Land” focuses on a select group of 19th-century European artists, written into art history as “Orientalists,” who depicted exotic lands that had existed on the edge of European consciousness until their rediscovery in the 18th century. The exhibition is organized by the Dahesh Museum of Art and presented at Syracuse University’s Palitz Gallery at Lubin House, 11 E. 61st St., March 24-April 30.
“In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th Century Egypt and the Holy Land” initiates a two-year partnership between the museum and Syracuse University Art Galleries. The Dahesh will organize several exhibitions annually from its own collection of 19th-century art in the academic tradition, complemented by works in the University’s rich collection, for presentation at the SUArt Galleries in Syracuse and The Palitz Gallery in New York City.
“We are very pleased to have this opportunity to present selections from the Dahesh Museum’s superb collection,” says Domenic Iacono, director of the SUArt Galleries. “The Dahesh has wonderful examples of paintings in the academic tradition as exemplified in this important exhibition. In the future our partnership will enable both institutions to look at their collections in new ways that reflect the complementary nature of our respective holdings.” The Dahesh Museum of Art’s director, Flora Kaplan, plans to invite at least one emerging curator or artist enamored of the academic tradition to organize an exhibition each year from the collection.
“In Pursuit of the Exotic” features 27 paintings, photographs, lithographs and drawings chosen from the Dahesh Museum of Art Collection, which is especially strong in representations of Egypt and the Holy Land. On view are works by the well-known Orientalists Owen Browne Carter, Charles Theodore Frere, Jean-Leon Gerome and David Roberts. Also represented are lesser-known artists who were popular in their day: Eugene Giradet, Stanley Inchbold, Philippe Pavy and John Varley Jr. The proto-cinematic masterpiece that takes center stage in the exhibition, “Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine,” is the work of a previously unknown but recently rediscovered German Orientalist painter, Gustav Bauernfeind.
“Nineteenth-century artists, whether they lived in France, England or Germany, faced a number of challenges unknown to their predecessors,” says David Farmer, curator of the exhibition. “To compete for sales, patronage, space and attention in the marketplace, they needed to balance tradition with innovation and offer something new, which would set themselves apart from their colleagues. The Middle East and the Holy Land promised all of that and more. Leaving the confines of Europe, they could become artist/adventurers, cultural explorers. Travel to these areas put them on the cutting-edge, and their work was in demand.”
Egypt offered a mysterious culture and monumental environment, while the Holy Land contained sites of Biblical history, religious connection to the source of Judeo-Christianity, and an extraordinary visual “otherness.” Their work revealed these cultures to a European audience in the most direct way, both satisfying and stimulating an increasing taste for exotic sights, including landscapes, monuments, social types and daily life.
Some artists were pure academic painters, while others worked outside the establishment, though they shared a similar training in traditional academic methods and practices. Each was intent on visually communicating to a Western audience a world that had been only recently rediscovered. Each artist brought a unique sensibility to the task, whether a fascination with architecture, like Carter and Roberts; the extraordinary qualities of light, like Frere; or the more humble setting of daily life, like Varley and Pavy. Their techniques range from quick, painterly studies to the highly finished works of Jean-Leon Gerome. Gerome also translated on-site sketches, like the drawing by Victor Orsel, into studio paintings destined for the Annual Paris Salon, a museum or a favorite collector.
It had become standard academic practice for artists to prepare accurate representations on site (plein-air painting) as part of their training. Rather than creating imaginative, romanticized images, the artists featured here were committed to representing accurately these exotic locales. While the earliest artists presented here, such as David Roberts and Owen Browne Carter, still insert staffage figures-a convention with a long tradition in Western art-for atmosphere and scale, their work is clearly based on local observations. The accuracy of the setting is indisputable.
Salons and academies, then later dealers’ galleries, were filled with paintings that communicated the look and feel of the Middle East, all available for purchase. And further, the publication of beautiful color lithographs (a recently invented technique) that approximated the effect of on-site spontaneity (Carter and Roberts) allowed for increased distribution of images to an even wider audience. In addition, the photograph, an important 19th-century innovation, added to the stock of images available to a curious public. Underlying the creative mix of nationalities, mediums and personalities there is one constant: each work demonstrates the artist’s first-hand knowledge of a specific landscape or architectural situation.
Many artists who traveled to these regions felt welcomed and comfortable enough to spend great blocks of time there, sometimes even becoming culturally acclimated. For example, the British artist David Roberts, initially a theatrical scene painter in Scotland and London, began traveling in the 1830s, first to Spain and then Algiers. He then made an extraordinary trip through Egypt and the Holy Land, visiting every famous biblical site, while recording its architecture and landscape. Robert Scott Lauder’s portrait of Roberts documents him wearing native garb in order to be inconspicuous while traveling and painting in Palestine. Between 1842 and 1849, Roberts published “Views in the Holy Land,” a six-volume work of some 247 lithographs based on hundreds of on-site drawings. One of those rare volumes is displayed in The Palitz Gallery exhibition, along with a selection of his original, now iconic, lithographs.
Some artists, like Charles Theodore Frere, a native of Paris, had a passion for the Middle East, which changed their lives forever. After Frere’s first trip to North Africa, Eastern civilization became his primary subject matter. In 1869, he was invited to accompany the Empress Eugenie on her Egyptian visit to dedicate the Suez Canal. He established a studio in Cairo and was awarded the title of Bey (Lord) by the Egyptian government. It was said that he was strongly attracted to sun and the special light it cast, but clearly there was more to keep him there. As one art writer suggests in 1888, “the painter’s Orient seemed a field congenial to the French mind … Eastern civilization …with its suggestion of romantic emotion, its gentle indolence, its incitements to imagination, appeals so strongly to the poetic spirit.”
The Palitz Gallery/Lubin House is open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free. For the latest information on the exhibition, visit the Lubin House website, http://lubinhouse.syr.edu, or http://daheshmuseum.org.