The connections between French art and the Maghrib are difficult to avoid. Many of the most famous French artists during the latter half of the nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries sojourned to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to paint, write, and observe. The colonial environment – physical and social – stretched the French imagination of the exotic, and moved the history of French art into new directions. The colonial impression on indigenous artists would, in turn, revolutionize the concept of self-expression with the introduction of painting as a new medium.
Trends among French painters were undoubtedly influenced by French colonies in North Africa and elsewhere. Some of the most famous French artists of the late nineteenth century painted and traveled in the Maghrib, from Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir to Henry Matisse and Étienne Dinet. Artists traveling from France to the colonies had to develop a new color palette, adapting to the hot air, white architecture, and fierce sun absent from Parisian skies. The Orientalist movement emerged to supply Parisian audiences with bright images of exotic vegetation, indigenous peoples, and desert or city landscapes. However, while “Orientalists might depict a cast sweet of people and places…their work did not have a comparable diversity of style or message … There was virtually no anticolonial painting before the historical reconstructions of Mohammed Racim in the 1920s” according to Roger Benjamin in Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa. (p97) Artists served to further the colonial agenda and the French government often supported Orientalists traveling in the Maghrib. Several art societies formed in both France and its colonies, as well as Parisian galleries and its famous Orientalist Salon, to promote the art produced by French painters in North Africa. The Villa Abd-el-Tif in Algiers was founded after the turn of the century as a maison des artistes (house of artists). A significant number of Abd-el-Tif artists went on to become professional Orientalists, including Paul Jouve and Léon Cauvy. During this era famed art critic Victor Barrucand exclaimed that the Villa Abd-el-Tif “will have richly served the colony in helping broadcast its beauty. Thanks to [it] … Algeria is no longer just a cellar and a grain store.” (p151) Indigenous artists, however, was excluded from the collective and did not, in fact, emerge until the beginning of the twentieth century.
At that time French colonial politics moved away from concepts of assimilation – converting indigenous populations to French culture – and began to adopt those of government by association. The new vision for the colonies favored local arts, such as rug weaving, basketry, ceramics, leatherwork, Berber jewelry, inlaid furniture and silver- and copperware industries. By 1913 “the Algerian and new Moroccan governments were embarked on linked campaigns to ‘revive’ local decorative arts traditions,” according to Benjamin. “Those campaigns were a response to the growing dismay at the damage the European presence had done to such arts, coupled with an awareness of their economic potential and their value as a likely source of inspiration for French decorative artists.” (p191) Local governments took steps to revive – and institutionalize – indigenous arts. In architecture, a neo-Moorish style developed in retaliation to an often lamented practice of razing old buildings in favor of imported Parisian styles. The carpet weaving industry received special attention as a local art-form with high economic potential. In Morocco, a government commission created the four volume Corpus de tapis marocains detailing all the known types of rugs in the region. The reorganization of the Moroccan carpet industry along the rationalized standards of the Industrial Revolution is still evident in the mixture of traditional practices and official commerce. Ancient tanneries and dye works are still in production alongside modern state-sponsored factories churning out mass-produced carpets for local and international markets.
More interesting, perhaps, is the colonial influence of indigenous artists who chose painting as a medium. The form most easily recognized as art in France held no place in the traditional Islamist cultures of the Maghrib. In the early twentieth century the first notable local painters, Algerians Azouaou Mammeri and Mohammed Racim emerged. Mammeri consulted religious scholars, who agreed that his secular paintings were excluded from the Koranic ban on reproduction of the human form. Originally from Algiers, Mammeri painted in Algeria and Morocco with several exhibitions of his work held in Paris. His work followed the Orientalist tradition in thematic choices. Contemporary art critics noted the unusual insight that Mammeri was able to add into his paintings, evidenced, for example, by his Interior of a Koranic School (ca 1920). Benjamin writes of this painting that “Mammeri quietly promoted to a … French elite an aspect of traditional society that later political conditions … would make more controversial.” (p227) Victor Barrucand approved of Mammeri’s work, claiming “this is the real Morocco … [nothing] is better suited to its brief than the work of this indigenous artist, who wants no more than to copy what he sees, but who does so in such a way that you couldn’t mistake his manner for anyone else’s.” (p233)
Unlike Mammeri, Mohammed Racim was inspired by the traditional Islamic painting, the miniature, while modifying his work to accommodate Western influences. “Racim discovered Persian miniatures … an art remote in time and place from contemporary Algeria, which was virtually without a local tradition of painting.” Benjamin writes. (p236) Creating a sense of perspective absent in ancient works shows the modern influences on the artist, while simultaneously leaving it somewhat distorted. The result is a unique style, distinctly moved away from predominant French movements, while still modern and fresh. Racim himself explained his motivation: “I hoped to use the image to fix the memory of Algerian costumes on the point of vanishing, as well as scenes of an Arab life in the process of transformation.” (p241) As such, Racim in recent times is still well known among art historians and connoisseurs while Mammeria, who adopted western stylization, has been pushed to near obscurity. His French contemporaries seem to have missed the anti-colonial political charge of Racim’s paintings, which fed a slowly emerging Algerian sense of nationalism. Painting Moorish buildings destroyed by the French, populated by figures of ethnic precision, or in aggrandizing indigenous leaders, Racim not only proved himself a truly original artist but also one who directed his work, not at removed French audiences, but to his own people.
In the history of colonialism, cultural cross-exchange create a significant, lasting – and inevitable – mark on both the colonizers and the colonized, as evidenced by French and North African art during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The landscapes of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria challenged French artists, who had to rethink their use of color and light and the choice of subject. The themes in art were largely dictated by the political workings of the colonies. Artists were restricted geographically to pacified areas under French control, while the choice of subject was moved by policies of assimilation and association. Traditional local arts were transformed and preserved through French efforts to revive local industries. Among local artists painting grew into an accepted form thriving by the beginning of the twenty-first century nearly a hundred years after the emergence of Azouaou Mammeri and Mohammed Racim. The heritage of French North Africa is apparent among colonial-era French artists, but even more so in the emergence of those indigenous artists who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, chose painting as their form of creative representation.
Benjamin, Roger. Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa1880-1930. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, (2003)