“The Orient saved us,” Matisse declared. At the centre of his 1911 masterpiece “L’Atelier Rouge” hangs a black and yellow band of Ottoman velvet, as prominent as Matisse’s own pictures represented in the painting. In the 1950 gouache cut-out “Les Mille et Une Nuits”, the play of decorative forms recalls Moorish tiles. Through the intervening years, Matisse’s eastern allusions are insistent, from the ultramarine “Triptyque Marocain” to the opulent reclining woman in crimson and gold harem pants “Odalisque à la culotte rouge” starring in the Musée Marmottan Monet’s new L’Orient des Peintres: du rêve à la lumière.

This insightful, enjoyable exhibition opens with Ingres’ enamel-smooth, coolly measured, turbaned “La Petite Baigneuse”, oddly weightless, as if suspended in time. A reduced version of the most voluptuous back in western painting, Ingres’ 1808 “La Grande Baigneuse”, it is set in a harem bath, with further nudes at their toilette offering multiple formal contrasts — the pool’s straight lines versus elongated curving body; naked white flesh attended by black servants.

Nearby hangs Delacroix’s melancholy “Femmes d’Alger dans leur intérieur”, a red curtain swept back to reveal costumes and faces flickering, melting into shadow, in a darkened harem apartment. Delacroix adopted its “flochetage” brushwork, criss-crossing filaments of colour, after visiting Morocco, whose carpets, he said, were “the most beautiful paintings I have seen”. Cézanne noted Delacroix’s dizzying, tapestry-like effects: “The tones enter into one another, like silk. Everything is sewn, worked together. And that is why it spins.”

MMH87F Gerome Jean-Leon The Slave Market
‘Le Marché d’Esclaves’ (1866) by Jean-Léon Gérôme © The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

“Odalisque” is Matisse’s homage to, and progression from, the pioneering harems of Ingres and Delacroix. Matisse’s odalisque, blending sumptuously with the divan’s striped rug and the tremulous pink floral screens behind, is treated like a pliant decorative element. A bouquet at her side is so flat that it is deliciously ambiguous whether the flowers rest on a small table or are images on the screen. Matisse’s critics thought he was drowning in the honey of regressive oriental sweetness. But in his magnificently sensuous odalisques, Matisse was actually building on what he called the “confirmation” discovered on his trips to Morocco of a daring vision: breaking down European academic representation into the decorative, pursuing abstract explorations of line, space, colour.

This is modern art’s foundation story, to which 19th- and 20th-century painters’ intoxication with north African motifs and landscapes is as essential as encounters with so-called primitivist west African sculpture.

Vassily Kandinsky Oriental 1909 Huile, gouache et aquarelle sur carton 70 x 97, 5 cm Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau © Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München
‘Oriental’ (1909) by Wassily Kandinsky © Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München

Both assimilations are politically and culturally fraught, and Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) made that term almost a slogan for oppression. Said demonstrated that orientalist stereotypes — excessively brutal men, languid concubines, hookah-puffing idlers — were colonialist fictions, at once justifying domination of less developed societies and, as escapist fantasies, implying 19th-century unease in the west with its own industrial advancement.

No orientalist show can entirely duck these claims. Marmottan exhibits include Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Le Marché d’Esclaves”, where elaborately robed Arabs examine the teeth of a white nude for sale, and the reverie of audiences mesmerised by a naked snake charmer, “Le charmeur de serpents” — Said’s cover image.

If Gérôme’s meticulous academic compositions can be dismissed as Salon shockers peddling racist titillation, what of Delacroix’s (small format) still thrilling “La Mort de Sardanapale”? Delacroix employs radical anti-classicism — chaotic perspectives; unrestrained all-over impasto — to describe the suicide of Assyrian king Sardanapalus, destroying flesh and treasures in an orgy of cruelty. Is eastern barbarity here a nihilistic metaphor for the end of all civilisation amid the rush of materialist modernity?

Albert Marquet Mer calme. Sidi bou Saïd 1923 Huile sur toile 33 x 41 cm Lille, palais des Beaux-Arts Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier
‘Mer calme. Sidi bou Saïd’ (1923) by Albert Marquet © RMN-Grand Palais/Thierry Ollivier

In a far-ranging show, the Marmottan treads carefully to sustain a concomitant argument that, from the moment oriental visions entered French painting in the early 19th century, the more questioning and inventive painters were seduced not only by exoticism and eroticism but by opportunities to learn formally from north African and Middle Eastern non-representational art.

Here is Renoir in Algeria, fleeing the crisis of the break-up of the Impressionists in 1881, depicting banana palm fronds interlacing into a shimmering frieze in “Champ de bananiers”. Emile Bernard, who married an Egyptian and thus had access to female sitters, painted abbreviated portraits against stunning decorative grounds, as in the green silk dress on red and orange striped walls in “Abyssine en robe de soie” (1895). And Jules Mignonney working at Villa Abd-el-Tif, “the Villa Medici of Algeria”, in 1911, staged a challenging reworking of Ingres in his monumental “Le Bain maure”, a geometric design of checkerboard tiles where, seen vertiginously from above, a black woman paints the toenails of a reclining white nude. All are moving towards flattened modernist pictorial construction.

Émile Bernard Abyssine en robe de soie, étude de mulâtresse 1895 Huile sur toile 104 x 74 cm Paris, musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, en dépôt au musée des Années 30 de Boulogne-Billancourt © musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac
'Abyssine en robe de soie' © Jacques Chirac/Claude Germain

Even landscapes are rarely clichés of picturesque backwardness. Armand Point, born in Algeria, renders with loving delicacy the heraldic silhouette of a rider against abstracted ochre folds of sand in “Cavalier arabe dans le Sud”. Albert Marquet bought a home in Sidi-bou-Saïd near Tunis and produced limpid views of the bay as a slice of glistening azure between abbreviated white blocks of the town and distant purple mountains: “Mer calme. Sidi bou Saïd”, “Vue sur le Golfe”.

And Eugène Fromentin, commissioned by the French state to produce a topographical record during the war in Algeria, painted “Le Rue Bab-el-Gharbi à Laghouat”: white-gowned siesta sleepers slumped in doorways resembling, as Théophile Gautier noted, “corpses wrapped in their shrouds”, carrying overtones of a massacre. Fromentin’s crooked alley of sun-warmed crumbling buildings was shown in Paris in 1859, at the height of Baron Haussmann’s controversial Second Empire transformations of the capital into elegant modern avenues. “The ‘Street at Laghouat’ will never please lovers of progress who demand for each town in the world the same footpaths, tarmac, street alignment, gas lamps,” snarled Gautier.

Nostalgic or forward-looking? Fromentin said he was seeking “to get across . . . in modern painting . . . the simplicity of those three dominant colours, white, green and blue” experienced in Algeria. His own shocked response to the bright light is the harrowing panoramic “Le Pays de la soif”, commemorating a tragedy of desert travellers who died of thirst, Fromentin, returning from the desert, went temporarily blind. “I am constantly dreaming of light. I close my eyes and I see flames, radiant orbs, or a vague spreading glare,” he said.

Eugène Fromentin Le Pays de la Soif Entre 1820 et 1876 Huile sur toile 103 x 143, 2 cm Paris, musée d’Orsay, legs Édouard Martell, 1920 Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
'Le Pays de la soif' by Eugène Fromentin © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Half a century later, Paul Klee wrote similarly of a mystical sensation in which he felt himself dissolving in light and colour in Kairouan. His quivering blue-purple jewel-like abstraction of domes and minarets, “Architecture intérieur” (1914), concludes a visually and intellectually colourful show that rewrites a narrative of colonial appropriation into one of cross-cultural recognition, respect, nuance — surely welcome in today’s Paris, scarred by racial tension and Islamophobia.

To July 21, marmottan.fr

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