Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

Courtyard, Madrasa Bou Inaniyam Fez, Morocco

This year’s Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, titled Histories in Transition, explores the theme of historicism in visual art of the modern period. For the third lecture in the series, Rémi Labrusse, of Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre, described idealist visions of the Islamic Middle East in nineteenth-century art and scholarship. Prof. Labrusse began the talk with an apology for his imperfect English, and then spoke in elegant English, and with perfect clarity, for the following hour. This was one of those rare moments, for me, which define what art history is all about: capturing the rich and complex ways in which artefacts and images incorporate the values and meanings of the culture that produced them. A tile pattern from the Alhambra, transcribed to a nineteenth-century pattern book, inflects the crisis in the self-image of imperialist Europe; or describes the shift from figuration to geometric abstraction in the history of decorative art. The narratives that intersect the visual object are never exhausted – and that’s what makes art history so fascinating.

Rémi Labrusse’s account traced two broad ideological tendencies that governed visualisations of Islam in nineteenth-century Europe. The first of these, termed orientalism, describes the construction of a fictive, exotic world, embodying values imperilled by the rise of industrial capitalism. In the works of painters such as Jean-Léon Gerôme or Frank Dillon, the Arabic world was projected as a fantasy realm, absent of modernity, an erotic blend of timeless sophistication and heathen barbarism. As Labrusse described, the inherent tensions in the imperialist project are implicit in the paintings: the ‘Orient’ was defined by its isolation from modernity, so these depictions can describe only its defilement, or its demise. Vasily Vereschagin’s horrifying Apotheosis of War (1871), a desert pyramid of skulls with feeding crows, echoes the meticulous naturalism of  Gerôme’s Arabian palace scenes: these are opposing perspectives on the same imperialist project. The history painting aesthetic, employed in the depiction of a fictionalised actuality, fails to suppress the underpinning brutality of nineteenth-century colonialism.

In opposition to the orientalist fantasies of the genre painters, Labrusse suggests that a more culturally sensitive, Islamophilic tendency emerged in European visual culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Studies of Islamic ornamentation, by authors such as Owen Jones, became exemplary texts in the movement to reform the decorative arts, following the aesthetic debacle of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Rather than serving as a figure of exoticism and colonial conquest, Islamic art offered, for the Islamophiles, a dazzling contrast to the decadent styles of the ‘age of ugliness’.

The lecture concluded with the outline of a fascinating hypothesis – my scribbled notes are a poor record of Labrusse’s subtle ideas. Among the reformists, he suggests, Islamophilia became a means of reformulating the Romantic project of classical renewal. Islamic tradition, unlike Greek and Romantic antiquity, offered a ‘weak’ model for European modernity, a path to aesthetic renewal without the oedipal constraints of the classical tradition. I am in danger of misrepresenting his arguments, so I better stop there. French readers can find more on this fascinating theme in Labrusse’s  Islamophiles: l’Europe moderne et les Arts d’Islam, published in 2011.


On the 20th of June 2012 I had the pleasure of attending Curators in Dialogue on the Persistence of Histories, part of the Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory project led by Dr. Ayla Lepine, the current Andrew Mellon and Research Forum Post-doctoral Fellow.

As one of a series of events associated with this project, the evening’s presentations by Dr Scott Nethersole (Courtauld Institute of Art), Abraham Thomas (design curator, V&A) and Sonia Solicari (Principle curator Guildhall Art Gallery), were followed by a lively panel discussion chaired by Dr Caroline Arscott.

Revivalism was presented as a creative act that entails varying degrees of historical referencing ranging across historical periods, cultures, and media. The presentations addressed how collections, spaces and exhibitions can function as vehicles of revivalism, while the discussion brought up issues such as concepts of kitsch versus irony, the use of the term ‘neo’ and the different forms of mediation that are put between one period and another. By the end of the night, it was clear to me that revivalism has little to do with the recreation or reconstruction of forms from the past. Rather, it is about constructing new meaning through what Dr Nethersole called aestheticized evocations.

What struck me most were the layered levels of revivalism that were present in all three presentations. Each revealed revivalisms within revivalisms that extended beyond simply the appropriation of stylistic references.

Dr Nethersole spoke of his curatorial decision to evoke, but not replicate, the original viewing conditions of 15th Century Italian altar pieces in order to emphasize their function within a church setting. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450), is placed within a classicizing Florentine Renaissance context as a result of its permanent setting in its own small room in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, itself a post-modern neo-classical revivalist design. However, it was originally hung as one of many elaborately framed altarpieces in a church, and when it was acquired by the National Gallery it was framed in a Victorian gothic revival frame. By emphasizing the viewing conditions over a continuous historical narrative, Dr Nethersole was able to achieve a revival of 15th century displays that created new opportunities for interpretation of the objects.

Abraham Thomas addressed the importance of the Alhambra for Owen Jones in the creation of his Grammar of Ornament (1856), and the subsequent interest in his version of Arabian motifs from the Egyptian Khedive. The romanticized photographic image of the crumbling and exotic Alhambra combined with Jones’ 19th century interpretations of its decorative motifs inspired the Egyptian leaders who sought impressive palaces that represented the latest in design and technology and yet harkened back to a non-western culture.

Finally, Sonia Solicari spoke of the self-conscious engagement with the reinterpretation of historical motifs as central to determining a definition of Victorian revivalism, or neo-Victorian. Here, the complex layers of mediated evocations at work in any revival were most apparent. The Victorian era was loaded with historical revivals: from Gothic, to Middle Eastern, to craft, and these were combined with vast advances in science and technology to create what we now consider Victorian ‘style’. Twenty-first century culture has engaged with its own revivals of these references, through steam-punk, taxidermy, a renewed interest in craft techniques and the cabinet of curiosities. In planning an exhibition of current neo-Victorian art, Solicari is faced with determining not only what makes an object neo-Victorian, but also why we are turning to this era once again. Her examples included Timorous Beasties’ ‘Devil Damask’ flocked wallpaper and Dan Hillier’s artwork for ‘Flush’, a track by Losers feat. Riz MC and Envy.

I left the talks wondering about the political motivations behind revivals. Though this was not addressed directly by the presentations, it was nonetheless apparent in the objects that were talked about and the various curatorial approaches to exhibiting revivalism that were offered to us throughout the evening. I am looking forward to delving deeper into revivalism, and its many facets at the conference in November.