The name “Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille” as well as the grand appearance of the Palais Longchamp raised high expectations. Maybe, I thought, they’ll have a sculpture by Rodin, a painting by Monet or Renoir? You can imagine my disappointment after four rooms with paintings – mainly 17th and 18th century portraits – when I learned that that was it. No more…
Determined to learn at least sómething, I went back to the first room and studied the paintings all over again. And only then it dawned on me that all XX-century paintings (a staggering 7 in total!) were related to the French colonies. Back in 1900, colonial expansion, the commercialization of the steamboat and the growing number of railway networks created opportunity for French artists to join the streams of people exploring exotic places. Did they previously study the light in Italy, now they discovered the light in ‘the Orient’ was much more interesting.
The ‘Second French Colonial Empire’ had begun in 1830 with the conquest of Algiers. Influence expanded in 1881 to Tunisia and around 1900 French territory covered most of the Northern, Western and Central parts of Africa. The opening of the Suez-canal in 1869 contributed to the French expansion in the Far-East where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos became French-Indochina and where France leased concessions in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Honkou. And Marseille? Marseille was the Port of that enormous Empire! Marseille was the window overlooking the French Colonial Empire; the door to the Orient…
Orientalism* became increasingly popular and in 1906 Jules Charles-Roux, who had been responsible for the colonial section of the successful ‘1900 Paris Exposition Universelle‘, organised ‘L’extraordinaire Exposition Coloniale’ in Marseille. There were no less than 50 pavilions near the Rond-point du Prado – 60 acres between Boulevard Michelet and Boulevard Rabatau – which attracted 1.8 million visitors.
Like most of you probably, I already knew that many famous artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and even architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were influenced by East Asian Orientalism, and by Japonism in particular. But what I saw in Marseille was a glimpse of the influence the Middle East had on Les Beaux Arts.
Also the Art Nouveau movement was influenced by Orientalism. Siegfried Bing’s gallery and his magazine ‘Le Japon Artistique’ were important, perhaps crucial, to the Japanese influence on Art Nouveau. During that same period Islamic art must have influenced (some of the) Art Nouveau artists as well but I find proof of that a little bit harder to find. In Marseille I couldn’t find any examples of it; I do remember a glass object by Gallé at the Kitazawa Museum of Art in Suwa, Japan though.
And I also remember some architecture in Berchem (Antwerp) that I believe was influenced by (Middle Eastern) Orientalism.
Conclusion: there was no Art Nouveau at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. But all in all it was an interesting morning. I will now be much more attentive to the influence from the Middle East on Art Nouveau. Something that will surely help me along my Journey into getting to know Art Nouveau!
* Orientalism is a term used by art historians for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures by writers, painters and designers from the West.
Exposition Coloniale de Marseille (1906)
Marseille, un siecle d’images – a centry of pictures
Mythical, magical, maligned Marseille
The Orientalists: Painter-travellers by Lynne Thornton
Wikipage French Colonial Empire
Wikipage French Orientalism
Wikipage Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille
Wikipage Second French colonial empire (after 1830)