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Flâneurs in The Orient: The Colonial Maghrib and the origins of the French Modernist tradition

Murray-Miller, Gavin ORCID: 2016. Flâneurs in The Orient: The Colonial Maghrib and the origins of the French Modernist tradition. Goldwyn, Adam J. and Silverman, Renee M., eds. Mediterranean Modernism: Intercultural Exchange and Aesthetic Development, 1880-1945, Mediterranean Perspectives, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 317-342.

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The mid-nineteenth century has widely been recognized as a period of innovation and transition that not only broke with many of the predominant aesthetic philosophies of the day, but also encouraged new practices that challenged the traditional artistic and academic establishment. France, and to a greater extent Paris, has typically constituted the epicenter of what Anne Coffin Hanson once deemed the “modern tradition,” stressing the markedly Parisian origins and character of a movement that was soon to become accepted by artist and writers across the continent. Such assessments have, however, often overlooked the role that North Africa and orientalism played in the making of French modernism, preferring to highlight haussmannisé Paris and the culture of the salon rather than more peripheral fields of activity beyond metropolitan France. Yet as the art critic, poet and travel writer Théophile Gautier noted, France’s new Algerian colony across the Mediterranean had become a popular destination for artists by the 1860s, offering a Sahara “dotted with as many landscapists’ parasols as the forests of Fontainebleau in the days gone by,” as he once remarked. Gautier was only one of many nascent modernists to draw inspiration from the Maghrib and claim an identity as a flâneur of the Orient. During the period, writers and artists such as Gustave Flaubert, Eugène Fromentin and the Goncourt Brothers readily traveled across the Mediterranean for purposes of leisure or to perfect their craft, articulating a new style of artistic representation in the process that would draw upon and elaborate the cultural and discursive practices commonly associated with modernism. This chapter places the origins of French modernism in a trans-Mediterranean context, arguing that North African tourism, colonial modernization and encounters with a changing “Orient” played an instrumental role in the making of the modernist tradition. During the mid-nineteenth century, a new generation of Frenchmen watched as the sublime Orient of the romantics dissolved into a disparaging tableau of newly-Gallicized cities and hybridized cultures. European settlement, state-sponsored building projects and greater contact with the Muslim world all served to undermine conceptions of a monolithic and timeless Orient steeped in religious mysticism and exoticism, prompting leading Orientalists like Gautier and Fromentin to call for a new style of artistic representation capable of recognizing the Orient as a site of transition and change. If, as Baudelaire stated, modernité embodied “the transient, fugitive and contingent,” then colonial Algeria was certainly an explicit manifestation of the modern, one which French observers were keen to recognize in their art and criticism. By shifting the emphasis from haussmannisé Paris to nineteenth-century Algiers, this chapter argues for a more dynamic understanding of the origins of French modernism and modernity in general. Situating these themes within a broader cultural and intellectual milieu that spanned metropole and colony, it seeks to re-interpret the origins of modernism as one of the many “tensions of empire” that shaped both national and imperial cultures in the nineteenth century.

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: History, Archaeology and Religion
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 9781137589279
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Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2022 06:47

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