When the Dahesh Museum closed its doors at 56th Street and Madison Avenue in September 2007, I was disappointed. Its collection of 3000 works of academic art from the 19th and early 20th centuries always was a sobering counterpoint to Impressionism, Modernism and abstraction in painting. The museum itself also was enjoyable with its diverse exhibitions, great gift store and a cafe that overlooked Madison Avenue.
When I heard in December 2008 that Dahesh and Syracuse University Art Galleries entered into a two-year agreement to organize several exhibitions in the university's Manhattan and upstate gallery spaces I was happy Dahesh's collection would still be available in the New York metropolitan area. Syracuse, which houses the Annie Walters Arents Collection of 19th century academic paintings, and Dahesh have collections that complement each other.
Their first venture, "In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th Century Egypt and the Holy Land" is now showing at the Palitz Gallery in Lubin Hall, at 11 East 61st Street, owned by Syracuse University. The show runs from March 24, 2009 until April 30, 2009. Going to academic art exhibitions requires a little work on the part of this viewer because many of the artists are not familiar to me. As I am not a scholar of art history, I know more about the famous late 19th and early 20th century artists, named Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and their colleagues, who rebelled against the academy.
But because the Palitz Gallery is small, the 27 works in the current exhibition are manageable, even if the names of the artists don't slip off my tongue. But isn't the whole point of going to see art to learn more about art?
In this case, the focus of the show was to highlight how a group of 19th century artists traveled to the Middle East to obtain accurate, first-hand views of these exotic locales. Rather than devise romanticized notions of the region from their imaginations or book descriptions, as had been done throughout the history of art by artists to depict Bible and Judeo-Christian themes, these artists painted from life. Some, such as David Roberts, wore local clothing to not be conspicous as they painted or sketched. Others even chose to eventually settle in the region.
Academic training in the 18th century taught artists to paint from life, in plein air, or on site, the exhibition notes say. Artists had accompanied Napolean when he invaded Egypt in 1798, which was the basis of the Dahesh's last exhibition, "Napolean on the Nile." But the artists in this current show, from the latter part of the 19th century, explored the region in much greater depth, traveling throughout Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Algeria. A map of Roberts' extensive travel is in the show.
When they returned to Europe, besides being purveyors of art from sites of great historical significance and their people, the artists obtained a cachet value as cultural adventurers. Artists, such as Roberts and Robert Hay, could sell multiple color prints of their works because of the newly invented lithographic printing process. They created both a supply and demand for what was then called Orientalist art. Photography, also recently invented, enabled images to be reproduced.
The paintings and prints in the exhibition capture the heat, light, dust in the desert, people, culture, commerce, history, religion and architecture of the Middle East. Marketplaces, from boat-based reed sales along the Nile to pottery and food stands in the cities and outskirts, are represented, as are holy sites and temples throughout the region.
Most of the art in the show is "apolitical" the exhibition notes say, except for one epic painting by Gustave Bauernfeind, "Jaffa, Recruiting Turkish Soldiers" in Palestine, 1888, (left), depicting the modern Ottoman Empire. Recruiting is a "euphemism for forced abduction into military service," the notes say.
"Along the Nile at Gyzeh", above left, by Charles Theodore Frere, (1814-1888) also was made without reflecting French colonial ambitions, the painting note says. But Frere eventually accompanied Empress Eugenie of France to the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, which provided a commercial route from the Mediterranean to Egypt, and painted a "suite of watercolors at her command."
The painting, even if drawn from nature, offers a romantic view of the stillness of the Nile at daybreak with the pyramids in the background and in the foreground palm trees and cattle as witnesses to both the sunrise and the architecture. Humans, even though they built the pyramids, are absent from the image. The time depicted in the painting could be that of the ancient Eygpt or the 19th century.
That timelessness in this painting and in many others in the exhibition, has a tendency to mask the reality of the existing politics of the time. Doing so, they offer entertainment value for idealizing these Orientalist themes, then and now. For me, though, additional study of the artists, their choice of specific subject matter, their patrons and the time in which they worked is necessary. Thankfully, the Dahesh and Syracuse University Art Galleries now have an opportunity to continue to explore these academic works in their artistic and historical context.