Matisse: “Algerian Woman” (Painting)

Matisse - Algerian Woman
Henri Matisse. The Algerian Woman. 1909. Oil on canvas. Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

The depiction of the Middle East has, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, often been approached in binary terms and in the framework of “power/knowledge” in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzche and Michel Foucault.

There is, however, an argument to be made for the Middle East as an influence on European modernity, not just the other way around. When one moves away from politics and economics to culture, power/knowledge becomes more ambiguous. People have multiple identities, and appropriate from various sources, and are changed by their influences. Goethe was clearly deeply changed by his encounter with the Persian poet Hafez, something that Said’s approach kept him from seeing.

French painter Henri Matisse, who came to prominence as a post-expressionist and then leader of a school called Fauvism (which rejected Picasso’s cubism), was deeply influenced by Japanese painting, as well as by his experiences in North Africa. Some of his famed striving for serenity probably has at least implicit roots in the Sufism and Buddhism of his influences. European Modernism is often treated as a European phenomenon, but it was global, and Africa and Asia played big roles in it.

4 Responses

  1. I agree! There is work on this for African “primitivism” but I don’t think there are many critics who discuss the Sufi roots of Matisse. I love Matisse!

  2. Well put, Professor. You have scored an ace in defining the influence of North Africa on Matisse.

  3. There’s tons of influence. Alot of it is part of the more generalizable of “the orient” on European modernism. If you notice, Matisse’s Algerian looks very Japanese. It’s been traced back to Manet as well. Buber’s Ecstatic Confessions probably has a lot of Sufi material, and needless to say, there’s not a little bit of “auto-orientalism” in his early essay, “Judaism and the Spirit of the Orient.” For more direct influences there’s the “Turkish” element in Mozart’s violin concerto (#3?) and also a Turkish influence on Le Corbissier. I also like the figure of Saladin on Lessing in “Nathan the Wise” (about which Amir Mufti has written a very critical book). There’s also some very interesting things said by German Jewish historians comparing Islam (very well) with Christianity. Graetz in the “History of the Jews” liked especially the poetry. My all time favorite, though, is Paul Klee’s “Tunisian Diaries,” which is where he claimed to have learned “color.” With a lot of salt, this stuff is very, very interesting, much more interesting than either a non-dialectical approach to “orientalism” or to the “clash of civilization” approach.

  4. ZJB: is Buber’s essay on Judaism and the Orient available to read online? Would be very grateful for a link if you have one. Thanks.

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