Thursday, August 15, 2013

Boston Gérôme

I am surprised that Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting at the MFA Boston, Pigment Seller in North Africa (1891), does not receive more central attention in art-historical coverage. As I see it, Orientalism works on two levels. The first level is iconographic, selecting sexy scenes from the Middle East to generate in the viewer a possessive desire. Naturally, Moorish Bath (also at the MFA), or the Snake Charmer (at the Clark) are the best illustrations of this "gaze" politics (and explains why the latter was used as Edward Said's cover for Orientalism)

But the second level in which Orientalism operates is to create a sensual visual surface (regardless of subject matter) that we cannot resist. The luscious mode of representation becomes its own erotic experience, full of the anxieties of voyeurism. The Pigment Seller touches at the heart of this second process. We are at the market watching a North African man pound color pigments. Purely colored vulvas are vigorously pounded. The painting is truly disturbing in a way that the better known and sleeker Snake Charmer or Moorish Bath. Unexpectedly, The Pigment Seller makes a prophetic commentary to Clement Greenberg's definition of Modernism (as medium specificity) in the 1950s.


Karl Kieninger said...

This painting caught our eyes at the MFA today. My wife and eye were both struck by it and wondered--as you did--why this has escaped greater attention.

James Frederick Bland said...

I enjoy this painting at MFAB every time I go. The use of hue, value and chroma is a wonder to behold. I disagree with your use of sexual metaphor, however. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In this case I believe Gerome was showing off a bit in his use of color within an otherwise monochrome painting in the Scholastic tradition. It's a post card for painters.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States