Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2019
David O’Brien Exiled in Modernity: Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism University Park: Penn State University Press, 2018. 240 pp.; 53 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271078595)

David O’Brien’s book is a timely addition to Delacroix literature at a significant moment when the great Romantic painter is once again in the limelight. A major retrospective exhibition—the first since 1963—of 180 of his works just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its only American venue, following the show’s display at the Louvre museum. A more intimate exhibition around Delacroix and the theme of “struggle” as exemplified in his Saint-Sulpice murals—their antecedents and their afterlife in modernist painting—ran parallel with the Louvre retrospective at the Musée National Eugène Delacroix in the painter’s atelier on the picturesque Place Fürstenberg in Paris.

O’Brien takes as his subject another form of struggle, one that haunted Delacroix’s thought—the oppositional duality of civilization and barbarism—a moral and cultural antithesis that shaped many of his paintings and informed his writings, especially his journal. Throughout his career, Delacroix grappled with the Möbius strip–like mutational nature of this dualism that shifted ambivalently from good to evil, from positive to negative, and back again. For although a lifelong proponent of civilization, especially in its Western European iteration, Delacroix was also its sharpest critic. He openly and repeatedly expressed his resentment of civilization’s social and moral restrictions, its fixation on the idea of modernity and progress—industrial, technological, social, and economic—and the coarse, commercialized materialism it fostered. Indeed, he viewed such aspects of the civilized as no less than another form of barbarism. Conversely, while perceiving barbarism as the aggressive foe and destroyer of civilization’s achievements, he was eager to recognize the innocence, virtue, and humanity of primitive savages leading a simple existence close to nature. In his mind, savagery and nature had a great deal in common, fluctuating, as they both did, between pristine innocence and uncouth brutality. As O’Brien notes, Delacroix located in the “savage’s world many of the ideals that he felt were lacking in modernity. His primitivism grew directly from his understanding of civilization” (28). The author aptly cites Jean Starobinski’s view of Baudelaire’s ambiguous duality of Ideal and Spleen as an analogy to the tense dynamics governing Delacroix’s pairing of civilization and barbarism. A concomitant pictorial manner accompanied such paired opposites: free, sensuous, energetic strokes matched the sense of savage primitiveness. Civilized overtones were conveyed by means of order, balance, and decorative rationalism.

In chapter 1, the idea of civilization more generally is analyzed in its diverse relationships with notions such as modernity, emulation, and primitivism. The chapter explores Delacroix’s concept of civilization, as formulated in the 1850s, primarily in his journal, as revolving around four main points: civilization’s view as man made (as opposed to being natural or having divine origins); civilization as inevitably conjuring up its opposite, savagery; civilization as a temporal concept unraveling in time; and civilization as not an infallible medium for the improvement of human society. Indeed, as Delacroix acknowledges, major evils were done in the name of civilization, progress, and modernity, so that rather than being the apex of human perfection, civilization could in fact resemble its barbaric opposite. Delacroix’s friend the visionary-philosopher Paul Chenavard’s view of civilization that considered the arts as a prime—albeit doomed—civilizing force served as a contrasting foil to Delacroix who ultimately rejected such theories, as discussed in the following chapter.

The centerpiece of chapter 2 is a focused study of Delacroix’s murals for the ceiling of the Deputies’ Library in the Bourbon Palace, as an example of the application and demonstration of his conception of civilization as human artistic and intellectual achievement, independent of time-related contingencies. The ceilings’ cycle of twenty-two murals feature important milestones in the history and culture of mankind embodied by its great men of the arts, letters, and sciences, the portents of civilization albeit themselves often vulnerable to barbarism: “The ceiling is as much about civilization’s others—the natural, the barbaric, the bestial, the ignorant, the savage, the violent—as about civilization” (59). The murals invited a comparison with Chenavard’s own unrealized painterly project of civilization and its representatives through time. But whereas Chenavard viewed human achievement as contingent on its historical moment, Delacroix avoided such historical determinism (a useful appendix at the end of the book analyzes the imagery of each pendentive, as well as that of the two hemicycles on each end of the ceiling). The chapter closes with considerations of Delacroix’s two other major mural projects, the Peers Library at the Luxembourg Palace and the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre. Civilization interpreted as a dream world and metaphysical escape from the modern present is best exemplified in Delacroix’s evocation of the paradisiac Parnassus of great poets and artists of all time that congregate on the rim of the great cupola of the Luxembourg Palace of 1841–5.

The nostalgic evocation of that supernatural world reaching back to antiquity increasingly directed Delacroix toward the primitive, a notion he also found in the “alien” worlds of colonial North Africa and the animal wilderness, worlds both real and heavily reconstructed by Delacroix’s escapist imaginary. They constitute the twinned topics examined in chapters 3 and 4. Delacroix approached North Africa, which he visited as part of an official French diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Morocco in 1832, in the dual guise of an artist-ethnographer and a cultural critic. Departing from standard views about Orientalist European constructs of the Orient, such as formulated by Edward Said among others, O’Brien offers a refreshingly personalized interpretation of Delacroix’s reaction to his exotic environment, convincingly arguing that the painter’s notions of the Orient and the Oriental, though still at times in pace with stereotypical Orientalist prejudice, were primarily shaped by his discontents with Western European modernity. Instead, Delacroix’s perception of the Orient represented “a world filled with the types of experience that the artist felt modern civilization threatened the most” (75). In North Africa, Delacroix found “a primitive mode of existence that hearkens back to a more salubrious stage of civilization, especially to that of ancient Greece and Rome” (74), hence the frequent and ecstatic comments in his letters about the nobility of ordinary Arabs reminiscent of Cato and Brutus. Violence was an inherent part of that primal and spontaneous culture, a feature that warranted Delacroix’s assimilation of such antiquarian primitiveness with the animal realm. The latter he perceived as remote from the ills of civilized modernity as it was close to the natural realm whose immediacy, spontaneity, and primal qualities they incarnated. He studied animals of all kinds, free or in captivity, domesticated or ferocious, in zoos, stables, and traveling menageries. His view of animals was strangely anthropomorphic. For him, animals stood as both metaphors for social conflict and symbols of an existence outside civilized constraints. Although he knew the eminent naturalists of his day, such as Frédéric Cuvier and Etienne-Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, it was the metaphysical issues raised by the animals’ affective dualities rather than their physiology that interested him most. Animals, moreover, embodied the ultimate negative reaction to modernity and the strictures of civilization and as such contradicted the prevailing rhetoric of the Second Empire built around the concept of social and technological “progress.” Depicting animals, too—at rest or in deadly conflict with other beasts or with humans—offered yet another kind of liberation, opening up the way to expressive, formal, and technical freedom and experimentation, a vibrant palette of sensuous colors applied by means of a dynamic, gestural touch in compositions that pulsated with vitality.

And yet, as the study concludes, although Delacroix experimented with primitivism and responded to the appeal of the untrammeled nature of animals, he never abandoned traditional classical and literary painting. O’Brien’s book puts forward a strong and convincing argument eloquently supported by his insightful reading of Delacroix’s writing, aptly and enticingly paired with his paintings. The painter’s invocation of primitive realms in counterpoint to his dark view of modernity resonates throughout nineteenth-century culture and art, as it still does to this day.

Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer
Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor, Institute of Fine Arts; Editor-in-Chief, The Art Bulletin