Oriental art in 18th century France - two shows, in New York and Dresden

A guide to understanding the perception of the Orient in Western society, and how this affected the decorative arts

by 27 June 2011

Was the fashion for the "boudoirs turcs" that became popular in 18th-century France based on lascivious Late Empire taste, or just on a desire to escape from reality? An exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York, and the legendary Türckische Cammer in Dresden.

Versione in italiano

"The place where you are not, there is happiness." This motto worthy of a Schubert Lied is fitting for the atmosphere conveyed by the show "Turkish Taste at the Court of Marie-Antoinette," running from 8 June to 11 September 2011 at the Frick Collection in New York. The exhibition, curated by Charlotte Vignon, was made possible by support from Koç Holding.

The show recreates the shuttered unreality of the fashion for "boudoirs turcs," lounges furnished in Oriental style that were at the height of fashion amongst the French aristocracy in the second half of the 18th century. A far cry from the gilded mediocrity of the Biedermeier that would appear later, the boudoirs turcs had richly-decorated walls that screened out the outside world, and they were often clad in mirrors - all too easy to connect to a form of morbid fascination with one's own physical beauty. These chambers of delight provided refuge, whether real or imaginary, from the outside world, where the symptoms of the decline of the Ancien Régime were becoming increasingly pressing and depressing. They were one of the last flashes of brilliance in the Late Empire's twilight years, virtuoso expressions of style and maniacal craftsmanship in the artificial recreation of an imaginary Oriental world.

The impression is almost that the actual function of these "cabinets turcs" and the associated objects coveted by their users was not so much one of creating the ideal location for private and possibly voluptuous encounters, but rather for facilitating the descent into oblivion, by means of a dreamlike passage into a dimension totally removed from reality. In fact, the image of the Orient created by the French artists and craftsmen of that period was itself an abstraction. This is an intriguing area of study, offering an insight into the attitudes and aspirations of 18th-century French aristocracy, fascinated by the exotic motifs that became such an important part of their world, even though they were developed, modified and assimilated through the filter of Western culture.
We should not forget the influence of many figurative, musical and theatrical works of art with an Ottoman setting, which obtained considerable success for the whole of the 18th century. The Orient provided inspiration for some important cultural personalities of the time, such as Montesquieu and Voltaire (and, before them, Molière). Napoleon Bonaparte himself had, for a brief period, cultivated the idea of serving the Sultan of Turkey as artillery instructor.

The widespread interest in Oriental civilization was fuelled by the translation of the book "A Thousand and One Nights" into French, by Antoine Galland, who completed the task between 1704 and 1717. In addition, an analogous role was played by the Turkish envoys sent by the Sultan to France in search of an ally to counter Hapsburg expansion. Ironically it was a Hapsburg composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who composed the most important 18th-century "turquerie" in the form of music, namely the Singspiel "Die Entführung aus dem Serail," the first performance of which was held in Vienna in 1782. Vienna itself was not so far from the westernmost outposts of the Ottoman Empire, and, even though the rivalry between the two powers had often flared up into bloody battles, this had not prevented their respective cultural milieus from developing contacts and mutual influence. A good example of this process can be found in the novels by Crnjanski and Andriç, set in the territory between the two empires. Empress Maria Teresa of Austria (1717-1780) was particularly fond of Turkish-style fashion, and she collected objects from the Orient.

Maria Teresa's daughter was Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who, along with her brother-in-law the Comte d'Artois, who was to be crowned Charles X after the Restoration, transferred her passion for the "boudoirs turcs" to the entire French aristocracy. In these rooms, original Oriental motifs were grafted onto elements typical of Western art traditions. A good example of this process can be seen in the two console tables on display at the Frick Collection, dating to about 1780, and probably originating from the French Court. Their marble tops are bordered by a frieze with intersecting wooden crescent moon motifs, and they are supported by two Moors, also in wood, in the guise of caryatids, with turbans on their heads, and silvery earrings creating a contrast against their ebony skin. At abdominal height, a sash supports a girdle of acanthus leaves (difficult to think of a motif more evocative of classical Western culture!), below which, instead of legs, there are the tails of fish. Likewise, the central medallions with profiles of Sultans, juxtaposed by female effigies, are also typical of Western imperial symbolism. The Sultans are accompanied by the word "Imperator" in Latin capital letters. One of them is Beyazid I, defeated by Tamerlane and his Tartars in 1402.

The two panels for doors made by Jean-Siméon Rousseau de la Rottière (1747-1820) and his brother Jules-Hugues Rousseau (1743-1806) demonstrate, on the other hand, the compositional lightness typical of the Rococo period. From a central motif, symmetrical movements of lines and garlands are developed, with children wearing turbans, and naiads. The panels were lent to the Frick Collection by the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York, and they belong to a series of eight analogous pieces made for the "cabinet turc" commissioned by the Comte d'Artois in Versailles. The other six panels still exist, and they are conserved in France. But this is more the exception than the rule. There is only one boudoir turc still in existence, Marie Antoinette's at the Chateau of Fontainebleau, and the only two pieces that can be safely catalogued as belonging to the original decorative scheme are the two fire irons surmounted by dromedaries, made in gilded bronze. They are included in the Frick Collection exhibition. They were made in 1777 by the famous metalworker and gilder Pierre Gouthière (1732-1813 or 1814), and are from the Louvre. The cabinets turcs built for Marie-Antoinette and her brother-in-law at Versailles have not survived.

The objects shown in New York are excellent examples of 18th-century "turquerie," made with aspirations for exotic, Oriental style but unmistakably French in their shape and function. A chance to see some masterpieces of true Ottoman art is offered by the Türckische Cammer in Dresden, part of the city's fine museum collections, housed in the Renaissance Castle in the city that was the capital of Saxony. The Türckische Cammer has been reopened to the public after having been closed for almost seventy years, and it includes over 600 objects in an exhibition area totalling 750 square metres. The collections were gathered by the Prince-Electors of Saxony, who had been interested in Ottoman objects from as early as the 16th century, anticipating the Orientalist taste that would become all the rage in 18th century Europe. They include opulent garments, weapons decorated with precious stones, luxurious fabrics, and the finery used by Augustus the Strong (1670-1733, king of Poland from 1697) to adorn the Arabian horses and camels that he imported specially from the realms of the Sublime Porte to the court of Dresden for his Baroque celebrations.

One remarakable highlight is the monumental tent, 20 metres long, eight metres wide and six metres high, and it looks like something straight out of the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. After 14 years' restoration, it has at last returned to its original splendour, with multicoloured applications of satin, cotton and gilded leather. Augustus the Strong brought it to Dresden in 1729.
The permanent collection in Dresden makes it possible to see some artistic and crafts artefacts from the real Ottoman Orient. The New York exhibition, on the other hand, examines the Orient as it existed in the imagination of craftsmen in 18th-century France. The two shows therefore illustrate phenomena that are closely related in terms of theme, but at the same time, they are a long way apart. The distance between reality and dreams.

Alberto Gerosa

Useful information:
The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY 10021, www.frick.org
Opening times: from Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Sundays open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Türckische Cammer, Residenzschloss, Taschenberg 2, 01067 Dresden, Germany, www.skd.museum
Opening times: from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Tuesdays.