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Albert Besnard and the Vision of India: French Orientalism and its Display at the Venice Biennale of 1914

Margot Degoutte
Albert Besnard, Le Danseur au masque jaune, distemper on paper laid down on canvas, 192 x 130 cm, 1911, Paris, Petit Palais

Albert Besnard, Le Danseur au masque jaune, distemper on paper laid down on canvas, 192 x 130 cm, 1911, Paris, Petit Palais

Albert Besnard, Tableau de l’Inde (Sur un des escaliers de Bénarès), oil on canvas / distemper on canvas, 192,5 x 130 cm, 1911-12, Paris, Galerie Laurentin

Albert Besnard, Tableau de l’Inde (Sur un des escaliers de Bénarès), oil on canvas / distemper on canvas, 192,5 x 130 cm, 1911-12, Paris, Galerie Laurentin

The painting Sur les escaliers de Bénarès (Upon the stairs of Benares) was displayed at the Galerie Petit in Paris in the 1912 exhibition of Albert Besnard’s (1849-1934) most recent works entitled Voyage aux Indes[1]. The picture is most likely to have been included in Besnard’s personal show at the 1914 Venice Biennale. There, fifteen works of oil, gouache and distemper on canvas were featured in the French Pavilion. Plein air drawings and watercolours taken from the artist’s seven travelling sketchbooks[2] were also a part of the show, unfortunately they were not catalogued piece by piece. Albert Besnard, Prix de Rome winner in 1874, broke away from the academism that characterised his first manner in the late 1880s, and founded the new Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890. Then, influenced by Impressionism, he gained official and critical recognition.

In 1910, at the peak of his career, he left for a seven-month trip to India with all his family - wife and children. Besnard’s interest in India may have risen during his 1881-1883 stay in London, but also thanks to his reading of Pierre Loti’s L’Inde (sans les Anglais), published in 1903. Attracted to all forms of orientalism, Besnard was also moved by a more profound research for authenticity: as poet Jacques Copeau would have it, Antiquity persisted through the painter’s gaze and brush[3]. The account of his trip was published in 1913, L’Homme en rose. L’Inde couleur de sang recounts a genuine passion for India. Besnard’s works, both large scale oil, gouache or distemper painting recomposed within the studio or impromptu sketches and watercolours made directly outdoors or in front of the motive, suggest his longing to encounter and encompass India’s traditional rites as well as its profound spirituality. Panels such as Les escaliers de Bénarès or life-size canvas Le Danseur au masque jaune (Paris, Petit Palais) epitomise this tendency in the patient reformulation of the souvenir, where the use of distemper or gouache, a means of decorative painting, give the impression of an invaluable truth revealed in the spur of the moment. After the tepid impression made by the discovery of Calcutta, Besnard seems relieved to find in the city of Benares the embodiment of his truth - and authenticity-seeking quest: “I had dreamed to see Benares, to the point of despair … and here I am !”[4]. Nevertheless, the desire and the sincere encounter with India as a pilgrim on a mission rather than a leisure tourist cannot undermine the colonial context, which pervades throughout Besnard’s works, though unintentionally. Indeed, Besnard resorts to the same means in both his rendition of Algeria and of India: a plastic use of the picturesque by intertwining utopia and local colour, chromaticism and the search for otherness, dream-like re-composition and matter-of-factness, ethnographic point of view and poetic licence.

In these regards, does Besnard qualify to the function of ambassador of French orientalism? Does his Venice solo show contribute to the artistic diffusion of the colonial expansion of the Third Republic? In a way, Besnard takes part in the renewal of artistic orientalism in the early decades of the century, as well as in the colonial expansion of the Republic. Following into Gauguin’s, Renoir’s or Dinet’s footsteps, his attempt at ethnographic approach matches some of the principles of the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français. However, his take on orientalism is much more accountable for the peculiar singularity and the distinctive and rotiform expression of Besnard. Italian critics reacted quite equivocally in front of Besnard’s Indian paintings. Guido Marangoni for example saw India only as a convenient pretext for an awkward and illogical chromatic experiment, declaring the panels artificial and unauthentic[5]. On the contrary, Ugo Ojetti reviewed the show most apologetically, judging the Indian detour as a means for Besnard to make Gauguin’s lesson his own, to reciprocate in his paintings his art of murals and, last but not least, to embrace modernity[6].

[1]    Gabriel Mourey, « Albert Besnard aux Indes » Les Arts, n°127, july 1912 ; Camille Mauclair, « L’Inde vue par M. Albert Besnard », L’art et les Artistes, XV, avril-septembre 1912

[2]    Those seven sketchbooks are identified by Paul Jamot as worthy of Delacroix studies, in Paul Jamot, “La suite indienne de M. Albert Besnard”, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, June 1912 p. 446

[3]    Jacques Copeau, « Albert Besnard aux Indes », Art et Décoration, 1912, n°5, p. 146

[4]    Albert Besnard, « J’avais rêvé voir Bénarès jusqu’à en désespérer. Et m’y voici ... », L’Homme en rose. L’Inde couleur de sang, Paris, Fasquelle, 1913, p. 320

[5]    Guido Marangoni, « L’arte a Venezia. Gli artisti stranieri », La Cultura Moderna, anno XXIII, n.21, p. 599

[6]    Ugo Ojetti, « L’Undecima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte in Venezia. Note critiche », L’Illustrazione Italiana, 1914, p.7

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