It is a transfixing scene of a raft with Goyesque figures of men that seem as if doomed to a morbid fate, and indeed they are: a closer look reveals that they are drawing lots, but not to hurl one of the men into the sea, but rather to decide who of those on board would be the next ‘meal’ for his starving companions. The men, with Don Juan among them, are the survivors of a shipwreck, and the scene is from Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, immortalised through this painting by Eugène Delacroix.
Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Chateaubriand, Walter Scott and many others inspired Delacroix to depict Don Juan, Hamlet, Faustus, Ivanhoe and a long list of other characters. You meet all these characters in the exhibition, but you quickly realise that literature was only one of many sources of inspiration that guided his paintbrush throughout his career.
Delacroix is the quintessential French romantic painter, inasmuch as his predecessor, Jacques-Louis David; was the quintessential neoclassical painter. He was to the Romantic Movement what Courbet would be to the Realist Movement later on: a leader, a trendsetter, an inspiration.
Ever since 1963 (his centenary exhibition), no exhibition of Delacroix’s works ever came even close to the scale of the exhibition currently hosted by la Caixa Foundation in Barcelona. With over one hundred of his works on show, the exhibition is every thing you would expect from a Louvre-curated retrospective of this scale: masterpieces by Delacroix were flown over from the Louvre; the National Gallery (London); the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many other reputable institutions.
The profusion of genres that he painted is celebrated through a generous collection of works that range from history painting to mythology and from studies of horses, lions and tigers to portraits and genre painting. Probably, the only remorse that the visitors could possibly have is the absence of ‘Liberty leading the People,’ undoubtedly his most iconic masterpiece.
Dalia Hussein, a Barcelona-based Egyptian with an MA in Arts and Culture Management finds the exhibition “shocking, pleasing, an experience (she) can relate to, caught between the drama and the warm vivid colors.” The absence of Liberty Leading the People is compensated for by the presence of other impressive masterpieces like Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Death of Sardanapalus and The Women of Algiers in their Apartment, an spectacular orientalist painting displayed in a section of the exhibition dedicated solely for the orientalist works of Delacroix.
"The Greeks and Romans are here at my door, in the Arabs who wrap themselves in a white blanket and look like Cato or Brutus…” – Delacroix while in Morocco
While visitors understandably clustered around The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (given its intimate nature and its cabinet-of-curiosity quality), they eventually surrendered to the magic of an image captured in another painting:
The whitewashed walls of an Arab medina set the backdrop for a procession of dervishes invading the streets under the green flag of a Sufi order, as they seem to experience a state of collective ecstasy. The medina is Tangier, the dervishes are the devout followers of the Aissawa Order, and the scene is masterfully captured in Delacroix’s canvas titled The Fanatics of Tangier.
It was in 1832 that Delacroix (35-years-old at the time) arrived at Morocco as part of a failed French diplomatic mission to the Moroccan Sultan Abderrahmane. Little he cared for politics and diplomacy, his interest was purely cultural, and the trip proved a major inspiration that led him to produce tens of paintings depicting scenes from Meknes, Tangier and other cities during his six months stay in “the land of lions and leather” as he once called it.
Unlike the orientalist works of Ingres and Gérôme, Delacroix had a taste not only for the exotic but also for the mundane, a tendency to represent ordinary scenes as he saw them: reality had within it all the ‘romantic’ elements necessary to inspire an artist like him, without the need for exaggeration or exuberance.
Many of his sketches and paintings feature fleeting moments and landscapes of great aesthetic quality, like A Street in Meknes, Arabic Buffoons and Lion Hunt in Morocco. Decades later, Matisse would say, “I have found landscapes in Morocco exactly as they are described in Delacroix’s paintings.”
Other works from the period have a historic-documentary quality, like Jewish Wedding in Morocco, which chronicles social festivities and traditions that are impossible to witness nowadays in Morocco due to the radical socio-cultural changes that the community has experienced since the 1800s. More than just works of art, these paintings are visual fossils of times gone by, set in a historic geography that no more exists and can no longer be reproduced.
Rachida Belkassim, a Moroccan fashion designer, is thrilled by the exhibition, but she leaves with one question that she shared with us: “interesting that Al-Maghreb (literally, the place where the sun sets, the West) would be regarded as an ‘oriental’ theme! Where exactly does ‘the Orient’ ends and the ‘the West’ begins for these orientalists?”