Stammers on O'Brien (2018)


O’Brien, David. Exiled in Modernity: Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism. Pennsylvania State UP, 2018, pp. xiv + 226, ISBN 978-0-271078-59-5

         Tom Stammers, University of Durham

David O’Brien’s compact and elegant new book offers a deceptively simple thesis: that civilization and barbarism form key antimonies within the thought and practice of Eugène Delacroix. However, as the author investigates the resonance of these terms across different genres and artistic projects, the complex oppositions and affinities between civilization and barbarism are thrown into sharp relief. O’Brien depicts Delacroix as an artist at once deeply attached to the genius of past societies, but skeptical about narratives of progress and disgusted with the shallow and commodified culture of his own age. While mortified by the menace to civilization posed by barbarian “others”—from Attila to the iconoclastic socialists of 1848—Delacroix nonetheless found in primitive scenes and cultures a vital stimulus to his own creative energies. 

Defining Delacroix in relation to primitivism is not an especially original move; O’Brien amply acknowledges his debt to scholars such as Lee Johnson, Darcy Grimaldo-Grigsby, Anita Hopmans, Eve Kliman, Sébastien Allard, Norman Bryson and, especially, Michele Hanoosh, who has overseen new editions of Delacroix’s remarkable journals. Like Hanoosh, O’Brien underlines the importance of Delacroix the intellectual and writer for understanding Delacroix the painter. What distinguishes O’Brien’s book is the thoroughness with which he pursues the theme across a range of fields, finding points of intersection among the grand murals produced for the Palais Bourbon, the Chambre des Pairs, and the Hôtel de Ville, the wealth of Orientalist subjects loosely inspired by his travels to Morocco, and the depiction of animals that constitutes no less than one fifth of his corpus, especially the extravagant and frenzied hunting scenes with lions. Throughout each chapter, O’Brien seeks to explain how the ambivalent dyad of civilization and barbarism informed not just the choice of compositions, but also their formal language and expressive power.

At its most ambitious, O’Brien’s essay on this theme aims not just to illuminate a central aspect of Delacroix’s oeuvre, but also to clarify how to periodize this “especially transitional figure” (153). As reiterated by the 2016 exhibition Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (shared between the National Gallery, London, and Philadelphia), the master of the Romantics remained a touchstone for later generations of avant-garde artists, whether Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Cézannne. Conversely, O’Brien reveals Delacroix as a man profoundly ill-at-ease with the world of political and economic modernity, railing against everything from mechanized agriculture and transport links to electoral democracy and the elephantine vulgarity of the Expositions Universelles. His misanthropic outbursts against the hollowness and idiocy of French society and its so-called improvements echo those of François-Réné Chateaubriand and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Delacroix never ceased to revere the Old Masters such as Paolo Veronese, Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, even if he believed that social conditions had made it harder for their genius to recur. 

Nor did he ever renounce the significance of narrative, illusionistic, and figurative painting, despite the experimental qualities of his late style. Like Ovid among the Scythians, the painting with which O’Brien opens and closes the book, the painter found himself caught between the rival pull of past and future, convention, and excess. O’Brien demonstrates amply the difficulty of fitting Delacroix within existing definitions of modernity and Modernism, even if the author could go further in thinking through the art of Delacroix to call the adequacy of those very definitions into question.

O’Brien’s thesis is largely persuasive, built on a set of propositions and observations that run across each of the four chapters. He has a gift for drawing out the implications of seemingly anecdotal or cursory remarks in the journal, just as he writes with admirable precision and fairness about the visual properties of Delacroix’s art, acknowledging both its turbulence and dynamism as well as its shaky draftsmanship and deliberate vagueness. But the interpretive implications of his argument are subtly explosive. For in contrast to a current of art historians determined to read history and politics into Delacroix’s canvases, O’Brien consistently refuses the attempt to confine Delacroix within any single ideological context. His reading of the grand mural projects documents how Delacroix moved away throughout the 1840s from models of civilization promoted by the Orléans regime and more towards timeless and literary ideals. This process of abstracting away from the pressure of current circumstances was not simply a mark of immediate political disillusionment but a bid for his increasingly decorative art to be placed in dialogue with the annals of art history.       

Similarly, O’Brien pushes back against much recent post-colonial criticism in insisting that Delacroix’s images of the Orient increasingly departed from the immediate experiences of colonialism. This is not to deny the political crisis that presented Delacroix with the chance to visit Morocco in 1831, nor the mix of racism, exotic fetishism, and voyeurism he exhibited towards Arab peoples. But O’Brien insists rather on the ubiquitous parallels Delacroix drew between the peoples of North Africa and the ancient Greeks and Romans, imbued with the virile masculinity and heroic virtues and vices of societies at the dawn of civilization. Moreover, in railing against the growing effeminacy and artifice of the Orient, O’Brian contends, Delacroix’s target was invariably the corruption of the West. While he began in full support of the colonial enterprise-fed on stories of Napoleonic grandeur, Delacroix’s growing disaffection with any notion of civilizing the Arabs overlapped with the increasing substitute of ethnographic details for largely imaginary or abstract compositions, belonging to no particular place or time. Primitive subjects, revealing the passions of natural man and bathed in legend, could transport the viewer out of their habitual routine and ennui and offer them a form of release. In short, O’Brien wagers, Delacroix forces us to consider the notion of transcendence as something more than a self-serving ruse or an ideological tool. Rather, transcendence offered Delacroix a way of imaginatively negating the present via a three-fold “flight into the past,” “flight into fantasy,” and “flight into form” (146).