Two albums compiled from an artist's sketchbooks recording nearly 40 years of life in Algeria.Algeria: 1830-67 Stock Code: 110595
An exceptional visual document, two albums painstakingly and thoughtfully assembled from the observational sketch-books of a little-known, but highly talented first generation French Orientalist painterAlexandre Antoine Girardot (1815-c.1877) has left but few traces of what must have been an unusual and adventurous life. Born in Paris in February 1815, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts on 6 October 1836. A student of Blondel, he exhibited regularly at the Salon between 1841 and 1848, submitting views of Algeria and other "oriental" subjects. It is very possible that Girardot may have made his initial trip to Algeria at the time of the French invasion in 1830; the first album opens with a group of panoramic views of Algiers, including one "as it appeared in 1831". Girardot would have been just 16 years old at the time, so it is unlikely that he retained any youthful sketches, but here he confidently reconstructs an early vision of the city to offer in contrast to its appearance in 1842, when the sketches were made. The inclusion of a rare portrait of Abdelkader, leader of the Algerian resistance, taken in 1852, and of Léon Roche, son of the mayor of Oran, interpreter to General Bugeaud, and "renegade" confidante to the emir, perhaps suggests a military or diplomatic context for Girardot's presence in Algeria, a suggestion that is reinforced by his interior views of the English and Spanish consulates. It is a possibility that he originally travelled out à la suite of either his father or another patron. He certainly was to spend a large part of the next three decades travelling the country, accumulating this remarkable visual record. His death is a mystery, the putative date inferred from the last recorded work by his hand. The albums are accompanied by a photographic portrait of the artist, depicting a well-dressed, solidly-built bourgeois gentleman with a beard, who addresses the camera with an open, frank and perhaps slightly amused expression. He is apparently missing his right arm. Examples of his oils are held in the collections of the Musée de l'Armée in Paris and the Musée Marey et des Beaux-Arts in Beaune.
Largely comprised of highly-finished pencil drawings - some with expressive dashes of body-colour, and a good number completed in watercolour - these two albums, which remained in the painter's personal collection, clearly represent the result of authorial selection and organisation. Retrospectively, Girardot gathered together the most accomplished of his sketch-work and arranged it by theme and by region, sometimes combining on the same page drawings produced decades apart, the whole forming a carefully paced visual narrative, taking the viewer on an expedition through Algeria in the middle of the nineteenth century, not just a record of the major sites and cities, but also a document of the minutiae of the everyday life of the common people of the desert and in the back-doubles of the medina quarter.
Girardot was possessed of a remarkably sensitive eye, both graphically and emotionally, accompanied by really quite ferocious technique, such that his facility extends to the possession of a widely distinct range of highly accomplished, broad descriptive registers that he uses to great effect in treating different aspects of his subject matter. In his treatment of natural world: his landscapes, largely in lightish pencil with occasional sepia washes or splashes of body colour are very effective, on occasion reminiscent of Lear's Mediterranean sketch-work; plant-life features strongly in his views of some of the more picturesque buildings, but they also stand alone, being emphasised with broader, blacker pencil lines into startling clarity; his animal portraits, largely in pencil, of camels, asses, and horses, are just that, sensitive, individuated portraits. And often they are accompanied by tight studies of the faces, feet, the tack of the pack animals, the saddles of the riding camels and horses, rendered in such clear detail as to reveal the entire construction. Another prominent theme is a fascination with the architecture of the region, high and low, but predominantly vernacular. Girardot's architectural drawings give a real sense of volume, surface and underlying structure. A sharper pencil, some loose washes, splashes of dazzle from white plaster, the pinkish clay texture of mud brick, with occasional fine-focus, highlighted details, picked out in colours. He also accompanies these with a series of more tightly worked detail studies of jalousies, tile patterns, elaborate doorways, again coloured in varying degrees of finish.
Probably the widest range of treatments applied to any single thematic is to human figures. These run from small, lively slightly caricatured figures - in lightish pencil, many of them with varying degrees of colour-noting or finish - recording costume or postural idiosyncrasies. Some slightly larger drawings repeat the same sort of exercise, but in a more naturalistic looser style. Single figures, or interacting groups are shown in ordinary situations, at a cafe or caravanserai, the setting variably completed, to show posture in action and at rest. Other pages are covered with "anthropological portraits", "types", with wonderful attention to facial characteristics, this closer detail sometimes extending to costume. Girardot was clearly beguiled by the seemingly infinite variation of costume. The detail in these life studies is wonderful throughout, but occasionally some garment or accoutrement will draw the artist's attention and will be analysed separately, almost forensically, similarly to the sketches of harness mentioned above. And then there are the entirely composed scenes of everyday life, usually worked quite tightly in middling pencil. These potentially come closest to drawing the use of the now more familiar, pejorative use of the term Orientalism. Lively interiors, dancers, men smoking nargileh in a cafe or on a terrace. But in view of the apparent immediacy of the detail, and the care in recording in the work that accompanies them, the viewer is left in no doubt that Girardot was witness to just such scenes.
This is one of the most appealing aspects of Girardot's work as presented here, it is almost entirely untouched by Orientalism in the Saidian sense, which also holds true for the more finished work by him that we have been able to trace. There are no extravagant harem scenes or capriccio landscapes peopled with outlandish figures in fairy-tale costume, Girardot was clearly fascinated by the fine detail and the texture of life in North Africa, and was compelled to record this exotic reality rather than to elaborate it. His evident technical facility serving him perhaps more as a documentarist, rather than as a fine artist, his invention expressing itself through the artful editing of his own work. In these albums Girardot has created a wholly artificial narrative, condensed in time and place, but one entirely grounded in fact. Taken together they present an impressionistic journey through the country, but among these impressions are images with a clarity that might be expected from an illustration in a scientific report. This is a wonderfully paced visual tale; in one moment the viewer is dazzled by the white light reflected from the walls in a small town square, and in the next directed to the close detail of the feet of the camels in a passing caravan or the intricate glazing of the tiles on a mosque wall. Turning the pages of an album presents an almost cinematic effect.
A worthy summary of a career, this thoroughly engrossing, immersive guide to a then little-known land is a fine memorial to this enigmatic man who was possessed of a keen eye, impeccable technique, and a genuinely humane engagement with his new surroundings, Girardot was a first class documentarist.
Two oblong folio albums (360 x 280 mm). Dark green shagreen, concentric panelling in blind, AG monogram gilt to the centre of the front boards. Accompanied by a photographic portrait of the artist c.1860. Housed in two burgundy flat-back boxes by the Chelsea Bindery.
A total of 420 pages with more than 1,000 mounted drawings of various sizes, most of which are captioned, monogrammed and dated between 1840 and 1867.
The albums just a little rubbed, some light restoration to head and tail of spines, to joints and board edges, the contents clean and sound, overall very good indeed.
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