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Zarobell, John. Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria.

Zarobell, John. Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. xv + 196. ISBN: 978-0-271-03443-0

Historians of nineteenth-century French art have been slow to embrace post-colonial critiques of Western culture. Although Linda Nochlin took up Edward Said's project in 1983, it is only since the mid-to-late 1990s that post-colonial theory has had a notable impact on the scholarship. Beginning with work by John MacKenzie and Todd Porterfield, and gathering some momentum in the early years of the new millennium with studies by Darcy Grigsby and Ronald Benjamin, historians of nineteenth-century French art have gradually, but increasingly, developed an interest in the links between art and imperialism. At the same time, authors have tended to restrict their inquiries to the cultures of the elite. These two features of the discourse--the reluctance to undertake post-colonial critique and the emphasis on high art--structure Zarobelrs intervention in Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria. Zarobell addresses these concerns by employing Said's concept of orientalism to examine works that have traditionally been neglected within the discipline. In the process, he offers a sustained analysis of a genre that has received surprisingly little attention in post-colonial criticism. Instead of persons, peoples, or identities, the author considers representations of the land itself--a subject that, at the risk of stating the obvious, features prominently in the rhetorics and processes of imperialism. Zarobell argues that "since colonialism is about control of space--literally seizing territory--its complement is the imposition of the colonizer's understanding of space onto the colonized" (5). His goal, then, is to demonstrate how popular or otherwise nontraditional landscape reflects and propagates official colonial policy pertaining to Algeria.

Zarobell develops his inquiry over the course of six chapters and a brief epilogue, organizing the volume as a series of case studies (several of which have appeared in print before). The author opens with a discussion of a lost popular work, Jean-Charles Langlois' Panorama of Algiers (1833). He then treats the large-scale watercolor series of the Portes de Fer executed for the Museum of French History in Versailles in 1840-41 by the highly regarded and well-traveled illustrator Adrien Dauzats. Next, he considers the illustrated volume Journal de l'expedition des Portes de Fer (1844), a privately commissioned, and limited run, celebration of Prince Ferdinand Philippe's journey through Algeria. In Chapter 5, the author surveys photographic landscapes, discussing a variety of works, but returning regularly to Felix-Jacques-Antoine Moulin's ambitious multivolume album, L'Algerie photographiee (1856-57), another project that failed to achieve wide circulation and that, indeed, may never have been completed. Along the way, Zarobell offers sustained discussions of oil paintings by Horace Vernet, Eugene Fromentin, Gustave Guillaumet, and in his epilogue, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse. Instead of concentrating exclusively on high culture, Zarobell, unlike his predecessors, attempts to sample the "amazing variety of forms" that colonial imagery assumed (1).

The book does have a few problems. More demanding readers will be irked by occasional passages of turgid prose (in contrast to what is generally a readable study). And there are a few moments in which arguments either fall short of their stated goals or simply fall fiat. For instance, despite the author's introductory remarks in Chapter 4 (in which he asserts that "Fromentin's artistic practices manifested la] broader historical development" [77]), he neither details a large-scale shift in colonial policy in the early 1850s nor clearly relates it to Fromentin's paintings of the period. And although he develops his discussion of late-Second Empire policy fully and effectively in Chapter 6, Zarobell fails to offer a compelling reading of Guillaumet's remarkable oil painting The Desert (1867), which he situates as his culminating analysis. On a structural note, the book's epilogue, which treats single works by Renoir and Matisse, undercuts the unity of what is otherwise a nicely balanced study of mid-century popular and academic work, while in its brevity and superficiality, it fails to offer a substantive contribution.

The project also raises larger questions. Readers may justifiably contend that Zarobell neglects to stick very closely to a recognizable definition of landscape--in Chapter 2, for instance, he examines a large-scale battle painting by Vernet, and in Chapter 4, he reads works that, as he notes, "could be interpreted as genre scenes" (92). In his own defense, the author argues that, since these paintings, at least in part, function to depict the colony they shed light on the processes by which imperialist doctrines were reflected in, and bolstered by, images of it. More conceptually, those who are looking for a critical reinterpretation of Said's controversial thesis will be disappointed. Zarobell makes an effort to sidestep Said's own totalizing impulse by focusing exclusively on the relationship between France and Algeria, but otherwise, he respects Said's program. It should be noted that the project is informed, more locally, by a range of what could be termed theoretical studies, and when the opportunity arises, the author pushes these approaches in interesting directions. In general, however, Empire of Landscape is a history of orientalist visual culture, and it employs Said's premises in relatively straightforward terms. In this respect, it may seem out of step with current work in other disciplines.

Setting the aforementioned critiques aside, Zarobell's arguments are generally convincing and his conclusions can be insightful. His treatment of popular cultural forms and unknown works, in particular, constitutes an important contribution to the literature and fosters a fuller understanding of nineteenth-century French orientalism. Chapter 1 stands out in this respect. But so does Chapter 5, in which Zarobell offers a compelling case that the positivist values associated with photography served an important ideological function in aesthetically divergent photographic representations of the colony. And the author deftly identifies, and persuasively interprets, the aberrant characteristics of a number of nontraditional landscape paintings, such as Dauzats's views of the Portes de Fer. The Empire of Landscape, then, is a bit uneven, but while it may have its valleys, it nevertheless has its peaks.

Kurt Rahmlow, Virginia Commonwealth University
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Author:Rahmlow, Kurt
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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