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An Orientalist Spectacle in the RISD Museum

A visual analysis of Félix Bonfils’ “Karnak, Avenue Centrale de la Salle Hypostyle, Egypte.”

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An Orientalist Spectacle in the RISD Museum
Cara Ianuale

Cara Ianuale

Date
May 13, 2024
Read
7 Minutes

Surrounded by lavish oil paintings in a corner of the RISD Museum’s European Galleries is a small, initially unassuming sepia-toned albumen print. Measuring 11 3/16 x 8 15/16 inches, “Karnak, Avenue Centrale de la Salle Hypostyle, Egypte” was taken by French photographer Félix Bonfils approximately between 1870 and 1880 in his commercial studio in Egypt. The tiny, neat script on the bottom labels the work as a photo of the central avenue of Karnak in Egypt; given the matter-of-fact caption and seeming authenticity of the photograph, you might assume it to be documentary in nature. However, an interrogation of Bonfils’ visual composition and production process reveals his conscious construction of an Orientalist vision that posits a mystical, lethargic “Orient,” or East, as evidence of European cultural superiority.

The composition takes time to digest. You are placed between two rows of thick, towering hieroglyph-covered columns that frame a clear sky, forming a tripartite composition. Its rigid verticality is mediated by harsh sunlight that throws the left-hand columns entirely into shadow, casting triangles of shadow at the bases of the right-hand columns. Littered with rocks, the central dirt pathway leads to a clearing with two brick walls that stand on either side, mirroring the columns’ positioning. It is only once your eyes reach the clearing that you begin to notice the decay: the walls are missing bricks at the top and the capitals of the columns are jagged and eroded, as if Mother Nature has taken bites here and there. You notice details you previously glossed over: a miniscule palm tree standing slightly off-center by the left brick wall and a man by the base of a column to the left.  The tree’s leaves hang heavily; together with the blank sky, they affect a languid, heavy air. Dwarfed and overshadowed by the columns, the man is most easily spottable by the light head covering he wears in complement with a long, draped garment; despite his relative minuteness, his tall stature and firm cheekbones jutting out of a full beard capture your attention. His statuesque stillness enhances the stagnant atmosphere of the photograph, which is now plainly evident to your eyes.

Bonfils manufactures a spectacle of cultural decay and archaic “otherness,” distinguishing this photograph as a quintessentially Orientalist composition. As elucidated by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, modern Orientalism began in the nineteenth century as a cultural, intellectual, and scientific project that constructed semi-mythical visions of a premodern Orient or East (what we now consider Southwest Asia and Northern Africa, or the Middle East) in juxtaposition with a culturally superior West; early Orientalist photography played a momentous role in establishing visual narratives of inferiority. A major tactic photographers employed was the deliberate exclusion of signs of modernity (Footnote 1). Bonfils excludes all signs of modern life, such as paved roads, newly-constructed buildings, and people in contemporary dress, that would have been clearly present to him during his visit. Instead, in capturing the weathering of prominent hieroglyph relief carvings and walls, he prioritizes the representation of dereliction over modernity. The hieroglyphics themselves are unintelligible to the European eye and thus, along with the single palm tree (non-native to European lands) dotting the barren landscape and the man’s fantastically exotic attire (likely anachronistic, selected for its appeal to the European eye), epitomize the mysterious Oriental “otherness” that characterizes the fabricated East-West distinction. Karnak appears suspended in a time significantly geographically, culturally, and temporally distant from the industrialized West. The immobile Oriental figure compounds the sensation of experiencing a place frozen in (a past) time; his stillness and shadowed features whittle him down to a passive fixture of the antiquated landscape. He might even be taken as a visual metonym for the Egyptian people or nation as a whole—a civilization utterly consumed with pre-modern traditions that act to their detriment. Altogether, these various visual elements construct a narrative of ruin that enforces a hierarchical relationship between the Western spectator and the spectated East.

Additionally, although medium constraints might frequently be considered impediments, the albumen print’s technological limitations produce favorable conditions for Bonfils’ development Orientalist form of spectatorship. Popular in the late nineteenth century, albumen printing was a delicate method of producing photographs on a paper base using egg whites. These photographs generally could not be made much bigger than a book. While artists commonly employ massive scale to inspire awe, appreciation, or intimidation in their audiences, Bonfils’ compact composition necessitates close scrutiny. The viewer becomes a critic, a surveyor, an inspector—a spectator—of the semi-mythical Oriental landscape. Yet the spectator is not all-knowing, as, restricted by the limited scope of the camera lens, Bonfils only captures a partial view of the monument. This partial framing preserves a sense of fragmentation and mystery. To step back and photograph the entire ruin of Karnak, for example, would mean losing the details of the palm tree, the man, and possibly the hieroglyphics. The viewer is left wondering what stands beside the columns, what lies in the clearing, and what rests behind their eye. Indeed, the Egyptian subject’s position particularly imitates Bonfils’ Orientalist visions. The exposure time for albumen paper in direct sunlight was around five to ten minutes; to capture a clear image, everything in the frame would need to remain still for the entire duration. Therefore, as opposed to capturing an unmediated snapshot of an Oriental subject in his daily routine, Bonfils intentionally posed the man at a distance from his lens in the shadow of the towering columns. His decisions to fragment the ruin and load the composition with exoticizing details, particularly a minimized Oriental subject, are significantly motivated by the technological constraints of albumen printing.

In closing this visual analysis, a gesture to broader political and historical contexts is necessary. Photography is not produced in an ahistorical vacuum that frees its form, content, or artistic intention from circumstance and contingency. To primarily address Bonfils’ “Karnak” as the artistic interpretation of personal fantasy and mere technological constraints is to obscure the history of French military expeditions that enabled Bonfils’ practice, and more generally the Orientalist project, and ignore the photograph’s broader function as an imperial tool. You might question how the knowledge of the Orient was disseminated through transnational circulation networks exclusively reserved for European consumers and how this French photographer’s centuries-old print made its way to the RISD Museum. There is a larger narrative to unearth from Bonfils’ “Karnak” and it requires that, just like photography confronts you, you also confront photography.

Footnote 1: In itself, modernity is an ideological construction. This photographic tactic operates on the assumption that Western structures and values of industry and relentless innovation, chiefly driven by slave or unpaid, mistreated labor, justify colonial expansion and exploitation. I’d recommend Ronnie Close’s Decolonizing Images, particularly the chapter “Rethinking the histories of photography,” for more on this subject.

(Cover Image: Félix Bonfils (French, 1831-1885). Karnak, Avenue Centrale de la Salle Hypostyle, Egypte, 1870-1880. Albumen print. 28.4 x 22.7 cm (11 3/16 x 8 15/16 inches) (plate). Museum Collection 80.176, RISD Museum)

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