On the occasion of the release of the book “Sex, races and colonies”, which explores the central role of sex in power relations, Fabrice Héron, researcher who participated in the iconography of this book, returns to the representation of the ‘odalisque: a fictional look on non-European women by photographers, reinterpreting the orientalist pictorial tradition.
A cultural construction of the expansionist and colonial West
Throughout the 19th century, the desire to escape took over the Western world that recreated enchanted worlds: a sensual Orient gathering regions as disparate as the Maghreb and the Levant, a mysterious and wild Africa to tame, a paradisiacal Oceania like a virgin land to seize, finally a docile and submissive Asia where the pleasure of the flesh is free. To the Hellenism of the Age of Enlightenment, succeeded Orientalism, this other French passion, accompanying both industrial and colonial expansion. It is the first great modern globalization since the ancient empires and the discovery of the Americas. Journalists, writers, painters and photographers, encouraged by a colonial power too happy to show its enterprises and its territories, circulate and propagate the ideas of a fantasy Orient.
While some bring back an idealized and dreamlike image of their travels in exotic lands, others, sedentary, are inspired by them and publish works that are only the fruit of their imagination. This production sublimates the real at the same time as it manufactures it from scratch. To the oriental narratives of Loti and Maupassant, respond the paintings of Delacroix or Gauguin. For Gérard de Nerval the Orient becomes a place of love and festivities . And Michel Chevalier, a politician, wrote in Le Globe newspaper in February 1832: “the Mediterranean will become the nuptial bed of the East and the West”.
An incarnation of romanticism and statutory domination.
It is in this context that a sexualized Orient emerges, with an image of the non-European woman mythified both by romantic artistic orientalism, which encloses it in a lascivious image, and by the physical anthropology of the second half of the century, which makes it a prisoner of an indigenous condition impervious to civilization. Through this chimerical exoticism the bodies are eroticized, until becoming “chosified” for their light and wonderful character.It allows the most foolish thoughts, and the Orient, with its harems and secrets surrounding it, invites all desires. Etymologically, the term odalisque comes from Turkish “oda” meaning “room” or “prison”, Odalisk can be translated literally as “maid”.
First, before even looking at what the body gives to see and leaves us to think, the very nature of the place – room, harem, enclosed spaces – induces a little known place, foreign and intimate, leaving consequently place to imagination and fiction. This place refers to a blessed lexicon (palace, delight, melody, sweetness, etc.) letting glimpse a romanticized vision strongly illustrated with its share of transgression.
The evocative power of Odalisques
The study of certain works can serve as argumentation such as these photographs of Odalisque anonymous, Felix Jacques Antoine Moulin (1802-1879) pioneer of erotic photography and Felix Tournachon (1820-1910), called Nadar, who does not need to be presented anymore.
Fabrice Héron is an iconographer specializing in transmedia research for press and publishing, exhibitions and museums, advertising and communication, key accounts and production companies. He creates the exhibitions of the collective Docpix. Image consultant for some companies (DxO Labs, Rémy Martin-Cointreau, Lacoste, etc.), he works on CNAM and INA trainings. He is a member of ANI et Piaf associations.
Sexe, race & colonies
La domination des corps du XVe siècle à nos jours (The domination of bodies from the 15th century to the present day)
Pascal BLANCHARD, Nicolas BANCEL, Gilles BOËTSCH, Dominic THOMAS, Christelle TARAUD