The Art Salon in the Arab Region

By Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan

The Art Salon in the Arab Region: Politics of Taste Making discusses the emergence and role of the art salon in the Arab region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. The book examines the salon’s impact on the formation of taste and debates on art, and discusses the transfers and cultural interactions between the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Following the institutional model of the Paris salons, art salons emerged in Algiers, Tunis and Cairo starting in the late 1880s. In Beirut, the salon tradition reached its peak only after independence in the mid-twentieth century. Baghdad never had a formal salon, but alternative spaces and exhibition formats developed in Iraq from the late 1940s onwards. As in Paris, the salons in the region often defined the criteria of artistic production and public taste. The impact of the salon also lay in its ability to convey particular values, attitudes and aspirations. At the same time, the values and attitudes promoted by the salon – as well as the salon itself – were often subject to debate, which led to the creation of counter-salons or alternative exhibition practices. The art salon helps us to understand changes in the art systems of these countries, including the development of art schools, exhibition spaces and artist societies, and gives insight into the power dynamics at play. It also highlights the networks and circulations that were present between the Arab region and Europe.

Nadia Maltzahn and Monique Bellan (eds.),
The Art Salon in the Arab Region: Politics of Taste Making, Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2018.

This book is the result of a series of conversations and discussions that have taken place at various forums. It started when we were brainstorming about a topic that we could work on together at the Orient-Institut Beirut. Within her longer-term research project on aesthetic reflection and the way art is debated and discussed in various media in Lebanon and Egypt since the early twentieth century, Monique was at that point focusing on the avant-garde group Art et Liberté in Egypt, who challenged the aesthetic and political order of the late 1930s and 40s. Nadia had just started working on her case study of the Sursock Museum in Beirut, within the scope of her project on the relationship between cultural policies, cultural production and the public sphere in Lebanon. Since the Sursock Museum was known for its Salon d’Automne, and since the salon was one of the exhibitions formats the Art et Liberté group rejected in Cairo, we started thinking about the role and impact of the art salon on the formation of public taste and debates on art in the Arab region, as well as on cultural interactions between the Middle East and Europe.

Art salons emerged under Louis XIV in seventeenth-century France as the official exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. The Academies of Art in Paris and London and their annual salons soon became the most powerful institutions in the European art world of the time, patronising art and directing public taste. Only in the nineteenth century did artists start to oppose the monopoly of the academy, resulting in the creation of new exhibition forums or independent salons, such as the Salon des Refusés, the Salon d’Automne or the Salon des Indépendants in France. Initially guided by questions of the migration of institutional patronage from Europe to the Arab region, in particular questions on how the salon, as an exhibition format, developed  in North Africa and the Middle East, we organised a panel on the art salon in the Arab region in multiple  parts. The first part was held at the annual conference of the Italian Society of Middle Eastern Studies in Catania in March 2016. The second part took place at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual meeting in Boston in November 2016. A third panel discussion took place in January 2017 at the Sursock Museum. This event was held within the frame of the Sursock Museum’s 32nd Salon d’Automne, which the newly-renovated museum had just relaunched after many discussions on the function of the salon format today. As we could see that the topic resonated both in academic and art circles, we decided to partner with the Sursock Museum to bring everyone together in an international conference to discuss the emergence and evolution of the art salon in the region in a comprehensive way. The conference took place in October 2017 at the Orient-Institut and the Sursock Museum, and was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

Conference poster: ‘Contextualising the Art Salon in the Arab Region‘, Orient-Institut Beirut and Sursock Museum, October 2017.

This book is a result of all of these discussions. It is divided into four thematic parts. The first two parts focus on early salons and the institutional construction of taste, with case studies from North Africa (Part I) and Egypt (Part II). Alain Messaoudi analyses the emergence and evolution of the Tunisian annual art salons, classifying the Salon tunisien as a provincial salon in a colonial location. Jessica Gerschultz examines the foundational role played by the Salon tunisien in the development of artistic categories and networks among Tunis-based artists, with the Salon serving as the earliest institutional framework for delineating the concepts of “fine” and “decorative” art under the French Protectorate. In a similar vein, Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi inquires into the nature of the salon in French colonial Algeria, reconsidering the power dynamics at play and underlining the processes of taste-making in Algerian salons of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

In Cairo, Maria-Mirka Palioura sheds light on the archive of the Greek Orientalist painter Theodore Ralli, one of the co-founders of the first Cairo Salon, examining the production of art and its reception by the communities of the European bourgeoisie in colonial Cairo. Focusing on the annual Cairo Art Salon of the Society of the Lovers of Fine Arts and the rival La Chimère Salon, Nadia Radwan discusses the Egyptian art salon as a space of cultural transfer in which taste and canon were established but also challenged in the early-twentieth century.

Challenges to the official salon and the creation of alternative exhibition practices, which Nadia Radwan starts to discuss, is the subject of the third part of this volume. Monique Bellan considers resistance movements to the art salon, particularly in the form of the historical avant-garde in Egypt. She discusses how the exhibition catalogues and invitation cards of Art et Liberté were media that defied established taste and modes of perception. Amin Alsaden argues that domestic spaces in mid-twentieth-century Baghdad represented alternative salons, a hybrid model that acted as, what Rancière termed, a “community of sense” that fostered exchanges, circulated ideas and formulated aesthetic taste among middle- and upper-class Baghdadis.

The fourth part focuses on circulations between Europe and the Arab region and on institutional guidance. While the migration of institutional patronage is an aspect present in all chapters, this section highlights the movements of systems and artists. Camilla Murgia concentrates on the artistic exchanges between North Africa and France that were determined by the systems of rewards, scholarships and subsidies of North African salons, revealing how the system affected the rise of a national art and how this art became progressively different from the French model. Catherine Cornet scrutinizes the nexus between the Cairo Youth Salon and the international arena. She shows how participation at the Cairo Youth Salon was instrumental in being admitted to the Egyptian Academy in Rome and also in selection for the Venice Biennale as part of the state-sponsored art circuit. Nadia von Maltzahn’s chapter revolves around the Salon d’Automne at Beirut’s Sursock Museum in its cultural context. It examines the influence of the museum’s Salon in patronising art, and contextualise the role of the museum as an institution in shaping the artistic landscape in Lebanon.

The final contribution is an edited transcript of a conversation with British artist and Royal Academician, Eileen Cooper, which illuminates the selection process and organisation of the Summer Exhibition, drawing parallels to the Sursock Museum’s Salons d’Automne. The volume offers insights into the evolution of the art salon in selected countries in the Arab region. Further research is needed, for instance on the impact of European art salons on Arab artists’ careers,  as well as research on other salons in the region such as the Salon d’Automne in Damascus or the salons in Morocco. We hope that this book will stimulate further research.

Monique Bellan (left) and Nadia von Maltzahn (right), Book Launch of The Art Salon in the Arab Region: Politics of Taste Making, Sursock Museum, 12 January 2019. Source: Sursock Museum.

Nadia von Maltzahn is the Deputy Director of the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB). She is the author of The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 2013/2015) and other publications revolving around cultural practices in Lebanon and the Middle East. She holds a DPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, Oxford. Her research interests include cultural policies, artistic practices and the circulation of knowledge. Her current research project deals with cultural policies in Lebanon, in particular cultural institutions and their role in the public sphere.

Monique Bellan works as a Research Associate at the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB). She holds a PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin and an MA from the University of Bonn. She has worked at the collaborative research centre ‘Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits’  of the Freie Universität Berlin and the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Her current project examines aesthetic reflection in twentieth-century Lebanon and Egypt. She is the author of dismember remember: The Anatomical Theatre of Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué (Reichert, 2013).


Citation: Nadia von Maltzahn and Monique Bellan, The Art Salon in the Arab Region, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18282.


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