Le Noir et le Bleu: An Exhibit about the Mediterranean in Marseilles

The exhibit's catalog

The exhibit’s catalog

Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) declared “J’ ai passionément aimé la Méditerranée” in the preface of the first edition of La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen a l’ époque de Philippe II (1949). Archaeologists of my generation had to read or at least leaf through this three volume magnum opus written during Braudel’s captivity in concentration camps in Mainz and Lübeck during WWII (and delivered in lectures to fellow prisoners).  “Had it not been for my imprisonment, I would surely have written a much different book…” wrote Braudel in his “Personal Testimony.” Much more about Braudel’s life and work can be found in the excellent biographical essay by historian William McNeill (Journal of Modern History 73:1, 2001, pp. 133-147); McNeill himself was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama on February 25, 2010.

Braudel belongs to the first generation of post war “savants” who tried to reconfigure the Mediterranean world after the destruction and the division that WWII brought to the shores of the “Middle Sea.” This new “mediterraneité” would be inclusive and post-colonial –at least in the erudite world of scholarship.  Although Braudel’s approach has been criticized for overlooking certain fundamental conflicts (e.g., the clash of Islam and Christianity and the clash between Catholics and Protestants), it has cast a long shadow over subsequent study of the Mediterranean.  More than three decades would separate Braudel’s last revision in 1966 (and translation into English in 1972) from the next major tome written about the Mediterranean by an ancient historian (Nicholas Purcell) and a medievalist (Peregrine Horden).  Published in 2000, their study (The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History) is Braudelian both in size and depth and covers the period from about 800 B.C. through medieval times.  While receiving both praise and criticism, Purcell and Horden’s book has rightly become a classic.

Broodbank's The Making of the Middle Sea

Broodbank’s The Making of the Middle Sea. Click to enlarge

This month another monumental treatment of the history (or should I say pre-history) of the Mediterranean appeared. It was inspired by Braudel’s forgotten work Les mémoires de la Méditerranée (written in 1968-69 but not published until 1998, and in English under the title The Mediterranean in the Ancient World only in 2001).  In The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World, archaeologist Cyprian Broodbank delivers another Braudelian-size study of the Mediterranean basin, tracing its birth “in the age of the dinosaurs” through the developments in the 6th century B.C.  The book is published by Thames and Hudson, numbers 672 pages with 387 illustrations, and has just begun to reach the academic libraries.  It is a remarkable synthesis of time, space, and culture, the detail and style of which will delight both specialists and the wider public.

The Mediterranean is not only a hot topic in the scholarly world; it is also the subject of a breathtaking new exhibit in Marseille.  Le musée des Civilisations de l’ Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) opened its doors to the public in early June of 2013 with four temporary exhibits, one of them titled Le Noir et le Bleu: Un rêve méditerranéen….  The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies was asked to contribute two temperas and a manuscript by poet Odysseus Elytis; the National Gallery sent one of its masterpieces, The Reception of Lord Byron by Theodoros Vryzakis (1861); and the Benaki Museum loaned material for another exhibit, Au bazaar du genre, feminine-masculin en Méditerranée.

Odysseus Elytis' Night

Odysseus Elytis, Night?, 1988

I visited Marseilles (which is the cultural capital of Europe for 2013) in early October to see the new museum and the exhibit. The former was designed by Rudy Riccioti, an Algerian-born architect who studied at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Marseille.  The plan consists of a simple, multi-storied glass building covered by an ingenious black “lace” of concrete that offers relief from the hot sun and wonderful vistas of the Mediterranean sea and sky. The book-store on the basement level sells an impressive range of art and art history studies, which are all in French, with one admirable exception. I was happy to see Cyprian Broodbank’s The Making of the Middle Sea propped up in the middle of a display table.  If it had not been given to me as a gift, I would have bought a copy on the spot.

Le musée des Civilisations de l’ Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM)

Le musée des Civilisations de l’ Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM), Marseilles. Click to enlarge

Le Noir et le Bleu is the brainchild of historian and political scientist Thierry Fabre and explores the Mediterranean of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Fabre, who supervises the cultural development and international relations of the MuCEM, published a monograph under the same title in 1998.  In a recent interview, Fabre acknowledged that the exhibit is the fruit of twenty years of reflection on the topic.   Le Noir et le Bleu also represents a final chronological segment complementary to Broodbank’s Middle Sea and Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea.

When I first heard the title of the exhibit, I understood immediately the meaning of the “blue”, but I failed to grasp the “black.” This mystery was solved when I received a complimentary copy of the exhibit catalog. The cover was inspired by Miró’s Bleu II and carries the title in black letters.  The spine is dressed in red cloth, which cleverly reproduces the red line on the left side of Miró’s canvas.  (Miró meant the red line and the black dots that emanate from the red to mark a sharp contrast with the calm blue surface.) Aesthetically, it is a beautiful catalog full of high quality photos and its content is equally rewarding. Two-thirds of the text presents material from the exhibit preceded by a short introduction.  The last third consists of an Abécédaire with detailed descriptions of concepts and movements that played important roles in the period: e.g., “Barbarie,” Cosmopolitism, Fascism, Orientalism, and criminal organizations like the Mafia.  There are also informative essays on the history of key-places such as Alexandria and the Suez Canal, Alger, Smyrna, and Jerusalem.

If blue is associated with the dream of a unified Mediterranean (“un rêve méditerranéen”), black shows the dark, self-destructive side of the people who lived around it: “Noir colonization, Noir fascism, Noir franquisme, Noir nationalism destructeur, Noir mafia, Noir de la guerre civile, de la purification ethnique et de l’ empire unilateral d’ une seule at unique verite” (p. 329).

The exhibit (and the catalog) has been organized around twelve themes (or “en douze moments” as Fabre has said): It begins with a tour of the Mediterranean harbors in the 18th century (Tour de la Méditerranée au XVIIIe siècle) when the Ottoman Empire was still the dominant force, but with all diplomatic and commercial transactions done in the lingua franca, thus showing the cultural supremacy of the French Empire.  This is followed by a section devoted to the colonial expansion of France (Conquête et civilizations) to the southern shores of the Mediterranean, under the pretense of civilizing the “barbarians” during the brief domination of Egypt by Napoleon at the turn of the 19th century (1798-1801) until the conquest of Algeria in 1830.

Poster of the Algerian railways advertising the Roman antiquities of Algeria

Poster of the Algerian railways advertising the Roman antiquities of Algeria

The next two themes, Antiques and Villégiature, portray the Mediterranean harbors as the destinations of the Grand Tour (or a “tour de Babel”) of the Northern Europeans and Americans in the 19th century. Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764), which he wrote without ever visiting Greece, and Lord Byron’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence, made philhellenism a component of the colonial expansion, and Classical Greece part of the Mediterranean dream of Northern Europeans.

With all its negatives, the spread of colonialism in the 19th century created a unified, cosmopolitan culture around the Mediterranean. The opening of the Suez Canal transformed Alexandria, Beirut, and Istanbul into cosmopolitan centers where one heard Turkish, Greek, Armenian, French, Italian, and English spoken in the streets: a Tower of Babel. Changes and Cosmopolitism (Échanges et cosmopolitisme) features rare pictures of the three cities during the early 20th century.

New periodicals with telling titles were established in the 1930s

New “inclusive” periodicals from the 1930s. Click to enlarge

By the initial decades of the 20th century, the first cracks in the Mediterranean dream began to appear because it was a unilateral vision that ignored the aspirations of the people who lived on the southern banks of the great basin. This topic forms the next theme (VI): A Dream Divided? (Un rêve partagé?). The literary voices of Gabriel Audisio, Paul Valéry, Algerian-born Albert Camus, and Federico García Lorca expressed, for the first time, a Mediterranean syncretism. In particular, Audisio and Valery belonged to a tradition of progressive Europeans who dreamt of an inclusive Mediterranean, one not excluding the Arabs.  Starting with Cahiers du Sud, a literary periodical established in Marseilles in 1913, a number of new journals (revues) with telling titles, were established on both sides of the Mediterranean in the 1930s: Aquedal, Revue d’ Algér, Revue de la Méditerranée, Les Cahiers de Barbarie, Rivages, Phenicia, and others. There is an excellent essay about the Mediterranean revues in the Abécédaire of the exhibit catalogue (pp. 339-341).

Pablo Picasso, Minotaur, 1935

Pablo Picasso, Minotaur, 1935

The Mediterranean dream was again in fashion in the 1920s and 1930s but the Minotaurs of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, André Masson, and others testify to the fragility of this unified Mediterranean dream. Despite calls for an inclusive sea, the French once again asserted their “supremacy” by celebrating lavishly their centennial presence in Algeria (1930), the Spanish assailed the Moroccan revolution for independence (1921-1926), the Italians violently repressed Libya’s revolutionary efforts at the same time, and, of course, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Domination and Affirmation (Domination et affirmation), the title of the next thematic unit (VII), displays not only rare photographic material but also two important works of art: The Great Helmsman (1939) by the Italian futurist painter Thayaht, and the Continuous Profile (1932), a ceramic bust of Mussolini, by another Italian futurist artist, Renato Bertelli.

Il grande nocchiere by Ernesto Michahelles (known as Thayaht), 1939; also my favorite piece in the exhibit

The Great Helmsman by Ernesto Michahelles (known as Thayaht), 1939; also my favorite piece in the exhibit

Many times in the history of the Mediterranean, however, “the Black has transversed the Blue”… The next theme of the exhibit, The Mediterranean Fractured and Re-invented (Une Méditerranée fracassée et reinventée), brings together a rich folio of photographic material that documents “Mediterranean violence”: civil wars, expulsions or deportations of populations, and WW II.  I was stunned by a series of color photos of the destruction of Smyrna, which come from the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris.  Albert Kahn, a French millionaire, philanthropist, and idealist of the early 20th century, believed he could use photography, especially the new autochrome process, to promote international peace and understanding (http://www.albertkahn.co.uk/index.html).  The Smyrna photos were taken in January of 1923 and the intentional absence of people from them is chilling.  Naturally, a large part of this thematic unit is dedicated to the destruction of the port of Marseilles by the Germans in February 1943 and the subsequent deportation of the Jews of the city. The black and white photos by John Philips (1914-1996), a LIFE photographer and “the grand godfather of photo-journalism,” from Jerusalem in 1948 capture the Palestinians evacuating the city and the Jewish population moving in.  They offer a prophetic view of the new country’s divided future.

The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 was a turning point because it signaled the beginning of the decolonization of the Mediterranean.  It was followed by the proclamation of Algeria’s independence in 1962, after one hundred and thirty years of French domination. This event launched the massive and forced exodus of close to a million of French-Algerians.

The fractured dream of Mediterranean unity was reconfigured –or re-invented as the title of the thematic unit states– after the end of the war by the European savants. Here enter historians of the magnitude of Fernand Braudel and Jacques Berque (an Arab scholar also known for his critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism ), anthropologists like Germaine Tillon, Julian Pitt-Rivers, philosophers of the caliber of Egyptian René Habacchi, artists Nicolas de Stael and Shafic Abboud, and poets René Char and Odysseus Elytis.  In the 1940’s Char and Albert Camus launched a new periodical, Empédocle, and they asked Elytis to contribute an essay to it.  In Ανοιχτά Χαρτιά Elytis recalls that Empédocle was founded under the austere principle of defending the Mediterranean light and sensation.

Blue Tourism, Black Mafia (Bleu tourisme, Noir mafia) introduces the visitor/reader to the hordes of tourists who worshipped the sun on the coasts of the Mediterranean in the 1960s. Malcolm Morley’s sensual painting Cradle of Civilization with American Woman (inspired by a visit to Greece in 1982) is also indicative of new morals and the introduction of a sexual tourism to the Mediterranean. Yet, the new blue tourism continued to co-exist and mingle with the dark logic of the Mafia. I recommend Franscesco Forgione’s (former chairman of the Anti-Mafia Commission) excellent analysis of the Mafia’s origins and structure in the catalogue’s Abécédaire (pp. 317-320).

Malcolm Morley, Cradle of Civilization with American Woman, 1982

Malcolm Morley, Cradle of Civilization with American Woman, 1982

In the decades following the 1960s, the Mediterranean experienced even darker years. The Mediterranean of the Black Years (La Méditerranée des années noires) begins with the long civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and the “urbicide”of Beirut, once the “little Paris” of the Middle East. The photos of the ruined Beirut by the late Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico find haunting parallels in the images of the Smyrna destruction in the Albert Kahn collection. I was intrigued to see that for the Serbo-Bosnian civil war of the 1990s and the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), the curators chose to display stills from The Return of Ulysses by the late Theodoros (Theo) Angelopoulos.

Is the Mediterranean an open sea?  Both Mikhail Rostovtzeff (the other great historian of the 20th century) and Fernand Braudel emphasized the unifying effect of the great trade routes and shipping lanes of the Mediterranean sea. Horden and Purcell, and most recently Broodbank, despite the extreme fragmentation and uncertainty that they have identified in the landscape, are willing to recognize that connectivity –the easiness with which people can move around the basin– is what connects the fragments (Broodbank 2013, p. 19).  Thierry Fabre asks a different question, however: Is (or was) the sea open for every one or are the northern shores a frontier for the people who live on the south coast?  Crossways (Tranversées) is dedicated to the harragas (the ones who burn their immigration papers) who attempt to cross the sea in makeshift boats and immigrate illegally to the countries bordering the northern shores. All the works exhibited in this thematic unit belong to young artists, born after 1970, like the Algerian Zineddine Bessai (born in Athens in 1985), and the French-Algerian Yto Barrada whose works are inspired by illegal immigration.

Despite the darkness of the last decades in the Mediterranean, the organizers (in addition to Thierry Fabre, credit should also be given to his co-curator, historian Anissa Bouayed) of this fascinating exhibit wanted to leave us with a note of optimism, “a salvation to come”: Une salve d’ avenir… Michelangelo Pistoletto’s three-dimensional work entitled Love the Difference-Mar Mediterráneo includes a large reflecting table (mirror paintings are Pistoletto’s trademark) in the shape of the Mediterranean basin, surrounded by chairs, each representing a different ethnic identity, with the Mediterranean sea in the place of the mediator.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Love the Difference-Mar Mediterraneo, 2003-2007

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Love the Difference-Mar Mediterraneo, 2003-2007. Click to enlarge

If I had to make one small criticism of this otherwise impressive exhibit, in terms of thematic concept, organization, and display (with labels in French, English and Arabic), it would be the absence of a thematic unit dedicated to the role of colonial archaeology, especially in North Africa, where the emphasis on the excavation of Roman ruins by the French and Italian archaeologists supported the notion of a “Latin Africa” and legitimatized their territorial expansion.

Almost eighty years ago, Armand Lunel wrote “The Mediterranean is in fashion at the moment. Perhaps, even more than a fashion that is spreading, it is a myth in a state of gestation…”.  There is no question that studying and analyzing the Mediterranean remains in fashion, but, to me, more important is the fact that two scholars from two different disciplines, who have probably neither met nor read each other’s work before (Fabre and Broodbank), have both adopted a pan-Mediterranean approach and vision.  Fabre chose to end the exhibition with Pistoletto’s inspired Love the Difference (http://8e-art-magazine.fr/michelangelo-pistoletto-la-mediterranee-a-sa-table-10052013 ) while Broodbank’s closes his first introductory chapter with Yukinori Yanagi’s amazing Pacific creation (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/yanagi-pacific-t07464).  Both convey the same message: that of a multi-cultural Mediterranean with a “tapestry of traditions,” never rigid but always fluid, “creating fresh patterns and interpenetrations” like Yanagi’s ants which gradually eroded the borders between nations, thus creating new designs, new concepts.


One Comment on “Le Noir et le Bleu: An Exhibit about the Mediterranean in Marseilles”

  1. Duncan MacRae says:

    So glad to have read this review of the Le Noir et le Bleu. Fascinating to read alongside this piece by Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL), with an intriguing classical Mediterranean callback: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernardhenri-levy/europe-begins-at-lampedus_b_4176912.html

    Worth thinking too, that the “noir” in the Mediterranean might be quite old (how else did those slaves come to Athens, to Rome…?).

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