Leopold Carl Müller

Sand in the Bristles

European painting took to the Orient in the nineteenth century. Egypt in particular was considered the dreamland of many artists. An exhibition in Vienna is now showing the work of the prodigious painter of the Orient, Leopold Carl Müller. Niklaus Maak took a look at the exhibition

Müller was different. This is immediately apparent in the photograph of him and his colleagues in Egypt in winter of 1875. The artists Franz von Lenback, Hans Makart and Carl Rudolf Huber sit unhappily on their camels, their black hats crooked on their heads, their three-piece suits dusty and too warm for the climate, and sand blowing through their long beards.

Only Leopold Carl Müller smiles into the camera. He has no beard and no hat; unlike his colleagues, who stagger through the sand stubbornly clinging to their national garb, Müller wears a Fez. At first glance he looks like an Arab, on second glance like a friendly clown. He is forty years old and is a newcomer in the landscape of Oriental painting.

Lucrative Oriental painting

Müller arrived late on the Oriental scene. For eight years he made a living by drawing caricatures for the satirical weekly "Figaro." While Makart had been creating an enthusiastic Salon audience for his overheated Oriental fantasies and was pulling in unbelievable sums for his indolently thrown together Oriental Cleopatras, Müller, who was born in Dresden and grew up in Austria, was painting odd things for a pittance.

After the World Exhibition in Vienna impressed him with its Oriental settings, Müller discovered Egypt as a passion – and Oriental painting as a source of money. In 1873 and 1874 he traveled to Cairo, first with Carl Rudolf Huber and one year later with an entourage of prominent artists of European Salons. He stayed at the Hôtel du Nil. The artists' procession to the Orient was determined above all by economics: nothing brought in more money at the time than Oriental motifs.

An exhibition of European Oriental desire

Müller's work can be seen nestled between the work of Eduard Charlemont, Carl Rudof Huber, Johann Victor Krämer and Alois Schönn in a surprisingly small exhibition on "Painting and Exoticism in the late Nineteenth Century" at the Hermes Villa, a hunting lodge in the Lainz Zoological Garden outside Vienna which was built by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1886 as a retirement residence for his wife Elizabeth.

Approximately fifty mostly unknown paintings and drawings depicting European Oriental desire are on display. In addition, materials from which the artists distilled their Oriental fantasies are part of the exhibition: photographs from their ateliers, and hand-drawn postcards that artists such as Huber send home to Europe from Egypt.

Traveling in the Orient

The Emperor and his wife also belonged to the large group of Austrian-Hungarian nobility who were fervent clients of the Viennese circle of Oriental painters. The young Earls Esterházy, Kinski and Welsersheim spent time in Cairo as "fun-loving fellows" who pranced around the Egyptian metropolis like the "lost generation" was to do in Paris a half century later. But unlike the Paris bohemians, they had money – and they spent it lavishly on paintings.

Of those traveling to the Orient in winter of 1875, it was Makart (the designer of the Hermes Villa bedroom) who went down in history as a genius of ruthless marketing strategies. He was one of the first of modern artists to instrumentally manipulate the press for his own purposes.

Makart and Lenbach, who had already marketed their atelier life back home as a popular success, stayed in Musafirkhana, the legendary palace of the viceroy, during their Egyptian journeys. They invited journalists to the palace and presented themselves surrounded by naked models.

More than just indecent models

photo: &copy Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek
Leopold Carl Müller, litho by J. Marastoni, 1888

​​In 1876 a journalist from the "Allgemeinen Zeitung" visited Makart in his atelier in Cairo and reported gaily: "The Arabic models, who seemed bashful at first, eventually became so shameless that they brazenly ran around in the fashion of Eve. The photographic machine was constantly in use, the most exquisite poses were counterfeited, of which even the least indecent should not be described."

This was also part of the artists' successful marketing strategies. During his stay in Cairo, Makart sold erotic paintings at a value sum of up to ten thousand florins. "Makart was diligent, painted eight paintings here, big old things," Müller wrote sinisterly, "Lenbach only experimented."

Müller also experimented. Photographs show him in the summer heat with his head cocked to the side, critically peering from behind his spectacles, sitting in the sand and painting. "I always work outside," Müller wrote with chagrin, "painting genres from periods that no one knows at all is nonsense."

Everyday life versus eroticism

Unlike Makart, Müller wanted to depict daily life in the contemporary Orient in all its vivacity, and he did so with an ethnological zeal that few shared with him. He painted schools and street scenes, in which, however, he contradicted his own principles by bringing in fantasized desert architectural constructions. With cartographic meticulousness, he painted costumes and children, crumbling walls, Arabic physiognomies, and the foggy light of the Nile delta as it played on bodies and clothes.

In his desperate attempts to capture the vibrations of the quickly fading morning and evening light, he came closer to the impressionists than the Boudoir painters of his time who painted the Orient as a whole as if it were nothing but a thrillingly adorned brothel. Due to their overwhelming success, these contemporary artists lapsed into paintings of ever more extreme fantasies of violence. Edwin Long painted a Babylonian marriage market in which women were lined up like products on a shelf waiting for buyers. Jean-Léon Gérôme and Ferencz Eisenhut depicted slave markets in which buyers use a rough hand to check the teeth and breasts of naked slave women.

Müller's softly colored paintings depict other kinds of people – androgynous, elusive strangers that maintain a certain distance to the spectator. Not even their gender can be determined. Once Müller painted an attractive "Contemporary Sphinx," which could also be a young man, a young man who once looked like a girl.

Oriental Vamp with a cigarette

On his last trip Müller painted the "Nefusa," a Berber woman in a low cut black robe with an imposing gaze – a portrait in which his past as a caricaturist comes through. Portrayed lasciviously with her thrashing eyelashes, his Nefusa looks almost like a grotesque parody of the bedroom paintings of his colleagues.

A cynical Viennese attitude haunts the eyes of Müller's Oriental vamp, with a cigarette in her right hand as she casually leans into the corner. She embodies a female type that was seldom to be seen in fin de siècle Oriental paintings.

"Müller the Egyptian" with a Fez

The Nefusa was Müller's farewell to Egypt. The "lousily paid" professorship he took on, the tribulations of which he often loudly complained about, no longer allowed him long trips to the Orient. Only once more did he take leave and travel to Cairo in winter.

Until his death in 1892, "Müller the Egyptian" – as he was called by his students – carried out an existence as successor to Makart in a post teaching historical painting. But in this function he continued to paint less history than he did the mysteries of the present. And this he did with a fez atop his head.

Niklas Maak

© Niklas Maak/Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

This text was previously published by Germany's daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

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