Arabesques of the Cosmopolitan and International: Lucien Henry, Baroque Allegory and Islamophilia

by John Docker

© all rights reserved

This paper was delivered by John Docker at ‘Symposium: Visions of a Republic’,
The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 6 April 2001

In this talk I would like to engage with the project of Ann Stephens and her fellow essayists in Visions of A Republic: The Work of Lucien Henry – Paris, Noumea, Sydney, when they say they wish to “recover the exotic and foreign dimension of Lucien Henry for a new century”, so questioning an older nationalist portrait of Henry by stressing his cosmopolitanism, and the international contexts of his work and ideas, in Paris and New Caledonia as well as late nineteenth century Sydney.1

The theoretical journey of my talk will explore the relationship of Henry’s eclectic iconography to Walter Benjamin’s theory of baroque allegory, to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, and to a recent utopian literature desiring to recover a lost pre-1492 medieval Judeo-Islamic trading, social and cultural world that stretched from Moorish Spain in the west to North Africa to the Levant to the Indian Ocean and India. I will pursue the waratah that so fascinated Henry as a philosophical idea; in Leibniz’s term, a monad.

First, however, I should say how truly delighted I am to be here today having the opportunity to enthuse over Lucien Henry. I must immediately thank Ann Stephen for ringing me in Canberra a few months ago and suggesting it. Her call reminded me of a visit to the Powerhouse quite some years ago now, when I was still living in my home city of Sydney. Ann Curthoys and I realized with Ann that we all shared a passionate admiration for Lucien Henry, and Ann – Ann Stephen – arranged for us to one day come to the Powerhouse and look at the Henry holding of sketches and illustrations; I still recall our wonderment, as if we had entered the portals of a newly discovered pyramid. We all agreed that somehow, one day, the full range of Henry’s work would become generally known again, and I salute here the efforts of Ann Stephen and her colleagues at the Powerhouse in arranging the exhibition and producing the beautiful volume revealing to the world the too-long-entombed visual treasures, along with the illuminating accompanying essays.

I can’t quite remember now how I became so interested in Lucien Henry. It could have been when I found myself reviewing Terence Lane and Jessie Serle’s 1990 Australians at Home, which reproduced some of Henry’s spectacular visuality and also commented that his brilliant illustrations for his projected Australian Decorative Arts “show boundless imagination and a penchant for the bizarre and fantastic”.2 That certainly interested me, for in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was writing what became my book Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History, where I was wishing to compare unfavourably a fading modernist architecture and cultural theory, in its stern dislike of ‘female’ ornament and decoration, with a postmodern aesthetic that seeks to reprise the effervescence, exuberance, flamboyance, and elements of parody and self-parody in past cultures of visual excess as well as in contemporary popular culture – and also in, I should confess, the Sydney Monorail, which I perhaps perversely chose to defend in these terms.

I tried to find out as much as I could about Henry, including visiting the Sydney Town Hall to look at his remarkable allegorical windows. I also found out from the principal architect involved, as I explain in Postmodernism and Popular Culture, that in the Harbour Festival Marketplace building in Darling Harbour the Oceania Fountain alluded to Henry’s Town Hall ‘New South Wales’ window, with its powerful central figure of a young woman, boldly looking at us and the future.3 Sadly, I’m not sure if the Darling Harbour creation is there any longer: who can ever be surprised at how much Sydney devours its architectural children?

The references in Lane and Serle’s Australians at Home to Henry’s communard past, exile in New Caledonia, and busy professional life in 1880s Sydney (he returns to live in Paris in May 1891) piqued me as well for another reason, that I was becoming in the 1990s more and more interested in exploring ethnic and cultural identities in Australian history. In the early 1990s an influential view in cultural theory still seemed to be that the 1890s, the fabled fin de siècle, was nationalist; and that it was only with the coming of mass immigration from Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Asia after the Second World War that Australia ceased to be dominated by an exclusive Anglo-Celtic national identity. On both counts I wished to argue otherwise.

In my The Nervous Nineties (1991) and in a 1992 essay “Dilemmas of Identity: The Desire for the Other in Colonial and Post Colonial Cultural History”, I suggested – here very much agreeing with Sylvia Lawson in her fine book on Archibald of the Bulletin – that the cultural interests of the Nineties, a period stretching from the 1880s to very early in the twentieth century, were strongly cosmopolitan and international. During and since the mid nineteenth century gold rushes, Australia possessed many communities and migrants of (to name some) Danish, French, Italian, Swiss, Californian, Spanish, Russian, Mauritian, Dutch and Spanish descent. I also suggested that in Sydney bohemian, journalist and literary clubs and circles there was a remarkable attraction to the other, especially what might be other to an inherited English culture, revealed in interests in the Celtic Twilight as well as in Italophilia, Germanophilia, Orientalism, Egyptology, exoticism, and – not least – Francophilia.

I was intrigued by the tantalising references in Sylvia Lawson’s biography to Archibald’s Francophilia and philosemitism. In the life-adventure of identity Archibald constructed for himself and his friends and colleagues, the great editor played puzzling variations on the tune of his Irish-Australian ancestry. From sometime in the 1870s he changed his given names from John Feltham to Jules François, went about claiming his mother was of French and Jewish descent, and went to London where he felt drawn to a young Jewish woman with the unlikely name, as Sylvia Lawson puts it, of Rosa Frankenstein. Rosa crossed the seas to join her Jules François Archibald. They were married in Sydney in 1885 in a Presbyterian church, the bridegroom giving his birthplace on the marriage certificate as France.4

Edward Said, contemplating late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romanticism, wrote in an essay in his The World the Text and the Critic that we should take note of the “sheer folly and derangement stirred up by the Orient in Europe”.5 Said was thinking of writers like Beckford and Byron, but I think we can extend his observation to nineteenth century cultural history in the antipodes: Orientalism could realize a discursive desire to dominate, order, classify, control, intimidate the Orient, to create Occident and Orient as ontologically different in essence and being; but it could also involve a self-questioning, an interrogation of European and Western societies, a disordering of usual perceptions of European superiority and Eurocentric assumptions. I think we can see Archibald in these terms, of folly and derangement in his pursuit of what he saw as the female exotic, the mysterious Orient embodied in the Jewish woman from afar. Was Archibald trying to suggest that his identity was confused, problematic, contradictory, multifaceted, that in part he was indeed Irish-Australian, in part he was a cultural and even ethnic outsider to Australian society, both French and also a Semite, an Oriental, an alien, not the one but another or others?

In the context of widespread Francophilia in Australian cultural history, including in A.G. Stephens the Bulletin‘s literary editor, the success of Lucien Henry the ex-communard from New Caledonia in Sydney artistic, design, architectural and educational life is not surprising. Migrants can create new identities far from those who knew or know them.6 I think in my early 1990s writing on Francophilia I stressed too much that ‘France’ signified the cosmopolitan, ‘Paris’, worldliness, sophistication, urbanity, poetry, the literary life at its most intense and full. Thinking about the fine essays put together for Visions of a Republic I realize now I should have stressed as well and as much that Francophilia could involve admiration for French radical and republican traditions.

It struck me in reading Visions of a Republic that Henry would not have found Sydney’s multi-ethnicity and curious adventures of identity at all odd. It seems that when he arrived in Paris from the provinces in 1867, Henry worked “with a model maker, David Jacobsen”. His professor of painting was the famous Orientalist Jean-Léon Gerôme. His future wife Juliette Lebeau was married at that time to a Francisco José Lopèz, who left his family to travel to Brazil where he apparently disappeared. Perhaps, too, in New Caledonia, Henry would have come into contact with North African Arab prisoners, victims of French colonial repression in the Maghreb, several hundred being deported after a Kabyl revolt in Algeria the same year as the Paris Commune; prisoners who did not receive amnesty and passage home in 1879 as happened with the communards (descendants of the Arab exiles still live in New Caledonia).7

Certainly Juliette Lebeau crafted a cosmopolitan life for herself in Sydney after she was expelled by the French authorities in New Caledonia after an escape by some prisoners; now known as Madame Rastoul, Juliette arrived in Sydney with her children in 1874 (her de facto husband Dr Paul Rastoul drowned in 1875 trying to escape New Caledonia). In Sydney Madame Rastoul appears to have quickly established herself as a French teacher. While most of the communards journeyed back to France after the amnesty, Henry took passage south, arriving in Sydney in June 1879. In 1880 they marry, Juliette being nine years his senior. Madame Juliette Henry becomes a well-known figure in Sydney intellectual circles, in the 1990s creating a salon, the Cercle Litteraire Française, where talks on Alfred de Musset, Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the peasant painter Millet, are given to crowded audiences (so reported The Sun 26 February 1897).8 It attests to the richness and turbulence of Nineties cultural life that we could think here of another Sydney salonnière (so to say), Louisa Lawson, well known for her provocative discussion and debating circles, their interests socialist, feminist, republican.

With Juliette’s support and influential contacts, Henry was able to establish himself as a painter within months of arriving in Sydney. For eleven years Juliette and Lucien live in a rented apartment in a famous Kings Cross avenue, Victoria Street (well, more precisely, in Potts Point). A photo (probably 1890) reproduced in Visions of a Republic shows Madame Henry at work at her desk, writing.9

With Lucien settled and his career thriving in Sydney in the 1880s, we can add Arabophilia and Islamophilia to the Nineties’ multiple desires for the other. We read in Visions of a Republic that Henry wrote with great admiration of Arabic culture and its “magnificent art”: “I do not think that the influence of the Arabians on European civilization has ever been fully realised. Prejudices of race and religion have done their best to misrepresent to posterity the marvellous prodigies accomplished by that people.”10

Part of Henry’s training in Paris would have been study of Owen Jones’ mid-nineteenth century The Grammar of Ornament (1856), which was in such demand as a handbook that a French edition was published within a decade and was widely used by students and artists alike, as in its illustrations of Egyptian-style columns. He continued to be interested in Jones’ handbook in Sydney, for example, its “Moresque” motif, showing instances of abstract Islamic patterns. In Henry’s antipodean imagery, mixing neoclassicism and Orientalism, the Islamic principle of generating repeat patterns by combining a circle with the primary shapes of triangle, hexagon and square underpins many of his designs.11

Henry’s art and designs create a witty conversation between Islamic sacred geometry and European representational art, between abstraction and figure. There is, for example, Henry’s projected design of an Islamic-style pleasure dome for Sydney’s Botanic Gardens (“Public Park Fountain“). Above classical columns, their mock-severity edged by ornamental touches, there is a spectacular Oriental dome, but the dome is a red waratah! Inside the columns, there are mischievous carved sea-horses holding water buckets as well as a black swan, lying amidst water lilies, rising to the heavens.12 Before Henry’s designs one is always exclaiming, smiling, laughing, gasping, still a trifle scared, looking just slightly nervously around for the frowning ghosts of taste-as-restraint: should one be seen to be enjoying such fantastical creations, even now?

For much of the twentieth century, with its influential ideals of modernist functionalism and purity of form, such unashamed extravagance may have appeared an embarrassment. In our postmodern times, receptive to poetics of excess, its moment has come.

Indeed, Henry’s art can now be recognised as anticipating a very different strand of modernism, a strand that very much looks like postmodernism avant la lettre. In a well-known essay, Peter Wollen notes that before the First World War there flourished a non-functionalist modernist aesthetic, in figures like Paul Poiret the decorator and dressmaker, Leon Bakst of Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet, and Henri Matisse; in the years immediately after 1910 they were far more widely known than Picasso and the Cubists. All relished the decorative, and embraced an Oriental imagery. Poiret staged a wildly sumptuous and phantasmagoric Thousand and Second Night party to celebrate his new Oriental fashions, Orientalism in France having been stimulated anew by Mardrus’s fresh translations of The Thousand and One Nights. The Russian ballet staged Oriental spectacles, like Nijinsky inSchéhérazade in 1910, and having Bakst develop a décor and costumery with unexpected combinations of massed colours, of emerald green, deep blue, orange-red. Matisse, especially in his odalisques, channelled an Orientalist desire for bold colour into modernist painting using an ornamental arabesque line. Wollen argues that in the early twentieth century the different kinds of modernisms swirled contradictorily about, in and between texts. In these terms, Henry’s boldness and fantasticality is a move into unrestrained excess beyond the academic Orientalist art of his former teacher Gerôme, looking forward to Poiret, Matisse, the Ballet Russe in Europe, as well as in Sydney itself to the extravagant cover art of Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston for The Home magazine in the 1920s, the journalism and illustrations inside its covers droll, adroit, clever, knowing, worldly, cosmopolitan.13

If the arabesque is repetition with variations, so too is Henry’s almost fetishistic dwelling on the waratah – the waratah as allegorical figure, as monad. In the prologue to his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin refers to Leibniz’s notion of the monad, as a philosophical idea that has within it all the extremes and possibilities of that idea; every single monad contains, in an indistinct way, all the others. Benjamin is discussing the mourning plays and baroque art of the seventeenth century, which he likens to aspects of early twentieth-century modernism, not least in affinities with the Expressionists: exaggeration, a violence of manner, extravagance of technique, inducing in the spectator a characteristic feeling of vertigo. There is an interest in the grotesque, in decay, death, ruins. Benjamin suggests that in baroque allegory, often calling on Cesare Ripa’s Renaissance handbookIconologia, there is a tension between the apparent simplicity of an idea and the multiplicity, confusion, even chaos, of examples deployed to illustrate it. With a touch of Orientalism, Benjamin writes that meaning, significance, rules through voluptuousness, like a stern sultan in a harem of objects. Baroque allegory values and honours both the One and the Many.14

We can perhaps refer to Henry’s voluptuous 1887 “Waratah” in these Benjaminian terms. In this painting, as evoked by Ann Stephen and Charles Pickett in Visions of a Republic, the waratah’s stiff, browning leaves and cone-like bloom explode from a Chinese double-gourd vase; at its base there is a Renaissance grotesque tray bearing Henry’s own calling card; behind the flower and vase is a twelve-point Islamic pattern in turquoise and gold embellished by mystic knots, drawn from one of the Moresque patterns in Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament.15

The Islamic geometric pattern does not recede or fade passively into a static background, but glows forth and forward as an arabesque, sensuous, enigmatic, subtle. The arabesque, signifying defiance of finality and resolution and summation, engages the figurative in cosmopolitan dialogue: the indigenous waratah, Chinese vase, European tray, along with the self-parody of the calling card. Some leaves have already fallen, next to the vase, close, nudging, perhaps suggesting baroque decay, death, the ruin of all things, all dreams, all desire.

In terms of Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, the vibrant sexuality of the deep red waratah simultaneously entwines conflicting forces: power of the One, of life that focusses, draws inwards, concentrates; yet also the power of the Many, the flower ready to burst outwards, to become centrifugal, to disperse, spread, multiply, fracture, fragment, seed.

To conclude: along with the authors of Visions of a Republic, I would stress how much “fanciful play” energises Henry’s baroque creations: here surely is a major reason why Henry has become so attractive in a postmodernity that critiques hierarchies of genre, mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’. We can contrast such pluralising of aesthetic value with architectural modernism, with its violent (monotheistic) desire to destroy that which it considers false design: as infamously occurred with the Hotel Australia in Sydney, completed in July 1891, destroyed in 1970; the Hotel Australia, with its iron and glass roofs, its style and elegance, wit and urbanity. Henry contributed a lyrebird electric light fitting, and designs for Wunderlich ceilings and cornices.16

Contrary to the brutal abstraction and restriction of architectural modernism, Henry was drawn to figures in water – to mythological creatures like nymphs, mermaids, sea dragons and flying fish; figures which float, recalling seas near and far, seas that keep lands and continents apart, that enable movement between lands and continents. He was fascinated by the sea horse: its stateliness, dignity, the wisdom of the ages mixed with absurdity, borne by currents it cannot control, a flâneur in a dangerous world. He was also drawn to evoking arches, doors, gates, signifying (as in Bakhtin’s notion of the Menippean and dialogic novel) threshold states, always being on the edge of the new, the different, the unknown. In Bakhtin’s terms, the chronotope of the threshold suggests crisis and break in a life; the threshold brings to mind falls, resurrections, renewals, epiphanies, mystery, the decision that changes a life or the indecisiveness and fear that fails to change a life.17

Henry’s philosemitism and Islamophilia in relation to Arabian culture is highly relevant in Australia and the world today, a world still under intense pressure from Western ideals of nationalism and destructive desire for ethnic absolutism, a purity and singleness in terms of people, culture, mores, religion; a world where the West, led by the United States, is insistently even pathologically Islamophobic. Henry’s valuing of Islamic aesthetic principles in lively conversation with other aesthetic ideals and practices recalls the utopian desire in recent work by Ammiel Alcalay in his After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, Ella Shohat in her passionate essays, and in my own 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, to recover for postmodernity that lost medieval Judeo-Islamic trading, social and cultural world, its high point pre-1492 Moorish Spain, which permitted and relished a plurality, aconvivencia, of religions and cultures, Christian, Jewish and Muslim; which prized an historic internationality of space along with the valuing of particular cities; which was inclusive and cosmopolitan, cosmopolitan here meaning an ease with different cultures: still so rare and threatened a value in the new millennium as in centuries past.18


fountainsm gatessm

Lucien Henry, Public Park Fountain,
Hippocampus and waratah,

Watercolour over pencil, circa 1890.

Henry designed this Islamic-style
pleasure dome in the shape of a giant
red waratah bloom.
At its centre is a fountain.
Copyright: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Lucien Henry, Wrought Iron
and Enamelled Bronze Gate,

Watercolour over pencil, 1889-91.

Henry’s arched gate proposed
for the Botanic Gardens,
formed by squaring a double circle,
sprouts waratahs with rude rococo extravagance.
Copyright: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.


John Docker’s ‘historical novel’1492: The Poetics of Diaspora will be published in July.

This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

“Arabesques of the Cosmopolitan and International: Lucien Henry, Baroque Allegory and Islamophilia” is a paper delivered by John Docker at ‘Symposium: Visions of a Republic‘, The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 6 April 2001


1 Ann Stephen (ed.), Visions of a Republic: The Work of Lucien Henry – Paris, Noumea, Sydney (Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2001), p.11.

2 Terence Lane and Jessie Serle, Australians at Home: A Documentary History of Australian Domestic Interiors from 1788 to 1914 (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990), pp.228-29; my review appeared in Weekend Australian, 10 November 1990.

3 John Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1994), p.101.

4 Sylvia Lawson, The Archibald Paradox (Allen Lane, Ringwood, 1983), pp.3, 112, 115-17, 158, 216.; John Docker, The Nervous Nineties (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991), pp.67-8, 238-41, Dilemmas of Identity: The Desire for the Other in Colonial and Post Colonial Cultural History, Working Paper no.74, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, University of London, 1992, and “Rethinking postcolonialism and multiculturalism in the fin de siecle”, Cultural Studies, Vol.9, no.3, 1995, pp.409-426.

5 Edward W. Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (1983; Vintage, London, 1991), p.253; see also Orientalism (1978; Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991), pp.118-119.

6 Cf. John Docker and Gerhard Fischer (eds), Race, Colour and Identity in Australia and New Zealand (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000), “Introduction: Adventures of Identity”.

7 Visions of a Republic, pp.8, 16, 59, 60, 69, 75, 79, 83 note 3; Concerning Gerôme, see Lynne Thornton, Les Orientalistes: Peintres Voyageurs 1828-1908 (ARC Edition, Paris, 1983), pp.112-121; see also Sarah Walls, “The Shady Past of Paradise”, HQ, November 1990, pp.118-123, an essay which includes a photo of the Arab prisoners in a field (reproduced from Serge Kakov, Découverte Photographique de la Nouvelle Caledonie 1848-1900, Actes Sud, 1998, p.77).

8 Visions of a Republic, pp.45, 59, 71.

9 Visions of a Republic, p.60.

10 Visions of a Republic, pp.69, 83 note 31. Cf. my The Nervous Nineties, pp.173, 199-200, 210, 237, 238.

11 Visions of a Republic, pp.16, 66, 69.

12 Visions of a Republic, pp.220-21.

13 See Peter Wollen, “Fashion/orientalism/the body”, New Formations, no.1, 1987, pp.5-33; Robert Holden, Cover Up: The Art of Magazine Covers in Australia (Hodder and Staughton, Sydney, 1995); John Docker, “Feminism, Modernism, and Orientalism in The Home in the 1920s”, in Ann Curthoys and Julianne Schultz (eds), Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1999), ch.8.

14 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (Verso, London, 1996), “Epistemo-Critical Prologue”, pp.27-56; Ann Curthoys and John Docker, “Time, eternity, truth, and death: History as allegory”, Humanities Research 1, 1999, pp.5-26.

15 Visions of a Republic, pp.66-67, and p.83 note 27.

16 Visions of a Republic, pp.79-80, 98-99, 123, 179.

17 Visions of a Republic, pp.68, 80. Cf. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984), pp.5-7, 14-17, 69-73, 111-137, and The Dialogic Imagination (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981), “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”, pp.248-9; Docker, The Nervous Nineties, ch.11.

18 See Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993); Ella Shohat, “Taboo memories and diasporic visions: Columbus, Palestine and Arab-Jews”, in May Joseph and Jennifer Natalya Fink (eds), Performing Hybridity (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999), pp.131-56; John Docker, “An Unbecoming Australian: Romancing a Lost Pre-1492 World”, in Richard Nile and Michael Peterson (eds), Becoming Australia: The Woodford Forum (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1998), pp.136-148.

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