The orient expressed
Men in the Market Place, Tangier (detail).
In January 1912, Melbourne artist Hilda Rix Nicholas - 27, unmarried and independently minded - set out from Paris on a painting expedition to Spain and Morocco. The paintings she completed during her travels would help to cement her reputation in Europe and at home. In this extract from Moroccan Idyll, Jeanette Hoorn charts the young woman's fascination with Tangier's markets.
HILDA Rix was excited by the commerce, and the colour and variety, of the marketplace in Tangier from her first visit. Her mother came from a mercantile background - the family owned the prosperous Australian music chain Suttons - so perhaps it was in her blood. As it was difficult to paint in oils in the market, she executed most of her soko (souk) works in pencil and crayon. She did, however, manage to finish a number of oil paintings there …
Hilda Rix Nicholas sketching in the marketplace, 1914.
The dress and appearance of the market crowd occupied Hilda from the outset. In one of her first letters ''home'', dated February 12, 1912, she included a drawing and described the dress and appearance of the women of Tangier: ''See how most of them are covering their faces - They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers - (tight at ankle) - Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]''. Less than a week later, she wrote on a postcard - clearly pleased that the weather was holding: ''Picture me in this market-place - I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely - Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far - Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box - wanted to get used to people and things first - Oh I do love it all! …''
Men in the Market Place, Tangier (1914) presents the market in the evening, with the shops closed and a group of friends gathered in conversation. Once again, this work reveals Hilda's developing style - the free-flowing handling of the paint and the relatively restricted palette of pale blues, creams, browns and yellows are used with striking effect. The figures are located in shadow, which softens and obscures their features, while the afternoon light fills the market with a diffuse glow.
In a letter written to her family from the soko, Hilda recounted the appearance of the marketplace in the evening: ''The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed - feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him - he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt - next time I'll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon - The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …
''For what joy [the moon] gives the soul now, making living opals of the bread women's cream haiks - the tops of their forms being caressed by her tender blue which is enhanced by the golden rosy glow from the little lanterns - The whole town is made a dream town - & the people, moonlit characters in a wonderful fairytale.''
Her pastel drawing Grand Marche, Tanger, later copied in oils, may well have been one of the 16 works Hilda refers to in her postcard as having completed. The drawing received top billing in her show at the Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musee du Luxembourg shortly after the exhibition finished. In the drawing, two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes, take pride of place in the composition.
Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other has her back turned to the viewer. She is carrying something on her back, possibly an infant.
A critic writing for the French edition of the New York Herald marvelled at the realism of Hilda's art, which he believed confirmed that the figures in her compositions must surely have been drawn before the motif. He noted: ''This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the 'types' to be found among the Moroccan people.''
Hilda made a copy of the original drawing that was bought by the French government. It follows the graphic style of her work in crayon and pastel, the medium in which the work was originally executed, rather than taking up the looser handling of her oils.
It is therefore something of an oddity in her oeuvre, a work she produced as a memento of the one that entered the collection of the Musee du Luxembourg.
Not all of the critics enjoyed this painting. The reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, considered the colours and composition to fall within what the opponents of post-impressionism considered as the excesses of modernism. He pronounced that the ''drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner''. Grand Marche, Tanger was unfavourably compared to Hilda's more conventionally academic painting By the Window (circa 1918) - a study of an interior in a suburban Melbourne home, with lacy curtains and flowers - a work he considered properly finished and true to nature.
Hilda quickly settled into sketching in the soko … In early February, she reported to [her sister] Elsie and [mother] Elizabeth: ''The Moors themselves I love - They often crowd around me four or five deep in front of me, they are very courteous - But I feel perfectly safe and happy …
''I am becoming quite a well-known figure in the soko - am greeted with the cry of a word sounding like 'Katsoeur! Katsoeur!' which I learn means 'The maker of pictures'.''
■ This is an edited extract from Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix's Moroccan Idyll, by Jeanette Hoorn, Miegunyah Press, $39.99.