How current conflicts have transformed the west’s fascination with the “Orient”

It is 30 years since Edward Said’s book Orientalism lobbed a grenade into the field of Middle Eastern studies. According to Professor Said, Orientalism—the portrayal of the Arab cultures by the West—was ultimately formulated to serve Western political ends, however benign the apparent intention. Describing the Orient in opposition to the Occident, making statements about it, and seeking to define it, reinforced an imbalance of economic and political power. Debates within this highly contentious area have raged over three decades, and attacks on Professor Said’s thesis and methodology have been launched, alongside accusations of intellectual terrorism, but his ideas have entered the critical bloodstream. Although the visual arts were not central to Professor Said’s argument, others have applied his analysis to painting, and it is now impossible to look at seductive paintings of odalisques, harems and mosques without an acute awareness of the dark shadow of imperialism.

This book, and the exhibition on which it is based (4 June-31 August) at Tate Britain, takes up the challenge of grappling with what must be the most politically charged area of art history, and attempts to come up with a nuanced synthesis. While the individual images are ravishing, the book is about a much wider picture, in particular how we can understand and interpret Orientalist paintings through the lens of a contemporary world in conflict. As Rana Kabbani puts it, “the interventions by Britain and America in the Middle East that we are presently witnessing have made it increasingly difficult for me to look at these pictures with anything like an indulgent eye. The past and present have bled into each other.” Her contribution to the book, and that of Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatema Mernissi, mean that readers are not faced with another account written exclusively by western authors looking from the outside in, but something far more subtle.

The narrative focuses on the British artists who went to the Middle East between the 1830s and the 1920s. While the French occupation of Algiers encouraged French painters to travel to the Maghreb, the British headed to the Middle East and Egypt through the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans. David Roberts was the first of his generation to travel to the region, coming back armed with hundreds of drawings of sites and monuments which inspired others to follow in his footsteps. The second generation of travellers—including David Wilkie, William Holman Hunt and Richard Dadd—went for a variety of reasons: curiosity, the hope of finding a new utopia, the search for new subjects and the desire to create a new type of religious painting based on first-hand observation of the Holy Land. Some were even inspired by the notion that the Orient might offer an updated version of the Greek and Roman world to revitalise classical subject matter.

The Victorian spectator may have imagined that he or she was getting an authentic vision of a world that was slowly opening up to visitors, but few artists knew much about Islamic history, or had an in-depth knowledge of Middle Eastern society. Many cribbed ideas and compositions from the illustrations in Edward Lane’s An Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (1836), and by the 1860s some were producing Orientalist paintings without ever leaving the comfort of home. There was certainly a flourishing demand for what painters turned out: Orientalist canvases presented an appealing catalogue of ethnic “types”, sensual themes and exotic furnishings, ignoring

the complexities of Middle Eastern politics.

One British artist who did display a more profound insight into the culture he depicted was J.F. Lewis, who spent a decade in Cairo living in some style in an elegant Ottoman house and going about in native dress. His minutely detailed, decorous images are contrasted with those of the French artist Jean-Leon Gérôme, whose brush lingered rather too lovingly over the naked haunches of slaves and concubines.

What a shame that because

of the traditional Islamic prohibition on image-making, we have so little visual evidence of what the painters’ subjects thought of their western visitors. There are plenty of entertaining and largely unflattering portraits of westerners in mid 19th-century prints by Japanese artists, but one can only speculate on what their Middle-Eastern counterparts might have produced.

Caroline Bugler

Emily Weeks and Nicholas Tromans (eds), The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (Tate Publishing), 224 pp, £24.99 (pb) ISBN 9781854377333

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