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The lure of the East

Orientalism is back in the spotlight with a slew of exhibitions and auction sales

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bain Turc or Bain Maure, 1870

The last major survey of Orientalist painting dates back to 1984, with the Royal Academy/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC exhibition “Orientalism in Art”. Since then there have been more focused shows (for instance, Tate’s 2008 “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting”) but no general overviews. This is, of course, a controversial field, which took a considerable battering at the hands of Edward Said. And, in general, 19th-century academic painting is still deeply unfashionable, dismissed as sterile, pompous and pompier.

But now there seems to be a revival of interest in this field, judging by current or upcoming exhibitions—and for Orientalist subjects, the surge is also reflected in the commercial world.

Currently touring Europe is “Orientalism in Europe: from Delacroix to Kandinsky”, a joint show organised by the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Hypo Cultural Foundation Kunsthalle in Munich. The first major overview since “Orientalism in Art”, the exhibition leaves Brussels at the beginning of this month to open in Germany on 28 January. This summer it will continue to Marseilles (see box and p74 for full listing). A flurry of other shows about the “the Orient” and “the East” are programmed for Saint-Tropez, Lyon, Groninger, Barletta in Italy, Doha and Brussels this year, while Jean-Léon Gérôme is the subject of a major exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay (see below).

Does all this translate as an overall re-evaluation of academic painting and Orientalism in particular, or is it more a reflection of commercial realities, as new money, particularly in the Middle East, drives the market forward?

“For a long time, I have felt that it is utterly unjust that 19th-century painting is neglected, as there is great quality to be had in this field,” says Roger Diederen, curator of the Brussels/Munich show: “Orientalism attracted artists from every country and every artistic predilection; it is such a rich subject,” he says. “It touches upon so many religious, political, and social issues that are still so pertinent to us today, that a show dealing with this subject has lost not the slightest timeliness.”

“There is certainly a re-evaluation in the sense that the old assumptions of the 1980s, that Orientalist paintings are all ethically bad, cannot easily be sustained,” adds Nicholas Tromans, one of the curators of Tate’s “Lure of the East” exhibition. This show coincided with the 30th anniversary of the publication of Said’s seminal book, which derided Orientalism as imperialistic and hegemonic.

That debate rumbles on, but Tromans comments: “On the more academic side, I think a problem has been the attempt to apply Said’s thinking to images, a task that has been done poorly. ‘Orientalism’ in Said’s sense comes into play when we in the West attribute to the ‘Orient’ an inability to look properly, or to look naturally: we assume we see things objectively, but that their vision is hampered by religion and conservative culture; philosophically speaking it is hard to say one visual culture is more natural than another—we can only say they are different.”

Indeed, Gérôme’s “authentic” vision of the Orient was in fact a recreation. He visited the eastern Mediterranean a number of times after 1855; because his many Orientalist paintings were so precisely detailed his vision was taken, at the time, as reality. But his depictions corresponded to the ideas of the time, with their mixture of sensuality and violence.

According to Edouard Papet, co-curator of the Musée d’Orsay exhibition: “Our show is not about rehabilitating Gérôme, nor indeed the whole field of 19th-century painting.” He continues: “Of course he’s academic—although not from 1850 onwards. Our interest is to demonstrate what an extraordinary creator of images he was, and how modern they were,” he says. And he underlines how Gérôme’s “illusion of the truth” influenced Hollywood—notably in Ridley Scott’s film, “Gladiator”. The film director was shown Gérôme’s Pollice Verso, 1872—a gladiator getting the thumbs down. “I knew right then and there I was hooked,” Scott has said.

As for the commercial arena, while 19th-century painting is one of the few areas not to be lifted by the rising tide of a booming art market—indeed, it has been flat for decades—Orientalism seems to be bucking the trend. Art Market Report’s European 19th-century art 100 Index peaked in September 2008 at 10,099 from a base of 1,014 in 1976—a tenfold increase, but relatively low compared with European impressionists who peaked at 26,651 in October 2008 against a base of 1,014 in 1976. Orientalists do better: a separate index of these artists (including Bridgman, Gérôme, Dinet and Goodall) jumped in 2007, and in October 2010 reached its peak—at a buoyant 52,524 (base, 920 in 1976).

“If Orientalism is strong,” says Simon Edsor of London’s Fine Art Society and a specialist in the field, “it is almost entirely because of Middle-Eastern buying.” The gallery held its first exhibition of Orientalist subjects in 1974, a year after the Mathaf Gallery was founded in London.

In an essay entitled “Bringing it Home? Orientalist Painting and the Art Market”, Tromans notes, “No sooner had the British left the Gulf as imperialists in 1971 than they returned as art dealers. Following the massive marking-up of oil prices after 1973, the Gulf States quickly developed into a significant market for Orientalist paintings, a market managed from London.”

The market has fluctuated quite considerably since: good in the 1980s, flat in the 1990s. At auction, from time to time it has been stand-alone with specialised sales, or included in European 19th-century painting sales—themselves now folded in with Old Masters at Christie’s. “The market [for Orientalist paintings] has always been a bit volatile, it’s quite high risk,” says Christie’s Paris-based specialist Etienne Hellman. “But it is the most dynamic part of the 19th-century painting field at the moment.” Brian MacDermot of Mathaf notes: “Orientalist paintings are selling well, but buyers are more sophisticated today—it’s a price-conscious market.”

What has changed the picture is the arrival of new institutions and collectors. “American buyers have always been important, and now there are Gulf institutions coming in, as well as private collectors in the region,” says Hellman. In Qatar, a cousin of the emir, Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani, has been collecting for over a decade; his collections, and those of the state, are housed in the Orientalist Museum, which is currently closed, although some of the works are on display in the Museum of Islamic Art show, “A Journey into the World of the Ottomans” (see below).

The big story of the last few years has been the arrival of Turkish and Lebanese buyers. A painting by the Turkish Osman Hamdi Bey, A Lady of Constantinople, 1881, made just over £3m at Sotheby’s, London in May 2008. “Turkey is extremely strong for Turkish subjects,” says Hellman, explaining that under Ottoman rule, artists concentrated on calligraphy and the topographical aspects of Orientalist painting. Interestingly, Christie’s took two works from its 26 January New York sale of Old Master and 19th-century paintings to Hong Kong, for the first time, at the end of last year. One was Gérôme’s Master of the Hounds, 1871, set for sale in New York on 26 January (est $700,000-$1m).

In Cairo, a leading collector is Egyptian businessman, Shafik Gabr, who has been buying since 1993, mainly Egyptian and North African work. Among his holdings is Gérôme’s The Blue Mosque, 1878, which appears on the cover of Said’s Orientalism. “There is a critical reassessment of Orientalists,” says Gabr. “At one point people diminished their work, but when you look at its quality, the accuracy, the detail, this is being recognised now.”


Orientalism in Europe: from Delacroix to Kandinsky

Hypo Cultural Foundation Kunsthalle, Munich, 28 January-1 May

Centre de la Vieille Charité, Marseilles, 27 May-28 August

The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme

Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until 23 January

A Journey into the World of the Ottomans

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, until 24 January

Colours of the Orient: Arts and Lifestyles in the Ottoman Empire

Villa Empain, Brussels, until 27 February

Russia’s Unknown Orient: Orientalist Painting 1850-1920

Groninger Museum, Netherlands, until 8 May

The East Seen by Christian Lacroix

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 8 February-15 May

The Genius of the East

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, 2 April-4 July

The East in 19th-century Italian Paintings

Pinacoteca de Nittis, Barletta, 4 May-5 June

The East from Delacroix to Matisse

Musée de l’Annonciade, Saint-Tropez, 1 July-30 October


Old Master and 19th-Century Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours

Christie’s New York, 26 January

Orientalist Art:?Impressions of the Middle East and North Africa

Bonhams Dubai, 13 April

Dedicated Orientalist section, part of 19th-century painting sale

Sotheby’s London, 18 May

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