The Lure of the East. British Orientalist Painting

London, Tate Britain, from 4 June to 31 August 2008

1. Edward Lear (1812-1888)
Lear Constantinople from Eyüp, 1858
Oil on canvas - 38 x 24 cm
Private Collection
Photo : All rights reserved

Long gone is the time when the study of Orientalism was dominated by a single theory. In less than thirty years Edward Said’s manifesto, Orientalism : Western Conceptions of the Orient, has lost much of its hold over researchers and collectors in the field. It is well known that the Columbia professor, a native of Palestine, had massively rejected Orientalist literature, be it French, English or American, claiming that it had conditioned Europe’s view of the Orient, in order to better control it. Even more seriously, judging that its representation was innately flawed, notably as concerned historical truth and the colonial process, his book had attempted to reduce the complexity of the subject to a listing of the most obvious literary stereotypes. There is no doubt that Said’s writings, later seconded by his followers in art history, did indeed underscore the fact that Orientalism, the texts as well as the images, cannot be approached with an innocent eye, ignorant, due either to laziness or caution, of the geopolitical and anthropological conditions in which writers and artists had worked. This act of housekeeping was indeed long overdue. But there was no need to throw everything out the window in doing so.

2. Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)
Courtyard of a Mosque at Bursa, 1867
Oil on canvas - 36 x 26.5 cm
Bedford, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery
Photo : Tate Gallery

By limiting itself to English painting and at the same time paying tribute to Said, The Lure of the East has succeeded in pulling off a tricky feat, reconciling a concern for historical fact and the contradictory truths present in these images. Over one hundred paintings and drawings, among them some rarely seen marvels, have been assembled in London to remind us that art is never the direct and docile expression of a single context, no matter how insistent, or ideology, no matter how oppressing. Regardless of what today is considered politically correct, colonialism cannot be reduced to simply a relationship of domination by the occupier and to a universally uniform phenomenon. It is one thing to condemn Western imperialism for its most nefarious effects, and quite another to explain its causes and manifold consequences. Returning to the Tate exhibition, one cannot put the English presence in Egypt and the French annexation of Algeria in the same bag. Something which Said did not hesitate to do… Although it is obvious that the curators were especially captivated by the views of Cairo and the Nile Valley, they also accorded a pivotal role in the show to the Ottoman world (ill. 1), which at that time was central to the historical process in the Mediterranean. Without following a strict chronological pattern, The Lure of the East helps the visitor to grasp a fundamental fact : after dominating an important part of the world, from Vienna to Algeria, Turkey was forced to withdraw and reform itself. The victory in Crimea was not enough to slow down the decline of the sultan’s regime.

With its global approach and its rejection of trite clichés, the exhibition also manages to free itself of the usual time limits. In just a few minutes, the first room brings the world of 18th century merchants and ambassadors back to life ; more than any other genre, the full-length portrait is living proof of the enlightened exchanges between the East and the West, revealing how the cultural clash brought forth all kinds of reactions. Jonathan Richardson’s or even Reynolds’ models are not transformed into beautiful Oriental women by mere exotic snobbery. Beyond the specific political or commerical overtones, due to the ties between Europe and Turkey, this clothing transfer at times revealed a kind of cultural ubiquity or solidarity. The portrait of the famous Mary Montagu, whose travel journals inspired Ingres for his images of the Turkish Bath, is a blunt correction of Said’s unilateral perspective. The most striking thing about the traveler, her ability to observe Ottoman society without any preconceived notions and without judging it, can be found in the genre scenes presented in the second section.

3. Frederick Lewis (1805-1876)
The Bezestein Bazaar, El Khan
Khalil, Cairo (The Carpet Seller)
, 1860
Blackburn, Museum & Art Gallery
Photo : Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery

Since it was impossible to enter beyond the walls of the women’s quarters or in the mosques, with a few exceptions (ill. 2), English painters were content to describe street scenes, schools, markets (ill. 3) and home interiors. The absence of strict delimitations between the indoors and the outdoors is, of course, a trait of this civilization highlighted by the images and also emphasizes a style of life with a different view of time than that of Western society. John Frederick Lewis, to mention the most unique of these chroniclers, nonetheless rejects the type cast of the passive Oriental who cannot act and prefers a nap or the coffeehouse to his work. Here again, the derogatory conventions, for which Orientalism is often known, are not inevitable. Among the illustrations of an active society are The Arabian Scribe in Cairo, a watercolor by Lewis which is as vibrant as a Venetian painting. Théophile Gautier had been captivated by it at the Exposition universelle in 1855, commenting that it evoked “nostalgia in all those who had been fortunate enough to visit the beautiful countries loved by the sun and from which a leveling civilization had not yet taken its unique character.” The critic was responding to each of the image’s ethnographic references in all of their highly colorful presence : the orange pants of the young woman with the veil, for example, or the picturesque green turban flaunted by the scribe. It is obvious that Lewis is obeying the understated laws of the genre scene, much in the same way as if he were to illustrate an English subject. But doesn’t the essence of the work lie in the detailed and very positive view of the scene observed in the watercolor even if one senses a hint of benevolent sentimentalism ?

4. Frederick Lewis (1805-1876)
Hhareem Life, Constantinople, 1857
Watercolour and bodycolour - 62.2 x 47.6 cm
Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery,
Tyne & Wear Museums
Photo : Laing Art Gallery,
Tyne & Wear Museums

We could say that the rest of the visit alternates between two symmetrical images of the Orient as seen and consumed through Victorian England. The Promised Land, dear to Anglicans, and the harem, already present with Lady Montagu, form the two distinct poles enclosing the boundaries of the exhibition’s second half. The artists were disappointed by the sight of Jerusalem, less biblical than they had dreamed. From David Roberts, in whom Degas was interested, to the Pre-Raphaelite Hunt, who Baudelaire liked, the alternative was to paint the outskirts of the city, thus suggesting that we discover with them the same sights Jesus saw. And if the painters became interested in the Jewish community for the same reasons, they nevertheless did not overlook Muslim places of worship whenever they had access to them. A comparison, painting by painting, of the mystery of the views of the church of the Holy Sepulchre and the overbearing majesty of the mosques in Cairo and Damascus is particularly interesting. With its association to erotic fantasy and sex-toy imagery, the theme of the harem might have seeped us in the worst form of low-class Orientalism. This is indeed the last and very pleasant surprise of the London exhibition. The museography, enhanced by trellises and dimming light-effects, abandons its beautiful understated tone here in order to set a more appropriate atmosphere. Not far from the poetically risque odalisks painted by Leighton, close to a Slave Market by Gerome, in salacious and skillful contrast, the originality of Henriette Browne – a pseudonym for Sophie De Saux, who visited Turkey in 1860 and exhibited her very casual paintings in Paris – and, once again, Lewis’ charm stand out all the more. The harem is no longer the brothel with its heavy perfumes, its imaginary priapism, but a woman’s world with its laws and its freedom, in many ways less stifling than the old European bourgeois society. The Orientalism seen at the Tate will come as a surprise to many. Instead of the complacent mirror denounced by Said, the visitor will discover a much more subtle dialogue between civilizations.

Nicholas Tromans (ed.), The Lure of the East : British Orientalist Painting, 2008, 224 p. £24,99. ISBN : 978-185437-733-3

Tate Britain Website

Visitor Information : London, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. Phone :+44 20 7887 8888. Open daily 10 h 00 - 17 h 40 (last admission 17 h 00). Admission : £ 11.

Stéphane Guégan, jeudi 7 août 2008

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