Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Orientalism in Europe

A major exhibition in Brussels this winter presents an overview of 19th-century orientalist painting, writes David Tresilian

Click to view caption
Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey, 1888

Following recent exhibitions of British orientalist painting in London and of the work of French orientalist painter Jean- Léon Gérôme in Paris, the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels has had the good idea of mounting a Europe-wide survey of this intriguing sub-genre of European painting.

Flourishing from the early decades of the 19th century to the early 1900s, when changes in taste and collecting habits rendered it almost extinct, in its hey-day many first-rate artists, and quite a few less exalted ones, tried their hands at producing orientalist paintings. The Brussels exhibition, entitled De Delacroix à Kandinsky, l'orientalism en Europe, shows how these included images of women in harems, picturesque ruins, slave markets and what for Europeans were oriental-looking types, all part of 19th-century European imaginings of the Middle East and all apparently snapped up by an eager international market.

While the core of the exhibition is made up of work by French and English painters, perhaps unsurprisingly given these two countries' colonial interests in the Arab world, the show is also noteworthy for its pan-European focus, showing how 19th-century artists from Germany, Belgium, Spain and the then Hapsburg Empire also turned out a wealth of orientalist canvases, most of them reproducing similar ways of seeing the Arab world.

There are some familiar-looking pictures in this exhibition by Delacroix, Chassériau, Géricault and Gérôme, the fruit of visits paid by these French artists either to North Africa in the case of Delacroix or Egypt in the case of Gérôme. There are also works by British artists with an interest in the Middle East, such as John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo from 1841 to 1850 and painted a series of narrative paintings in pre-Raphaelite style for the English market, and the writer Edward Lear, known, in addition to his nonsense verse, for his pictures of Syria and Palestine.

However, these artists are not represented by their best-known work, in many cases lying immobile on the walls of major European public collections such as that of the Louvre. While it is probably not worth making the journey to Brussels to see orientalist works by Delacroix, when one can as easily visit his major works in Paris, or the dozen or so canvases by Gérôme brought together for the Brussels exhibition, when a major retrospective of the artist's work is on at the same time at the musée d'Orsay (reviewed in the Weekly in October), placing works by these artists within a wider European context as the curators of the present show have done can nevertheless be genuinely illuminating.

Seen from this perspective, Delacroix's scenes of battle and conquest in North Africa can be compared to similar work produced by central European painters in the Ottoman Balkans, Gérôme's images of Middle Eastern harem women compared to the very different images of working women produced by other visitors to the Middle East at the time, and the images of impressive ruins made by 19th-century European visitors to Egypt and Syria compared to pictures made during the same period of mediaeval Arab buildings in southern Spain, "the orient in Europe" as it is described in the exhibition catalogue.

PAINTINGS IN THE BRUSSELS SHOW, drawn from museums and other institutions across Europe, the Middle East and North America, are organised under a series of broad themes, each contributing to an overall 19th-century European vision of the orient. Opening with a section on Egyptomania and the artistic fall-out from the French invasion and occupation of that country in 1798-1801, the exhibition swiftly moves on to one of its core segments, the pictures shown under the heading of "a political playground."

Since the publication of the late Palestinian- American writer Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, it has been a commonplace of academic criticism to insist on the connections between the work of 19th-century European orientalist painters and Europe's political and economic domination of the Middle East at the time. Much of the work of the European orientalists, this argument runs, presents an orient that is in state of major decay, the site of ruined civilisations, sensual excess and social or political stagnation, these things apparently feeding an art- market appetite for the picturesque and flattering the superior self-perceptions of the artists' mostly male and European audiences.

While the Brussels exhibition cannot fail to bring such arguments to mind, the explicitly political pictures presented in its second section have as much to do with realpolitik as they have with matters of representation. Jean Charles Tardieu's 1812 canvas Halte de l'armée française à Syène [Aswan], 2 février 1799, for example, displayed in the exhibition's opening section, draws attention to the beginnings of the Eastern Question, a theme in the foreign policies of many European states throughout the 19th century. Battle for influence in the region began in earnest when Napoleon landed French troops in Egypt, later having to withdraw them under British pressure.

Towards the end of the century stakes were raised when the German Empire became a competitor for influence in the Middle East. Unified by force and as a result of a series of wars, Germany was unlikely to stand by while Russia, France and Britain fought for influence in the eastern Mediterranean over the body of the ailing Ottoman Empire. One of the pictures presented here, Prussian painter Wilhelm Gentz's massive Entrée du prince héritier Frédéric-Guillaume à Jérusalem, commemorates a visit to Jerusalem in which the German prince, leading a kind of triumphal column, is shown being greeted with palm leaves in an echo of Christ's entry into the city some 2,000 years before.

The picture signifies both the city's possible liberation at German hands and German intentions to play a more pro-active role in Middle Eastern affairs, long monopolised by the country's European rivals. While frankly propagandistic images such as this one are comparatively rare in the Brussels show, many others show the effects of European power politics on the region. There is Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant's magnificent Le roi du Maroc allant recevoir un ambassadeur européen (1872-1902), for example, in which the Moroccan monarch, sumptuously attired, is shown waiting at the city gates for his important visitor, and there is German artist Gustav Bauernfeind's Recrutement de soldats turcs en Palestine, showing the Ottoman authorities levying troops in Jaffa.

Morocco was eventually declared a French protectorate in 1912, significantly reducing the Moroccan king's importance, if not his magnificence. Bauernfeind's picture, painted in 1888 and now in New York, may refer to the Ottoman Empire's need for troops to put down disturbances in its Balkan provinces, supported by the European powers. Later in the exhibition there is also a chance to see French painter Horace Vernet's La première messe en Kabylie (1854), a notorious example of art in the service of propaganda that shows the French conquest and vaunted Christianisation of Algeria.

A further intriguing section in the show draws attention to the physiognomies of the Middle Eastern individuals pictured in orientalist paintings. While it has long been known that the European painters relied on the camera from the mid century on, photographing individuals as well as buildings and landscapes on visits to the Middle East for later incorporation into their pictures, the connections between orientalist painting and 19th-century racial thinking have perhaps been less widely appreciated.

Yet, as this section of the exhibition reveals, characteristic features of such racial thinking, including its quest for "pure types," often on the basis of physiognomy, and its concern to establish a racial hierarchy typically crowned by northern Europeans, also fed into orientalist image-making.

Some artists, such as the sculptor Charles Cordier, were commissioned to produce images of the different racial types then thought to exist in North Africa, Cordier eventually producing a series of busts for display in the anthropological section of the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris, first home of the French ethnographic society. These are on display in the present exhibition. Others, such as French artists Isidore Pils and Ernest-Francis Vacherot, reproduced physical traits identified as racial markers by contemporary ethnographers in their pictures of North Africans

According to Peter Benson Miller in an illuminating essay in the exhibition catalogue, the latter artist's Marchands d'esclaves au faubourg Bab-Azoun à Alger, exhibited at the 1841 Paris salon, presents a veritable inventory of the various racial types observed by Europeans in North Africa, concentrating on racial types in profile and in full face that had been catalogued by the period's ethnographers.

Other themes explored in the 19th-century sections of the show include the emphases found in much orientalist picture-making on biblical landscapes, the landscape and inhabitants of 19th-century Palestine being believed to have remained unchanged since New Testament times, on the desert as a kind of immense backdrop and limit to human activities and aspirations, and on the promises of sensual pleasures thought to be available in the Middle East and North Africa.

As Roger Diederen points out in his contribution to the catalogue, "in the perception of Europeans, the Orient has long been associated with the consumption of tobacco, opium and other drugs," and the Brussels show brings together a number of pictures showing either smoking or individuals giving themselves over to what seems to be a drug-induced haze.

This aspect, at least, of orientalist thinking seems not to have inspired painters to give of their best. Even the remarkable Spanish painter Jose Villegas y Cordero was only able to manage Le Rêve (1875), a virtuoso exercise in textile painting that is now, like many other 19th- century orientalist paintings, in the Orientalist Museum in Doha. This section of the exhibition attracts more than its fair share of kitsch.

THERE ARE MAGNIFICENT PAINTINGS in De Delacroix à Kandinsky, many of them having traveled some distance to be included in the Brussels show. British artist Frank Brangwyn's Marché sur une plage marocaine (1892), now in the musée d'Orsay, is a very satisfying painting, as are works by Benjamin Constant and Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida's Troupes et esclaves à la parade près des portes de la ville (1900), an illustration to José Zorilla's poem La Sorpresa de Zahara, now in private hands.

The show includes intriguing ancient Egyptian pictures by the late 19th-century society painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, usually known for classical themes, and Palestine landscapes by the American James Tissot, apparently executed late in his career and being relatively little known. One of the most fascinating pictures is Osman Hamdi Bey's Marchand de tapis persans dans la rue, now in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and one of two paintings by this Ottoman artist in the show.

Having trained with Gérôme in Paris, Hamdi Bey returned to his native Constantinople, where he founded and directed the city's archaeological museum, as well as its academy of fine arts. A hugely accomplished figure, in his paintings Hamdi Bey drew on orientalist imagery, while at the same time subjecting it to ironic treatment, as in his 1888 painting of European tourists shopping for oriental souvenirs.

It might be thought a pity that the curators of the Brussels show, instead of presenting visitors with further pictures by Gérôme, did not extend the exhibition's final sections and look more deeply at the transformations of orientalist picture-making carried out by late 19th-century artists and continued in the early decades of the 20th century by painters such as Matisse, Klee and Kandinsky.

Pointing the way towards a new treatment of the orient in the work of 20th-century European painters are pictures by Belgian artist Henri Evenepoel in the exhibition's final rooms, including his Marché d'oranges à Blidah (1898), a study of mass and light. More information on this artist, as well as on the reinterpretation of orientalist iconography in the work of his contemporaries and that of the next generation of artists, is given in Roger Benjamin's account of "modernist orientalism" in the exhibition catalogue, one of the most informative of these always interesting essays.

Benjamin points out that for Renoir, at least, the encounter with the orient, taking place when the painter visited Algeria in the 1880s, did not lead to the development of a new pictorial language. Only in the cases of Matisse, Kandinsky and Klee did visits to North Africa result in significant developments in the painters' works, Kandinsky discovering colour effects in Tunisia that fed into his other research and Matisse finding new decorative possibilities in paintings he produced in Morocco.

In traveling to North Africa when they did, these artists were moving onto already well- trodden ground, there being little here of the radical search for new subject-matter and forms of expression that had lain behind Gauguin's move to Tahiti, for example, some years before. Instead, some 70 years after Delacroix had first visited North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia had become "a desert-style Barbizon," as Matisse put it, in other words a source of familiar iconography for budding painters. Both Matisse and Kandinsky took the standard guidebooks with them on their visits, using them to suggest promising subjects and views.

It was only the German artist Paul Klee, Benjamin writes, who really discovered himself while working in Tunisia, his adaptation of cubism in the North African environment allowing him to achieve a "synthesis of cityscape and painting."

Klee, Benjamin writes, was above all a graphic artist before he went to Tunisia. "While there, he became a painter."

De Delacroix à Kandinsky, l'orientalism en Europe, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, until 9 January


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