Orientalism

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Orientalism is an art style and an attitudinal prison. It includes the Orientalist school of painting which is generally regarded as having become important from the 1830s onwards and, although it continued to exert influence into the 1920s, had already climaxed by the first decade of the twentieth century. They came from almost every country in Europe from Austria (Müller); Belgium (Huysmans); Germany (Haag); Naples (Flandin); Scotland (Melville); Italy (Pasini) but above all from the two colonial powers France (Delacroix, Vernet, Vernet-Lecompte, Gérôme, Regnault, Girard) and England (Wild, Lear, Kelly, Lewis). They came from various styles of painting with divergent aims. Some tried to capture the exotic otherness and colours, some tried to reproduce dress, customs and architecture as faithfully as they could and some, paralleling developments in the field of photography at home and in the colonies, sought to portray the seamier side of life - the poor, the lame, the blind, the beggars, the mummy sellers as well as desert scenes with camel cadavers and the like.

 

Painters such as Ingres, were also influenced by the trend although they never visited the orient in person. And in this fact lies another facet of Orientalism, an underlying configuration of beliefs and attitudes which are central to the way in which we in the West - and of course the painters - relate to the East.

 

In Western thought there was always the tendency to find certain qualities the West sought to find in the East, the mysterious Orient. Sometimes these constructions resulted in artistic works which, while "realistic" in style, are to a high degree products of wish-fulfilment and fantasy. They are, in an essential way, the visible manifestations of projections of opulent barbarity, sensual inscrutability and sexual freedom (with just a hint of slavery). The exotic and the erotic. The savage and the sensual. It is in this context that we find the seeds (or blooms) of harem fantasies, the femme fatale, the untrustworthy Bedouin, the merciless despot and so on.

 

 

 

Here Regnault’s Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Granada (1870) with its decapitated corpse on the palace steps, the executioner calmly cleaning his sword on his glowing orange robe while the mathematical opulence of the richly decorated architecture glows in the background contrast with Gérôme’s The Narghile Lighter which has less to do with the waterpipe and more to do with the five bathing female nudes.