Tuesday, July 01, 2008

the lure of the east...

...is a yummy exhibition of British Orientalist painting currently on at the Tate. The exhibition brings together some of the best of (mostly) 19th century British art portraying the Middle East. It is arranged thematically into six rooms: portraits, genre & gender, the holy city (not just Jerusalem), harem & home, the Orient in perspective and a room of maps that traces electronically on a gigantic tracking screen, the journeys of 4 itinerants (of whom I can only remember Byron) against a larger macro-historical picture of the waxing and waning fortunes of the Ottoman empire.

Each of the rooms contains some stunning pieces, but I will only mention those that particularly did it for me. Portraits is full of Europeans (sometimes the artist himself) dressed as Orientals. Evidently this was done for many reasons - to soften up interlocutors in political and commercial transactions by trying to impress them with efforts to fit in, to signify allegiance to the peoples of the East, to imply authority as representer of the Orient, etc. TE Lawrence (who looks extremely worried in the single portrait there is of him) apparently did so on orders from Feisel, to demonstrate his respect for the Arabs. He also did this at Versailles to signify his continuing solidarity. And there is of course the famous one of Byron in Albanian clothes, his ruby lips looking as pouty as ever.

The undoubted genius of this exhibition is JF Lewis, whom I had never heard of till yesterday. I am not usually a fan of realistic art, but Lewis's work is almost photographic. No I would go further - sometimes the sense of depth is so fantastic, that bits of the painting leap out at you in 3D (look at the watermelon slices in the bottom right hand corner of 'The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo'). There is another fabulous one called 'The Doubtful Coin', in which a seraff is shown examining a coin closely, while two women lean towards him expectantly, waiting for his verdict. Other onlookers in the bazaar manifest varying degrees of curiosity - some amused, some sceptical, others bored, and there is also a donkey. Meyda Yegenoglu's comment (I am a big fan of her article entitled 'Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism in a Globalising World') alongside the painting said something about the trope of fraud in Western conceptions of the Orient. But after a while , the political marginalia in the exhibition began to annoy me. Looking at another JF Lewis (last one I promise) - 'The Commentator of the Koran: Interior of a Royal Tomb, Bursa, Asia Minor, 1869' (see second last picture on this blog page) - which portrays a scholar transcribing from the Koran in the semi-shade of his perch in a royal tomb, surrounded by rich drapery (oh just look at the damn picture) - there is something about the treatment of this subject that is so empathetic in the sense that the painter seems to endorse what the subject is doing, he seems to acknowledge the scholar's wisdom and the essential worth of his task, that I saw only knowledge and no power. I could not really see how representations of this kind were an exercise in power (unless one reads the entire corpus as saying: this is what 'Oriental' learning looks like - it nearly always takes the form of rote learning from classical sources, nothing new has happened, or ever happens, and however aesthetically beautiful, this is essentially a static culture. One never sees anyone inventing anything, in the way that one might in, say, Italian Renaissance art - ok I'm going out on a limb here, I don't actually know). But so mesmerised was I by the picture itself, that these parenthetical thoughts didn't occur to me at the time. Only knowledge and an appreciation of knowledge, no power.

One final realist masterpiece that I must rhapsodise about (this one in the Holy City section) is Gustav Bauernfeind's 'Entrance to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1886', depicting a tense standoff between Jewish pilgrims being turned away by Muslim gatekeepers (plus ca change?!) - the light in this one is ethereal, stunning, I was looking around to see if there was technological hankypanky, but no - it's in the painting.

The most interesting thing about the Harem and Home section - apart from the Arthur Melville, 'An Arab Interior, 1881', which furnishes the cover image of the exhibition and was also the cover of an edition of Edward Said's Orientalism - is the stark distinction between European male and female artists' representations of Oriental harems. The men almost uniformly depict this as a decadent, sensuous space of captive female sexuality in which the women lie around all day waiting for the master to come and conjugate (verbs?). The single painting by a woman - or maybe there were more that I didn't quite pick up on - (Henriette Brown, 'A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860') could not have been more different. Here the women are fully clothed and appear to be hanging out with each other and there's a child somewhere in the picture. It looks like a normal day in. The explanation for these dramatically contrasting representations is that as more European women travelled to the Orient, they were the ones who actually had access to harems - by virtue of their sex - and could portray them for what they were (ok this is the point at which Foucauldians will shudder, but it has to be said about Said that while he had his moments of excessive indebtedness to Foucault, he does actually uphold the notion that some representations are true and others false (compare pages 272 and 326 of the 1995 Penguin edition of the O book).

Oh, and on the way out, Frank Dicksee's 'Leila, 1892' - plump, ripe, dressed in red. 'This one usually hangs in Jeddah', a well-dressed man sniggered to his friend.

>unless one reads the entire corpus
>as saying: this is what 'Oriental'
>learning looks like - it nearly
>always takes the form of rote
>learning from classical sources
Er... but isn't the painting called _Commentator_ on the Quran? I recall the notes emphasising the fact that this was no mere transcription but an active engagement, interpretation, debate, etc. with a live text, equally a feature of Talmudic scholarship (I believe), and Western classical scholarship (to which I can now attest). That was what I found most brilliant about the painting: I thought you got it exactly right when you called it a rare instance of 'only knowledge and an appreciation of knowledge, no power'.

And to add to your list of highlights: I thought the one of the marketplace with the man pressing his bride-to-be's veil against her face to 'see' what her features were like (with the bowler-hatted Englishman and grinning(?) camel in the background) was terribly haunting as well, and the notes did it justice.
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