The Orientalist Effect

With Sotheby’s Orientalist Sale featuring their largest ever offering we look at the art movement, its collectors, its influence on the perception on Arab and of course the art itself

Paul Joanowits' Bashi-bazouks before a Gateway will be on sale at Sotheby's Orientalist Sale

by Maan Jalal

Culture 18 April 2018

The Orientalist Sale in Sotheby’s London, now in its seventh season, will be held on April 24. Comprising over 60 lots, the sale will feature works that provide historical insights into the Arab, Ottoman, and Islamic worlds as seen from the perspective of European artists of the time. The exhibition will be showcased alongside the Arts of the Islamic World auction as part of Orientalist & Middle Eastern Week.

Orientalist art exists in an awkward space. Not just for me, an Arab who has studied Art History, but for many other people who find the movement problematic for a number of reasons. When it comes to representations of Arabs and the Middle east, it has been categorized as racist and eroticizing the East at one end of the spectrum or playing a more subtle part in informing and misinforming how Arabs existed on the other.

The argument goes that along with other misinformed and appropriated cultural artifacts, which includes pseudo translated texts, many of the ideas that exist in Orientalist art has filtered down over the years to inform many contemporary representations of Arabs and the Orient in popular literature and film. It’s a multi-faceted and valid argument that has fueled many art historians, critics, writers and shrewd online social commentators.

“Contrary to Edward Said’s thesis (which takes issue primarily with written text, not paintings), I would say that the majority of Orientalist painters did not have a colonialist or political agenda, but were genuinely fascinated by the cultures they depicted,’ says Claude Piening, Sotheby’s Head of Orientalist Paintings when asked about the authenticity of the scenes depicted in many of the Orientalist works on sale at Sotheby’s.

Piening also brings up the important point of distinguishing between the different artists and styles within Orientalist art in order to have a broader understanding of the intentions of the artists and the movement in general.

“In the Orientalist Sale, we try to focus on artists who actually travelled to the region and experienced for themselves the cultures they painted. Gérôme and Ralli were regular visitors to Cairo; Bridgman summered in Algeria; while many artists made the region their home: Déhodencq lived in Tangiers; Majorelle in Marrakesh, where he built himself a house and studio; Dinet not only settled permanently in Algeria, but converted to Islam,” says Piening.

To the unfamiliar eye, it’s hard to see the DNA of each of these artists in the selection of Orientalist paintings on sale at Sotheby’s. However, as Piening tells us, there are three categories we can examine within the Orientalist art movement.

There are the artists who followed a more rigorous academic technique with extreme attention to realistic detail. French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme would be the archetypal example of this style. Gérôme inspired many other artists including Theodoros Ralli as the painters of the Vienna school which include Ludwig Deutsch, Charles Wilda, Raphael von Ambros, Arthur von Ferraris, and Rudolf Ernst.

Leaning towards a more romantic style, Adolf Schreyer, Alfred Déhodencq and Henri Rousseau all used expressive brushstrokes, creating a strong sense of movement and preferred bold colours over the precision of line. They were heavily influenced by the French Romantic artist a leader of the French Romantic school Eugène Delacroix.

Alfred Dehodencq’s An Audience Outside the Kasbah Gate, (Photo: Sotheby’s)

There are also the Impressionist-inspired painters such as Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Edwin Lord Weeks, and Adam Styka who were more interested in capturing the effect of light through skillful paint application, open compositions and unorthodox visual angles.

No matter your opinion on how Orientalist art shaped the world view of Arabs over the years, it’s impossible to ignore that the works are at least beautiful to look at. The people, architecture, landscapes and customs of North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, Arabia, and the Ottoman world during the 19th and early 20th centuries, has been a subject matter that the world finds hard to ignore.

There is another group of Oriental artists that Piening singles out. The armchair Orientalists.

“A small fraction of ‘armchair’ Orientalists, artists who never travelled to the region and who relied on travellers’ accounts or Romantic texts such as the Arabian Nights or the Bible for their inspiration. They would paint what can only be described as exotic fancies – which I must admit play into the hands of Edward Said’s argument that Orientalism had a condescending, imperialistic agenda,” adds Piening.

“Harem scenes were a particularly popular choice of subject. But such pictures are not really true representations of the Orient at all. No male Western artist would have access to the intimate space of the harem, for example.”

Arguably, it’s the perspective of the armchair Orientalists that may have caused the most damage in how Arabs have been perceived and how they perceive themselves and their history. Or maybe not.

Intricately painted architecture and patterns, snake charmers, men in turbans, and women in “Arab” dress were once the fascination of Orientalist art collectors and fashion icons Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta and others attracted to the lure of the East. Now the collectors of orientalist art are rather different – Arabs who see the art movement as the highest form of resect to their history and culture.

Egyptian businessman and Cairo chief of Artoc Group, Egypt’s largest private developer, Shafik Gabr is one of the biggest collectors of the movement and believes that Orientalist art best displays the West’s deep love and respect for the Middle East. A view reportedly shared by many Gulf royals as well as the Moroccan royal family who both have vast collections of Orientalist art.

“Over the past three decades there has been an enormous uptake in interest from the Arab and wider Islamic world, from collectors and museums alike, for whom the scenes depicted shed an invaluable historical light on the region at a time when photography was not yet developed, and artists and artisans from the region were not for the most part producing figurative, representational art,” says Piening.

Whether existing as accurate cultural records or interpretations of a region at that particular time (staged or not) or simply as works of art to be admired, Orientalist art is in vogue. The academic and renewed commercial interest in Orientalist art only adds another layer of complexity and intrigue to what these paintings mean and what they really represent.

“For the most part, these paintings are a reflection of the artist-travellers’ fascination for new cultures and a genuine desire on their part to document in paint their impressions. Their endeavours opened the West’s eyes for the first time to a world that was still relatively inaccessible to the vast majority of the population and would have had an enlightening effect.”

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