Orientalism after Edward Said

Among the major lenders to Brussels’ alluring exhibition, From Delacroix to Kandinsky: Orientalism in Europe, is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. There is nothing Islamic, though, about the works visiting from Qatar. They range from a sweeping, translucent crater-like landscape, “Damas” by Edward Lear, and John Frederick Lewis’s intricate narrative, “The Love Message”, to Jean-Léon Gérôme’s polished “Armour Seller in Cairo” and José Villegas y Cordero’s “The Dream”. In this exquisitely finished, lavishly coloured work in loose, broken brushstrokes, a half-clothed Arab merchant sleeps among his rugs and cushions, still puffing on a hookah from which a whirl of smoke floats upwards to form the contour of a naked white girl.

In its description of eastern sensuality, lassitude and an archaic setting resistant to modernity, “The Dream” is a textbook case for everything that Edward Said, in his far-reaching study Orientalism (1978), criticised about European fantasies of an exotic, decadent, backward Middle East. Such images, Said showed, were inseparable from western political, economic and cultural imperialism, and in the 30 years since its publication, Orientalism has shaped every interpretation of this decorative, embattled genre. Tate’s 2008 exhibition of Victorian oriental pictures, with extensive commentary by Islamic writers, was an excellent example.

Two things, however, suggest fresh approaches. The first is the global art market. Orientalist paintings are surging in popularity – $70m was sold at auction in 2008, an eight-fold increase over 2004 – with Middle Eastern collectors, including the Sultan of Oman and the Qatari Emir, the leading buyers. They favour a post-political, or at least more nuanced, interpretation.

Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the chairman of Qatar Museums, who has just launched Doha’s own survey of orientalist painting, says: “Although the notion of ‘orientalism’ is commonly perceived as a view from the west on the east, we believe that there is an opportunity to explore and appreciate the spaces in between. One may debate the composition of the works and question its accuracy – but one cannot deny the historical overview it gives us; nor the opportunity for discussion and reflection.”

There is evidence, in From Delacroix to Kandinsky, that this more open reading is also liberating European curators from an exclusively socio-political approach, encouraging a second significant development: the scope to explore not only the historic but the aesthetic imperative of orientalism. As this exhibition persuasively argues, mounting interest in non-European culture in the long 19th century helped push forward art’s formal agenda, until, in the 1900s, “the Orient germinated the modernist revolution”.

The show begins in 1798, when Napoleon conquered Eygpt and Delacroix was born in Paris. A bevy of artists accompanied the military campaign, returning with lively propaganda pictures such as Pierre Guérin’s “Bonaparte Pardoning the Cairo Insurgents”, and inciting a frenzy for things Egyptian that coloured French academic painting for half a century. The heightened realism of these pieces – Charles Gleyre’s sultry grass-skirted semi-nude on the Nile banks, “La Nubienne”, for example, or Gérôme’s vast desert canvas, “View from the Plain of Thebes (Upper Eygpt)”, and theatrically detailed, glassily reflective “Arab Women Carrying Water, Medina-el-Fayoum” – made them the more insidious as faux-documentary records.

For Said is surely right that what fuelled such seductive, reassuringly timeless imaginings of the orient was western discontent: with Europe’s rapid industrialisation, with repressive sexual mores.

This exhibition’s masterstroke is to juxtapose such escapist dreams with seminal works shaped by another disillusion: with European academic art. From the 1820s, France’s greatest painters seized eastern allusions as an invitation to radical change. Delacroix turned away from Rome to construct painterly romanticism out of oriental subjects. Brussels shows the dynamic, furiously swirling horses, men and wild beast in the iconic “Tiger Hunt”, and – unfortunately in the artist’s smaller 1854 copy rather than the landmark 1827 original – the chaos, horror and seasick, tilting planes of “The Death of Sardanapalus”, where the turbaned Assyrian leader impassively watches the slaughter of his concubines in a storm of blood.

Baudelaire called Delacroix “the last of the great artists of the Renaissance and the first modern” – the one who found a new language for 19th-century visions of desolation, disintegration and dread. In 1832, disenchanted with Paris, Delacroix made a trip to Morocco and Algeria, gained exceptional access to a harem, and returned to present the sensational “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” at the 1834 salon. He continued to work on the motif until his death – a later example is shown here – while the theme of the forbidden gaze reverberated through European art history: both Renoir and Picasso revisited Delacroix’s harem.

But “Women of Algiers” is also about colour, richly deployed. Throughout the 19th century, oriental themes licensed romantic colourists from Géricault – his “Pasha”, on a golden seat in a brilliant crimson robe, is here – to Théodore Chassériau, who was haunted by his visit to Algeria in 1846. His strange, tormented pictures attempt a synthesis between Ingres’ classical rigour and Delacroix’s vehemence, notably in “Combat of Arab Cavaliers”, lit with yellow and red notes for the brightly costumed horsemen, and the theatrical oval panel, “The Death of Cleopatra”.

Forty years later, Renoir, seeking fresh impetus and greater luminosity to further impressionist experiments, landed at Algiers and in intense, spontaneous, short strokes depicted the over-heated “Arab Fete”, a packed musical festival seen against scorched white domes and towers. Within a decade, Henri Evenepoel, young Belgian friend and fellow-traveller of Matisse, made the same journey and painted his own light-drenched crowd scene, “Orange Market at Blidah”, whose flattened forms and chromatic daring anticipate fauvism.

Evenepoel died the year after this was painted, in 1899, on the eve of the breakthroughs in freeing colour from realistic restraint, leading ultimately to abstraction, by Matisse in Collioure – down the coast from Marseille – and Kandinsky and August Macke in Munich. Marseille and Munich are the next destinations of this show; cross-European borrowing, however, is so pathetic that, though these venues will showcase key 20th-century works, only one Kandinsky and not a single Matisse or Macke have made it to Brussels.

All these artists made decisive trips to north Africa. Classic paintings to join the exhibition in Germany and France include “Arab Cemetery”, Kandinsky’s abstract shapes of luscious Mediterranean colour, Macke’s calligraphic, simplified “Arab Café”, and, crucially, Matisse’s portrait, “L’Algérienne”, plus an odalisque and Tangiers view. They will coherently conclude the story of the dazzling convergence of orientalism and modernism that, in Brussels, remains untold.

‘From Delacroix to Kandinsky: Orientalism in Europe’, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, to January 9; Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, January 28-May 1; Musée de Marseille, Centre de la Vieille-Charité, Marseille, May 27-August 28

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