British Orientalist Painting at the Tate Gallery

The Lure of the East

The Tate Gallery's exhibition on British Orientalist Painting explores the responses of British artists to the cultures and landscapes of the Near and Middle East between 1780 and 1930. Susannah Tarbush found out that the exhibits are more than just representations of an "imperialist gaze"

The cover of the catalogue for the exhibition "The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" shows the 1881 oil painting An Arab Interior by Scottish artist Arthur Melville. This captivating work portrays a white-bearded man, long tobacco pipe in hand, seated before a mashrabiyya, or latticed wooden screen. Exhibition curator Nicholas Tromans notes: "The patterns of strong sunlight falling through these screens into an interior became a favourite motif of British painters."

The subdued interior is gently brightened by the rosy hues of the furnishings and the man's dress. An Arab Interior has an intimacy and warmth, and is an enticing introduction to the exhibition of some 115 works by 46 artists which runs at the Tate Britain gallery in London until the end of August.

Going East

The exhibition is organised in association with the Yale Center of British Art, in Connecticut, where it was first displayed in February-April this year. Following its run at Tate Britain the exhibition will move, in partnership with the British Council, to the Pera Museum in Istanbul (October-January) and Sharjah Art Museum (February-April).

Most of the pictures date from the 19th century, when the arrival of steam travel made parts of the Middle East and North Africa much more accessible. Many British artists visited the Eastern Mediterranean and its great cities. Some travelled directly by steamship. Others went via Spain and Morocco, or through Greece and the Balkans.

Among the artists who brought back images of the Orient were Edward Lear, William Holman Hunt, Thomas Seddon, David Roberts, Frank Dillon, Lord Frederic Leighton and William James Müller (son of a Prussian émigré).

New heights of achievement

The dominant presence in the exhibition is John Frederick Lewis, represented by 32 works. Lewis lived in Cairo for a decade from 1841, wearing local dress and living in a grand house. He executed nearly 600 watercolours and drawings during that time. Lewis is particularly known for his beautifully detailed interiors and harem scenes, of which the exhibition has fine examples including The Reception and Hhareem Life, Constantinople.

In his masterpiece A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, 1842, painted in 1856 Lewis's watercolour technique reaches new heights of achievement. Commissioned by Viscount Castlereagh, the picture shows the aristocrat languidly resting in his tent during a hunting expedition. Lewis's close friend, the critic John Ruskin, declared it "amongst the most wonderful pictures in the world".

There was exciting news for the organisers of the Tate Britain exhibition when, a few weeks before it opened, three works they had hoped to include but had been unable to locate were found in the Qatar Orientalist Museum. The pictures, among them Lewis's exquisite 1855 oil An Armenian Lady in Cairo – The Love Missive, have been incorporated into the exhibition.

The eyes of the young Armenian woman are lowered as if she is in a reverie and she holds a posy. The picture resonates with certain other works on show, by Lewis and others, in which the language of flowers is an essential element.

Debates on Orientalism in art

Inevitably, especially in a year that marks the 30th anniversary of publication of the late Edward Said's hugely influential but increasingly challenged book Orientalism, the exhibition is surrounded by debates on Orientalism in art.

The exhibition organisers have tried to ensure that the issues are explored from both Western and Middle Eastern perspectives. Thirty prominent people, including Arab, Turkish and Jewish scholars and writers, have contributed their thoughts on particular works which are displayed alongside the exhibits.

photo: AP
"A wonderful opportunity to probe the link between the West's attitude towards the dark and its fear of Islam" - Fatema Mernissi, Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist

​​Two of the four introductory essays in the handsome 224-page catalogue are by Arab women writers: Syrian Rana Kabbani and Moroccan Fatema Mernissi. Kabbani's essay, which is angry in tone, sees a link between pictures painted at a time when Britain enjoyed military and economic mastery over the peoples and places depicted, and the modern era "in which Britain has again participated in the occupation of an Arab country". She admits, though, that "many of these paintings have managed to preserve a poignant visual record of places that are now altered beyond recognition, or have vanished forever."

The West's attitude towards the dark – and the nude

Mernissi adopts a more forgiving approach in her essay Seduced by 'Samar', or: how British Orientalist painters learned to stop worrying and love the darkness. In her view the exhibition is "a wonderful opportunity to probe the link between the West's attitude towards the dark and its fear of Islam". She concludes that the painters' encounter with a different world "led not to conflict but to creativity, and we have much to learn from them."

Anyone coming to the exhibition in the hope of seeing lurid and titillating examples of Orientalist art will be largely disappointed. One point made by the organisers is that there were marked differences between British Oriental artists and those of certain other countries, in particular France. For all his numerous paintings of harem scenes, John Frederick Lewis, unlike some of his French counterparts, never painted a nude.

Tromans points out: "The iconography of the odalisque – the Turkish sex slave whose image is offered up to the viewer as freely as she herself supposedly was to her master – is almost entirely French in origin." The odalisque is particularly associated with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in paintings such as The Turkish Bath crowded with voluptuous nudes.

Combination of cruelty and eroticism

By way of drawing contrasts between the British and French Orientalist painters' approach, French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme's For sale: Slaves at Cairo is hung near the Scottish artist William Allan's The Slave Market, Constantinople. As typifies Gérôme's slave market paintings, For sale: Slaves at Cairo combines cruelty and eroticism – one of the slaves is naked, long dark hair cascading down between her breasts, others are revealingly clad. Allan's painting, showing Turkish slavers on horseback splitting up the women of a captured Greek family, is melodramatic but has none of the prurience of Gérôme.

It would be a pity if the mass of debate over Orientalist art acted as an invisible screen between visitors and the paintings on display. One visitor whose preconceptions were turned upside down was the British Asian Muslim columnist Yasmin Ablihai-Brown. She wrote in the Independent newspaper that she had gone to the exhibition prepared to detest the artists for presuming that through beauty they could deny the unforgivable truth, that they were upholders of illegitimate imperial privilege.

Instead: "All expectations fell away as I gazed upon painting after painting, many of which seemed, to my eye, expressions of undeclared love of the Middle East by white, Christian, upper-class gents, their secret pain and longings, the conflict between head and heart, between Antony and Cleopatra."

Susannah Tarbush

© Qantara.de 2008

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