‘Do you remember the old Turkish Delight ad – “full of Eastern Promise?”’ asks Christine Riding, the Tate Britain curator whose touring show of British painters opens in Sharjah this week. ‘That played on so many orientalist themes. I did a lecture on the 1984 version of the ad in Istanbul to gales of laughter from the Turks who were watching.’
I know it well. In the advert – for a British confectionery – a swarthy, headscarfed Laurence Olivier-lookalike staggers over windswept dunes in search of a belly dancer. After mysteriously stroking a few rocks, the dancer emerges and the quintessential ‘man of the East’ figure chops a snake in half only to reveal a lump of Turkish Delight chocolate.
Yes, it’s absurd. So absurd that it’s easy to imagine Turks laughing at this pastiche of ‘orientalist’ fantasies.
But orientalism wasn’t always quite the laughing matter. Since the Palestinian writer Edward Said used the term in the ‘70s to describe the West’s skewed vision of the East that, he believed, has persisted since the two hemispheres laid eyes on one another, the term, and even the word ‘orient’, has taken on far more serious connotations.
It’s this tension that lies at the heart of Sharjah Art Museum’s new show Lure Of The East: British Orientalist Painting. The presence of the word orientalist, for many, immediately strikes a note of discord. Not only does it carry the baggage of all of Said’s provocative, unflinching statements, but it also implies that the contents of the show will deal in the language of imperialism.
Aside from the racism Said saw as inherent in the orientalist’s outlook, he also identified a constant search for exoticism. The orientalist could imagine the bazaar as a place of sage-like carpet sellers. Refigure the slave market as a scene of almost biblical drama. Reinvent the Turkish bath, as the French painter Jean Ingres did, into a languid harem of reclining and voluptuous women. He pointed out that painters would happily make up details that weren’t there. And many of the so-called orientalist painters never made it beyond Italy.
But Riding’s conception of things is quite different. All of the painters she’s brought to the show are British and all of them, most interestingly, went to the ‘Orient’ for their art. ‘There was no one in Britain working in the manner of Ingres or Eugéne Delacroix,’ says Riding. ‘The French school of orientalist art, if you can call it that, was a lot more erotic and played on the East as a despotic, violent, eroticised other.’
She explains that in contrast to the French, the British prided themselves on their empiricism and their pursuit of authenticity. ‘Whereas the French works might be branded utter fantasy, the British were intent on going there and producing works of art that said to their audience: this is what it’s like to be there.’
The show was originally to be a solo exhibition of John Frederick Lewis, one of Britain’s foremost orientalist painters, before becoming a mass survey of this overlooked movement in British art. Lewis, who still has a prominent part in the exhibition, was born at the start of the 19th century and spent 10 years living, painting and immersing himself in Cairo. ‘He’s fascinating because he paints himself in his own paintings,’ Riding explains. ‘One of the works, In the Mosque, Afternoon Prayer, is actually a painting of Lewis as a Muslim, about to pray in the afternoon.’ When he returned to London, Lewis recounted his life in Cairo as if he’d lived life as an Ottoman gentleman. It was a matter of self-promotion. It’s this Riding seems to find particularly interesting – the tension between the (perhaps dangerous) romanticism of what many of the French orientalists were doing and the repeated commitment to truth that drove this selection of British artists.
But wait, we can’t begin to believe that these are somehow real depictions of the East. That would contradict everything we thought we knew about orientalism. Of course, there’s no denying the role that invention plays in each of these works, but looking at Lewis’ watercolour and oil panel works, the depictions of day-to-day life are quite removed from the exaggerated, classicised North Africans in Delacroix’s works. Riding believes that this distinction almost defines the collection of artists here: ‘It’s interesting how British artists negotiate the fact that they’re steeped in traditions that are about eking out the drama and fantasy of a subject matter to create a great work of art. Even when you’re looking at a landscape that purports to be a sunset in the desert, you can see them playing with the aesthetics of the sand, the sky. There’s a real tension in many of these works between the aim to be factual and at the same time being an artist, I think.’
But there’s one element of orientalism that remains a very debatable mystery – why do these paintings find some of their most prolific collectors in the very region they were depicting and, supposedly, offending? Many of the works in this collection have come from lenders around the Middle East. Riding, who finds the label ‘orientalist’ problematic, is nonetheless perplexed by the popularity of orientalist art among the region’s collectors: ‘I think there are elements of nostalgia coming in, and that oil on canvas and watercolour is a Western tradition that might be representative of the West. But I think also if you’re going to buy an image that represents a territory that you’re associated with or elements of a city that no longer exists because it’s been knocked down or destroyed, you are going to be looking at Western representations because that’s only what exists.’
She recounts a particularly interesting anecdote: ‘I spoke to a private collector from Jordan who lent to the exhibition. He told me that he inherited the work from his father, who bought it in the ’70s just as the Said debate was really heating up. I asked if his father thought about selling the painting because of what it represents, and he said that his father adored the painting. He saw it as so respectful of his culture but also a thing of great beauty. Now that was The Afternoon Prayer piece, showing John Frederick Lewis praying like a Muslim. His father felt it was a deeply respectful work of art.’
Perhaps an exhibition like this can reassess our conceptions of orientalism. It’s so easy to forget, when dealing with loaded tags like this, that these were still artists. As Riding says: ‘Too often we simply consign somebody to a post-Said oblivion if we label them as an orientalist. I think the term may survive but we are already seeing its meaning start to change.’
Sharjah Art Museum (06 554 2201), behind Emirates Post, Sharjah. Until April 30