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4.0 out of 5 stars Orientalism in Art, 13 Jun 2012
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This review is from: The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (Hardcover)
This is a review of the book that accompanied the British Orientalist Painting exhibition at the Tate in the summer of 2008. It comprises the usual set of full colour plates of the exhibition's contents plus a set of essays for a fuller consideration. It should not surprise the reader that Edward Said's seminal book lurks in every corner; indeed, reference to Said's work is made as early as the second paragraph of the foreword. Some of the essays argue subtle mutually contradictory viewpoints, which only goes to demonstrate how the debate inspired by Said shows no sign of abating.

The book's editor, Nicholas Tromans, writes in his extensive introduction that, "This book sets out to explore the history of British Orientalist imagery," making some comparisons too with the French variety. But the French modernists, eschewing the need for classical depictions, eventually turned their backs on the Orient. The British were not far behind: "After the full impact of Post-Impressionism on British art in the 1910s, the kind of picture-making with which this book is concerned comes to an end. Faith in the transparently truthful painting was no longer sustainable."

Tromans confirms that, "from the start, we already find ourselves in the hot waters of the Orientalism debate sparked by the book of that name, published in 1978 by the late Edward Said." Tromans goes on to write how "Said was primarily interested in the relationships between texts, but art historians have since sought to transpose some of his interpretations from literature to images."

Before the plates there are three essays, all of which cannot fail to ignore Said. In the first essay, `Cultures Crossed: John Frederick Lewis and the Art of Orientalist Painting', Emily Weeks uses one of Lewis's paintings to show that all is not necessarily how it seems, concluding "While our received wisdom concerning Orientalism would compel us to believe that Lewis used his technical prowess to celebrate Britain's convictions of cultural superiority in the nineteenth century, a new reading might suggest that he used it to question the beliefs of his subjects - and, more importantly, those who viewed them."

In `Seduced by Samar, or: How British Orientalist Painters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Darkness', Fatema Mernissi argues in a refreshingly unacademic essay argues against Said's Orientalism, seeing the artists in the exhibition embracing the Islamic concept of `samar' (the night, dreams, moonlight) and of the abstract arabesque. She writes how Lewis "behaved as a man hypnotised by the dark and by abstract symbols, no matter if he was painting a harem, a courtyard, a school or a shop." (Interestingly, I found her depiction of western views could be as falsely stereotypical as those of the Orientalists.)

The final essay, `Regarding Orientalist Painting Today' by Rena Kabbani, attempts to seek a contemporary relevance for Orientalist paintings. She succeeds: "If the British military occupation of Egypt inspired some of the striking paintings in this exhibition, what images might future generations retain of the present-day occupation of Iraq?" Here we enter the dark realms of such places and events as Abu Ghraib. And like the colonial soldiers forcibly occupying the land, the painter did/does the same for the western voyeur. Kabbani contends that, despite their "beguiling beauty", painters ignored the politics and "were content to paint a static world of exquisite interface".

As well as these three essays, the book also has introductions to each of the five sections into which the exhibition was divided. These are: 1. Portraiture, from the early seventeenth-century portrait of Sir Robert Shirley, envoy to the Shah of Persia, to Augustus John's famous portrait of Lawrence of Arabia; 2. Genre and Gender in Cairo and Constantinople, which features scenes of the everyday; 3. Landscape, featuring the work of David Roberts, Holman Hunt, and the brilliant (and under-rated) Edward Lear; 4. Harem and Home, the myth and reality of "the defining symbol of the Orient for Europeans"; and 5. Religion, English Protestant responses to a Holy Land inhabited by Muslims and Jews.

So, all in all, an excellent catalogue to an excellent exhibition. But there's more: as well as endnotes, a bibliography, and an index, there is an appendix comprising six pages of biographies of forty artists.
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Nicholas Casley

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