I published this article after a 2008 exhibition at the British museum. It was published in Iranian.com.
The Lure of the East exhibition at Tate Britain is currently showing paintings made by British artists of the ‘Orient’ (4th June – 31st August 2008).
In this context ‘Orient’ meant those parts of the eastern Mediterranean world, which could be accessed relatively easy, particularly after the development of steamboat and rail travel in the 1830s: Egypt, Palestine and Turkey but predominantly Muslim world that was under the Turkish Ottoman Empire coming up to our own Iranian doorstep.
According to the exhibition outline in 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East.
This debate resonates today as it did 30 years ago. The exhibition was divided under six different themes.
The Orientalist Portrait
Before 1830s private travel to Middle East for a purpose other than warfare and diplomacy was rare. Western travellers and residents assumed ‘Oriental costume’ for various reasons. Some felt safer moving incognito amongst the locals, some enjoyed the fancy dress element and there were those who had a committed solidarity with the culture of the locals.
Amongst these, there is the portrait of Robert Shirley and his wife Teresia Shirley. Robert as an envoy of Shah Abbas to the courts of Europe is wearing an impressive Persian court costume and carrying what seems to be the official diplomatic letter from Shah Abbas she is holding a pistol and pocket watch symbols of technologies Europe was providing to Persia. Teresia was a Circassian lady; Circassian women were famous for their unusual beauty, spirited and elegant and this reputation dated back to Ottoman Empire when they were taken as slave concubines in Sultan’s Harems.
There is also the portrait of James Silk Buckingham and his wife holding hands.
Buckingham was a journalist, who was an advocate of social reform such as an end into flogging used in arms forces, abolition of press-gang.
The Harem and Home
The design of domestic architecture in the Middle East was one of the most consistent motifs in British Orientalist paining.
The artists had a concern that the Orient as seen as a static world was changing under the influence of European design and town planning in places such as Egypt.
Genre and Gender
Genre painting, the depiction of everyday life, was fundamental to 19th century British art. Through such images British society was able to analyse itself, especially to reflect upon the little dramas of domestic life. But in the Middle East, so British artists complained, they felt excluded from local family life and so were compelled either to imagine life in the harem, or to focus instead upon the male-dominated public spaces of the cities they visited.
The Harem was the defining symbol of the Orient for Western Europeans. The Western view was that women were kept as chattels, imprisoned in segregated spaces, the slaves or sex-toys of their masters.
Later treatments of the Harem theme adopted less violent but still eroticised tone, imagining the Harem as a place of refined female sensuality.
Amongst these is a painting titles Leila by Frank Dicksee that shows an image of a very seductive beauty from the story of Leila and Majnun. The beauty that drove her cousin Qays mad with desire.
The Holy city
Many British travellers felt that, as Christians, they had a personal stake in the Middle East. The name of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, had long been embedded in British religious, literary and political life as the symbol of a longed-for destination imbued with Biblical antiquity.
But for most artists the city was disappointingly modern.
As the balance of population of Jerusalem shifted towards a Jewish majority in the 19th Century, British visitors often looked towards the city’s Jewish communities for the future redevelopment of Palestine. An interest in Jewish life, initially sparked by the connection to the culture in which Jesus Christ had lived, often grew into a fascination with Jewish tradition for its own sake.
British artists also admired Islamic culture on its own terms.
Frequent subjects were daily prayers in the great mosques, the gathering for the annual pilgrimage of Mecca and the life long study of Quran.
The Orient in Perspective
These were mainly landscape images capturing the remarkable colours and shadows of deserts and wilderness at dawn and dusk.
The desert landscapes appearing as not so dangerous but beautiful wilderness containing places resonant with the ebb and flow of civilizations, and where night brought a particular beauty special to the region.