Since their 19th-century heyday, Orientalist paintings have had a sad history. Once their novelty wore off, the pictures showing the sights and scenes of the Near East, which so intrigued and delighted their original viewers, first slipped in esteem, becoming a backwater genre, a mere offshoot of the Picturesque. Then that sorry fate was compounded by something worse: they got caught up in modish academic theorising.
In 1978, the critic and commentator Edward Said published Orientalism. Said claimed that Western interest in the East did not stem from healthy intellectual curiosity but from a desire to dominate. By categorising and romanticising the Orient, the West was subliminally justifying its imperialism and trumpeting its superiority over a lesser world. Even though Said had in mind literature rather than art, Orientalist paintings thus became tainted: they became not just bad pictures but morally reprehensible, too.
This doctrine has proved a stubborn one. It has spread beyond academia to the point where looking at the pictures themselves without this murky hinterland has sometimes become uncomfortable.
However, “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting” at Tate Britain leaves Said and his shrill acolytes to one side. Refreshingly, it is a return to those prelapsarian days — an exhibition about painting and not about pernicious Orientalism.