A thoughtful exhibition at Tate Britain this summer lifts the veil of moral theory from Orientalist painting
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.
What it shows is artists’ delight in the new challenges the Near East set them. Here were fresh, unhackneyed subjects for their brushes; the dry, fierce light of the desert and the blue cool of the courtyard, the bright shards of tiles and the patterned folds of cloth. They may have been painting landscapes, but these were of the very places where the prophets and Jesus walked; their street scenes portrayed the fiefdom not of European princes but of the Grand Turk himself; their portraits depicted travellers who had seen things few stolid burghers ever would.
The exhibition is divided into Orientalism’s natural categories — genre, landscape, portraits, the harem and religion. It spans some 300 years, starting with the anonymous but splendidly decorative portraits of Sir Robert Shirley — roving envoy of Shah Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe — and his Circassian wife Lady Teresia, painted in their finery around 1628, and ending with a nougat-coloured David Bomberg roof scene of Jerusalem from 1925.
The heart of the show, however, lies in the 19th century. As new steamship routes opened up the Near East, artists developed a commercial routine. They would travel out in summer, stockpile a collection of sketches and watercolours, return to Britain and, during the winter, turn them into finished paintings to sell at the Royal Academy Exhibition in April, then off they would go again.
Among the jobbing painters there were some more distinguished artists too, notably David Wilkie, David Roberts, William Holman Hunt, Richard Dadd and the central figure of this exhibition, John Frederick Lewis. Lewis had been a moderately successful painter of animal and hunting scenes before he left for Cairo in 1841. He lived there for 10 years, gradually turning native. When he put his knowledge on to canvas, his bravura depictions of light, shade, lattice windows and tiles revealed an unexpected world. The Mid-day Meal of 1875, for example, shows a group of venerable men sitting on a tiled Egyptian balcony for a companionable repast. Pigeons fly around, horses are readied in the courtyard below, and servants stand about contentedly. Everything is picked out in jewellers’ detail. Contrary to the myth of the East, there is not a woman to be seen, there is no eroticism and no cruelty. It is a scene of civilisation — a gentleman’s club in Cairo rather than Pall Mall.
When Lewis did paint the harem, the subject of greatest interest to a home audience, he portrayed the lassitude but not the titillation. The woman and her slave in Hhareem Life, Constantinople, 1857, or in Indoor Gossip, 1873, are as modestly, if more richly, attired as any Victorian maiden. They toy with a cat and jewels perhaps, but not each other. Lewis takes the viewer into a closed domestic world; there is a glimpse of the outside world and a mirror on the wall as if Vermeer had shifted his setting from the canals of Delft to the Bosphorus.
One of the few pictures to play up to the stereotype is William Allan’s The Slave Market, Constantinople of 1838, an accomplished piece of melodrama where a Christian family is being broken up by pitiless Ottoman slave dealers gathered in the lee of the great city’s minarets. The men are dragged off to join the Sultan’s army while the supplicant women are destined for the harem. Allan intended his frisson-inducing picture as a denunciation of the slave trade and nine years later Istanbul slave market was closed for good.
Rather less straightforward are Dadd and Holman Hunt’s pictures. Dadd, who was committed to Bedlam hospital for the insane after murdering his father, had previously visited the Holy Land. Paintings such as The Halt in the Desert, c1845, and The Flight Out of Egypt, 1849-50, revisit his travels with a strange, supernatural intensity, his teeming Old Testament figures inhabiting a world of cartoonish colour and linearity. Holman Hunt used real Biblical settings as the background for his own heightened religiosity, swamping them with colour and allegorical content. Even landscapes such as his view of Nazareth of 1860-1 make uncomfortable viewing.
What this thoughtful and overdue exhibition reveals is not just the strength of responses the Near East provoked in British artists, but the variety and seriousness with which they treated it. It is proof too that Orientalist paintings can be appreciated without the imposition of a pejorative cultural apparatus. Enough Said, as it were.