Orientalist Art Of The 19th Century: Representation Of East Through A Eurocentric Perspective

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Much European art from the nineteenth century onwards demonstrates a fascination for the cultural ‘Other’ but is unable to escape a Eurocentric perspective. Discuss this idea in relation to Orientalism.

Western representations of the Arab Islamic became popular during the 19th Century. Edward Said, in 1978, introduced a new concept of Orientalism. He argued that Orientalist representations were Eurocentric discourses of power, ideology and hegemony of the “Other”. His arguments are influential, debated and recently contested. This essay examines 19th century representations of women within enclosed spaces of the Haram or Haman, and argue that although Said’s ideas can be utilised to analyse them, alternative readings are perhaps more appropriate.

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During the 18th century, popular literary publications such as Arabian Nights, a compendium of Eastern fairytales, became widely available (Aliakbari,2016). Fascination with all things Oriental became a European preoccupation in the nineteenth century, with Orientalism a positive way of viewing the Eastern world and her citizens. After Said it became almost a derogatory term (Fox 2001). Edward Said’s thesis challenged previous understandings of Orientalism (Hasam 2005). Said considered Orientalism to be an imaginary, ideologically constructed sociological and political worldview, along with a historical antipathy to Islam to enable the Western mind to deal with cultural differences between East and West. The East was positioned as a binary opposite to the West. A fictitious understanding of the “Other” resulted. The East then had to understand itself according to Eurocentric thought (Said 1978)

The East is imagined in as irrational, religious, traditional, sexually depraved and apathetic culture, in contrast to the West’s perceptions of itself as rational, progressive, and modern(Kaya 2018). These understandings evolved into the Western institutional Eurocentric discourse of the “Other” (Said 1978). Art historians adopted the ideas of Said’s Orientalism (Ma 2001). They then saw imperial dominance and ideology embedded in Western representations. (Baddely, 1984). Said’s concept remains widely cited and influential within academic debates (Landry 2013).

Nineteenth century images of the Orient frequently depicted Oriental women to symbolise the essence of the East as feminine and passive, in contrast to the powerful West. French male artists favoured fantastical Orientalist images that suggested Western man’s desired dominance over women ( Bohrer 1998 ). This was considered this to be a metaphor of the penetration of the “feminine” East by the dominant imperial “masculine” West, It was perhaps a psychological response to the new social and economic roles of women in France (Ma). Ingres and Gerome were masters of this genre (Graham-Brown 1988).

In French Orientalist images of women, a fantasy is portrayed of unlimited sexual access within a Harem or Haman (Turkish Bath) , a world of naked odalisques and seductive women (Graham Brown 1988) . French Orientalist artists were fascinated by the idea of the Harem, perhaps because men were denied access unless related. The mystery of what was beyond led to imaginative fantasies for the male gaze (Herath 2015). Fanciful thinking may have led to a belief that Muslim males had access to sexual bliss with four wives, without having to deal with the sexual and emotional tensions suffered by Western Christian males. (Graham Brown 1988). The pinnacle of this form of indulgent fantasy was achieved by the French Orientalist artist Ingres, with his portrayal of The Turkish Bath perhaps the most licentious (Herath 2015).

Ingre’s The Turkish Bath shows voluptuous, naked women in sexually suggestive poses within an enclosed pictorial world. In the right foreground, two women entwine, suggestive of lesbianism. The whole is a display of sexualised “Eastern” women, as suggested by the Oriental decorative elements depicted. The right foreground figure is on full display to the viewer, while the left foreground figure seems unaware of the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze.

The subject matter of this picture is aligned with heterosexual social norms within image-making conventions. Images are constructed with females positioned for the “erotic ways of looking” for the active, controlling male gaze. Conventionally, the female subjects of the gaze appear unaware of it (Mulvey 1999). Oriental women were depicted as objects of desire for the gaze of the European male (Hasam 2005).

Gerome’s painting The Turkish Bath at Bursa follows these conventions, with the main white female figure in the centre foreground having her back to the viewer. She is in an embrace with a coloured native woman. At centre right is a servant figure, possibly a eunuch, also unaware of the intruding male gaze because his back is facing the viewer giving the idea that women were imprisoned by Eastern men. (Graham Brown 1988.) Castration of eunuchs is a sign of the feminine in representational coding, reinforcing the notion that the narrative is white power over native passive powerlessness as the native servants are depicted in subservience to white power (Ridouani 2001).

In Ingre’s painting Odalisque with Slave the pictorial conventions continue. The female odalisque has the front of her body turned to the viewer and is unaware of the gaze as she is looking to the rear and left to a white minstrel. At rear right is a male servant figure, also unaware of the intruding male gaze because his back is facing the viewer. All three images have one theme in common, namely that Eastern women are sexually obsessesed including with their own sex.(Hasam 2005) promiscuous images of artists such as Ingres and Gerome violate this . The use of Eastern buildings and décor suggests that that these portrayals are realistic. (Ridouani 2011) Women in these spaces were sexualised fantasies, but in reality Harems were spaces of care for wives who filled many important civil obligations (Ridouani 2001)

Delacroix’s Women in Algiers marks a point of departure in content and style. Delacroix travelled to North Africa as appointed artist for a French diplomatic program. Through his connections, he was allowed access to a harem. Women in Algiers is an Orientalist painting, with imperialistic connotations, but also conveys alternative oppositional readings. His portrayals are sensitive to the harem space and it’s occupants, who are shown clothed and in domestic conversation (Ma 2011). Due to realistic imagery and colour, the painting was hailed as a masterpiece for colonisation. Delacroix’s painting may have Orientalist overtones, but his subjectivity was influenced positively by Algerian culture. His painting shows that stereotypes of the East are contingent on the artist’s own subjective agency (Ma 2001).

female painter Henriette Brown was allowed access to a harem. Her painting The Arrival in the Harem at Constantinople (Figure5) depicts a warm, social scene, with women and their children fully clothed. A small child is located in the centre of the picture, returning the viewer’s gaze. A voyeuristic reading is not possible as this is a family space even though the architectural setting is composed of elements from a mosque to suggest a more Islamic space than the reality of a fairly plain domestic space . Elements of Orientalism are maintained as the picture recedes into darkness, suggesting the harem contains secrets not for viewing. Perhaps it represents limited understanding of Islam (McDaniel 2014).

Hamdi Bey was an enigmatic male Turkish painter whose works echoed the Orientalist tradition. Bey was educated in Paris and later studied under the tutelage of Gerome. His work is controversial and subject to debate, sometimes considered a critical form of Orientalism directed against the Western style, or, synergistic with Western Orientalism. Limited critical or historical work is available to analyse his works, although various meanings are ascribed to them. His work frequently depicts several motifs, namely a reference to Islam, Oriental or Islamic architecture and decorative elements, frequently in a state of decay, and a yellow Oriental costume (Edham 2012) As limited material is available, the following is the writer’s analysis.

Bey’s Girl Reciting the Qur’an shows a young Turkish woman within a harem. This harem is not an entirely enclosed world as there is a window with a view to the outside world, indicating an intersection between traditional Islamic culture and contemporary influences of the Western world. Ottoman elements of decoration are present with the decorative tiles, Persian rug, and Easter lamp, Central to the painting is the Koran, from which the young woman is reciting. The building is maintained suggesting affluence, and the yellow costume worn by the young woman suggests Western associations. With a window open to the world, the focus on Islam and interconnections with the West, this picture suggests cross cultural dialogue. Using the language of Orientalism, and by depicting a calm, ordered domestic world of Islamic knowledge, Bey inverts the Orientalist narratives (The Museum n.d)

The last five images show a progression from fantasy Orientalist representations to more realistic approaches and perhaps a more subversive Orientalism from Bey. Conventional Orientalism carries perceived connotations of Western hegemonic discourse in representations, which is one way of analysing the interconnections between East and West. Alternatives may be more appropriate in a global world, with terms of this debate in need of review. Contemporary literary theory may show alternative perspectives of considering 19th century Orientalism, with Lin (2006) arguing that Western. writers in that era were not always hegemonic in their attitude to the East.

A recent book review discussing the 19th century reception of Arabian Nights demonstrates that the West used Orientalism as a cultural engagement with the East. These fantastical narratives also helped with understanding their own changing world.. (Edinburgh Uni Press.) The reader escaped from banal everyday existence into a fantasy world into a world of exotic beings and stories ( Library n.d.). Possibly Orientalist artists were influenced by this type of fantasy narrative, projecting it into their paintings. Many other factors may, however, have been influential in the production and consumption of Oriental images in the exhibitionary environment of 19th century Europe (Mitchell 2009).

To conclude, the world has moved through different historical periods of intersection that influence views of Orientalist art. view it. In today’s global world it is time to move beyond the Eurocentric perspective to alternate ways of viewing, where communicative voices of cross cultural exchanges over time and space are considered from a new Gestalt of altermodernity.


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