By Zaid M. Belbagi
April 26, 2018
The biannual Islamic Art Week in London has become quite the feature for enthusiasts, collectors and vendors. This week’s sale was supplemented by a collection of orientalist works capturing the beauty of the Arab world through the eyes of European explorers and travellers. Given the troublesome modern day portrayal of the Arab world in the media, treasuring the experiences of early foreign travellers and indeed encouraging similar expeditions would greatly improve international perceptions of the region.
To many, orientalism has negative connotations. The publication of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism” in 1978 led to the term being used to refer to a generally patronizing Western attitude toward Eastern cultures. Said’s general premise was that Western academics studied the Middle East and Africa from a position of superiority — judging Western civilization to be the pinnacle of advancement and Eastern culture simply a quaint preservation of life at an earlier stage of human development. In many respects, Said was right. The studies of early European travellers did lead to a particular view of Oriental culture that has been studied, depicted and reproduced to form a particular view of the Arab world. However, looking at the subject more broadly there is a great deal more to orientalism’s contribution to consider.
Orientalist art, especially in regards to the subject of this article, refers to Western artists who specialized in Oriental subjects, generally produced during overseas visits in the 19th century. Initially held in disregard due to such representational art being viewed with disdain, the specialism gradually became a branch of academic art on its own. Orientalist painting formally became an artistic movement with the foundation of the French Society of Orientalist Painters in 1893. The vivid representations of life in the Orient painted by French artists such as Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Leon Gerome became the standard with which such artwork has become associated.
Of the more visually appealing and highest value pieces on sale this week was Eugene Girardet’s “Evening Prayers” (1907) - pictured above. A stunning oil painting of turbaned men in hooded robes performing the Maghrib prayer, it illustrates the beauty of Islamic practices that has been lost in modern media. The more important point is how the Swiss Girardet, like many others of his class and background, found beauty in the Arab world and its local practices. His case is even more representative of the importance of such art as he was encouraged by his teacher, the aforementioned Gerome, as well as his immediate family, who had previously painted during visits to the Arab world. The travels of a Swiss artist to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have left a permanent visual record of a lost period in the history of the region, of life before the onset of European influences.
The undying beauty of the scenes painted by the orientalists to a large extent explains their enduring popularity. This week’s sale grossed over $6 million, with many buyers from the region itself, who clearly have not taken issue with the orientalist school being colonial in nature. Several critics of the school overlook the fact that Said criticized orientalism in European literature but did not analyze visual art and orientalist painting. In many respects, today’s scholars should be grateful he did not, so that the art may continue to act as a bridge between two worlds. Sir Mark Allen, an accomplished Arabic calligrapher and acclaimed author, captures the important role of such art perfectly: “Orientalism does hold a candle to the quality of change in today’s Middle East because what is so striking is how familiar the historical scenes portrayed are to us postmodern onlookers.”
With the Arab world arguably more unstable and indeed violent than during the pre-colonial era that the orientalists depicted, there is a case for encouraging artistic exchanges to broaden the artistic record and thereby opinions of the Arab world. Archaeological surveys and curation of artwork both from and about the region require development and the skills gap that remains in this regard is especially pertinent. The Arab peoples have struggled to improve their perception vis-a-vis the international community — promoting cultural exchanges and inviting international artists would go some way to remedying this.
To best evaluate the importance of the orientalist contribution to understanding the Middle East, the works of its great luminary Delacroix are telling. His diverse works show an Arab world rich in culture and deep in tradition, with “Jewish Wedding in Morocco” (1841) a window into the communities of ethnic minorities that thrived in Arab lands. For the leader of the Romantic school in French art to have compared the sophistication of the North African way of life to that of ancient Rome is remarkable. In a part of the world at the centre of a major identity crisis, images depicting the majesty and vibrancy of the Middle East at its best are a welcome break from the norm.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).