Orientalism (1998)

Pander 4 (Winter 1998)

Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki; Organised by the Art gallery of New South Wales (March 22nd to June 7th, 1998).

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer (1879)

I had the review written in my head before I went in. The packaging said it all, really. There was that English Patient-style TV ad, with a man stranded in his car in the middle of the desert, seeing visions of the Harem: “What you see is up to you …” There were those seductive oriental beauties beckoning from every lamppost. It was the same old shtick – pretending to critique cultural imperialism, while in fact appealing to precisely the same set of drives.

Nor did the rites of entrance greatly reassure me. It’s irritating to be turned away when you arrive a few minutes after four o’clock, for a start. And all that paraphernalia of cushioned daises, Middle Eastern music, and latticed windows – it’s exploitative, simple as that (though I did have an epiphanic vision of Wellesley Street, grey in the rain, through one of the latter).

The first shock to my preconceptions was the huge canvas hung opposite the entrance: Eugène Fromentin’s Au Pays de la soif. In the land of thirst. It’s not that it’s a particularly exciting picture, but it reminded me of Tintin and Captain Haddock, staring out over the dunes, in The Crab with the Golden Claws – “The land of thirst,” the Captain intones gloomily. “Oh, is that where it comes from?” I thought. What was obviously a cliché to Hergé’s original readers had hitherto escaped me entirely. A whole series of Orientalising gestures in French culture seemed to come into focus. Perhaps that should have been the ad; perhaps, after all, that was the point.

Why do we so fetishise the Orient? Well, of course, according to Edward Said (always ritually invoked upon these occasions), the idea is that for every quality Westerners discern in themselves, one equal and opposite to it must be attributed to the East, our standard Other. It’s as precise as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion:

  • West = go-ahead and progressive : East = static and backward;
  • West = moral and upright : East = lascivious and corrupt;
  • West = just and law-abiding : East = cruel and bloodthirsty;

West cold; East hot. West manly; East feminine. You get the general idea – and it does work as a formula. Up to a point, at any rate.

After a while, as I circled round the many, many rooms, I began to notice that each objection I came up with would invariably be answered by the next group of paintings. “They are beautiful, but they’re just European views,” I thought – and then I reached the room of North African artists. Azouaou Mammeri’s View of Moulay-Idriss seemed daringly original even before I noticed his name. It is as if the whiteness of the forbidden city is disclosed to us from within a dark cave. Mohammed Racim’s precise, gilded gouaches appealed to my own love of the minute and painstaking. They reminded me of the very best of Kay Nielsen or Edmond Dulac’s illustrations to Alf Layla wa Layla [The Thousand and One Nights]. Nor does this seem an inappropriate comparison. It is the cross-pollination of cultural and artistic traditions which gives this exhibition, and indeed Orientalism as a whole, its continuing justification.

“There aren’t many seductive Eastern beauties,” I thought – then I reached the room of Harem paintings; and after that the room of Expressionist femmes fatales (Moreau et al’s Salomés); and after that the room of ancient and modern Egyptians … “Perhaps a few too many Eastern beauties,” I concluded, only to wander into a room of New Zealanders’ responses to the Middle East. This was a revelation. It’s difficult to explain quite why I was so taken by Louise Henderson’s coloured pencil sketch of Amman. Perhaps it was the contrast to so many ornate, heavy oils elsewhere. The delicate, abstract lines of her drawing seemed the most complex rebuke possible to my preconceived views of an “Eastern” landscape.

“There’s some thinking been going on here,” I began to realise, as the bewildering variety of responses to this “sunburnt otherwhere” gradually sank in. Some of it is simple sensous celebration: the intense deep blue of the sky in Gerome’s Bonaparte before the Sphinx; the exhausted sensuality of Regnault’s Hassan and Namouna (“Blood would leave no mark on these carpets of sombre purple,” said Théophile Gautier – according to the catalogue). Then we get a series of subversions of the conventions: Levy-Dhurmer’s teasing Evening Promenade Morocco, which offers us only the white of the two women’s robes; Marquet’s Port of Algiers in the Mist: a view out of Albert Camus rather than Pierre Loti. And finally there are the total departures: Matisse’s subversive, homegrown odalisques; above all, the two little Klee watercolours. You can come to expect it, I suppose, but they’re just so terribly beautiful and alive.

I’ve heard the criticisms. “Not enough drugs,” said one person; others wanted more girls, fewer girls, more palm-trees, less streets … the list goes on. I would feel that the selection has been made with care and skill, but what I am really arguing here is that it is the artists themselves who have done the work (and the thinking) for us. I’ve seldom felt more optimistic about the power of the human intellect to question its own presuppositions than in looking at this strange, hothouse test-case. I didn’t want to leave. Around each corner was a new delight: the first photograph ever taken of pilgrims at the Ka’aba; a bizarre set of shots of drapery (looking a little like ectoplasm); finally – my favourite – some extraordinarily static whirling dervishes. Perhaps the East is timeless, after all.


Pander 4 (1998): 16.

[958 wds]

Pander 4 (Winter 1998)

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