Real or Imagined? Representing the Orient

Where exactly is the Orient? The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a place ‘east of a particular point’. This definition is not particularly useful but is still the first thing to appear when using google search. How can we really discuss what the Orient is if we cannot define as a collective where it is? This is part of what has led to the problem of Orientalism – where the East is defined by the West.

Orientalism in art hit its peak in the 19th century. Although there are earlier examples of the Orient in Western art, it is during this period that Europe became particularly curious about the Orient region after Napoleon conquered Egypt. Artists painted scenes and motifs from a wide range of countries (that we still struggle to unanimously define today). This included countries spreading from North Africa, Greece, and the Middle East to South and East Asia. Despite there being some examples of realism, most pictures of the Orient took form from fantasy. As Richard Martin aptly describes; the Orient was a place that was ‘everywhere and nowhere, save in the imagination’.

The idea that the Orient was faraway and distant from Western culture was prominent. Travel at the time was facilitated by trains and steamships, so paintings were based more on cities than the countryside. Everyday life was another central theme to 19th century Orientalism. Whether these images were realistic or imagined, they served as a loose anthropological study to understand the way of life in the East. Portrayal of Islamic life and culture was another focal point as faith was a key difference between the West and the Orient. Christianity and Islam have much in common – they are both monotheistic, universalistic and missionary. Yet, images of Muslim’s practicing their faith were used as form of propaganda and to further depict ideological disparities between the different cultures.

There is a mystery that surrounds Orientalist art. It is hard to tell exactly where some painting are set as they display architecture from around the globe within one image. Some artists, such as Gérôme conveyed themes of domesticity and tranquillity, such as in Prayer in the Mosque. There was a magical aura that surrounded Orientalist art – with unusual colours being used and strange figures, like snake charmers, becoming the subjects of paintings. However, from this confusion grew a ‘uniformity of the Orient’ which was not accurate. The West had little contact with the East and thus this ‘uniformity’ clumped many different cultures into one muddled painting, thus manufacturing a sense of disorder in representing the diverse cultures of the Orient.

During the Romantic era, more violent themes bled into Orientalist works. The Orient was presented as ‘lawless’ and ‘barbaric’. Eugène Delacroix in The Fanatics of Tangier portrays this significantly as he describes seeing a fanatical Muslim sect ‘excited by prayers and wild cries’. The appearance of the Orient as uncivilised was partly used as justification for explaining imperialistic conquests.

Most controversial of the Oriental themes was the representation of harems. A harem is an area of a house reserved only for women. Artists, like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, however, depicted fantastical eroticised scenes of harems. Not only was he imposing his male ideals of a female only environment, but never even visited the East himself. He was ‘an armchair Orientalist’. This was the name given to artists who based their paintings off other people’s accounts of their travels to the East. Ingres, interestingly, based his work off of Lady Montagu’s Turkish Letters (1763). Yet, when Lady Montagu reviewed Ingres work, she reported that were a stark difference between her letters and his paintings. Images of harems were largely invasive. It was an excuse for European men to produce highly sexualised images of nude women – a particularly pertinent example of Orientalism.

There have been powerful, modern responses to the recurring motif of the harem. A Turkish activist named Inci Eviner is one example of this retaliation. She painted Harem where she replaced Antoine-Ignace Melling’s painting with female figures who are praying, protesting and trying to escape the harem. She wanted to question the fantasies of the Orientalists and give the figures from Melling’s picture some life and autonomy.

But why does it matter than these artists claimed artistic license over what the Orient and its people looked like? Maybe the artists were innocent in their ignorance when crafting their work but overall they produced an image problem. Essentially, Orientalist art contributed to the overarching concept of Orientalism. Orientalism, as the historian Edward Said says in Orientalism (1978), is a ‘Western style for dominating, restricting and having authority over the Orient’. A cycle beings where the West interprets the Orient and creates stereotypes. These stereotypes are then socially and politically reinforced which in turn links to the domination of the West over the East. The West use the East and make out an “other” in order to demonstrate what they are not. Although, nowadays Orientalism is seen as out-dated. There is a more open discourse around these age-old generalisations as Orientalist art has been re-interpreted and questioned by post-colonial critics, like Edward Said.

So overall, these beautiful and dramatic scenes of the Orient that were created in the 19th century are not so bad on their own. However, when art and culture is politicised or used as propaganda to fuel a political agenda, then this can be problematic. The creation of the ‘other’ has significant implications as one culture or civilisation fails to understand another. Suddenly, what was a naïvely imagined Orient became linked to some very real and dangerous consequences. It is only in a post-colonial era that these generalisation of the East are finally being amended.


Photo by Artur Aldyrkhanov on Unsplash 

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