In the 19th century, a fad for the Orient appeared. The artists were inspired by its luxury, its mystery and of course, the supernatural that surrounded this part of the world. But this new craze for Orientalism was also the reflection of several historical events such as:
-the Egyptian campaign (1798-1799)
-the Greek war for Independence (1821-1829)
-the conquest of Algiers by the French (1830)
-the opening of the Suez Canal (1869)
-the progressive dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire because of rivalries and of colonial ambitions.
My presentation will be divided into three part: a history of Orientalism, Orientalism in the arts, and Edward Said and Orientalism.
A- History of Orientalism:
1- Definition of the term "Orientalism"
Orientalism is the study of Near and Far-Eastern societies and cultures by westerners (first meaning).
But it can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists (second meaning).
The first meaning of the term is mainly used to refer to the study of the East during the period of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, when we talk about "Orientalism", it is mainly with regard to its second meaning, that is to say "Orientalism" as a pictorial genre.
2- Who were the first "Orientalists"?
The first "Orientalists" were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of the Orient into English, based on the supposition that an effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. This is the idea of knowledge as a power exposed by Said (a Palestinian scholar). Said thinks that by knowing the Orient, the West came to own it. There is the image of the Orient as passive while the West was active. So according to Said, it is imperialism which motivated Orientalism. Without imperialism, westerners would never have study Near and Far-Eastern societies and culture.
3- Negative image of the oriental people
By the mid-19th century "oriental studies" was becoming an established academic discipline. However, while scholarly study expanded, so did racist attitudes and popular stereotypes. Eastern art and literature were still seen as "exotic" and as inferior to the Western ideals. The East’s political and economic systems were generally thought to be feudal "oriental despotism". Many critical theorists regard this form of Orientalism as being representative of the Westerners' colonial mind, justified by the concept of the "white man's burden". The "white man's burden" was the idea that the white men had to civilized, to educate and to christianized peoples of other religion.
B- Orientalism in Art:
1- Imitations of oriental styles
Imitations of oriental styles began in the 18th century with the Turqueries that could be found in clothing, literature, music and furniture.
Then, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics, this was called Chinoiserie. Pleasure pavilions in "Chinese taste" also appeared in Europe.
After 1860, Japonaiserie became an important influence in the western arts. James Mc Neill Whistler's "Peacock Room" is one of the finest works of the genre. The Peacock Room was once the dining room in the London home of Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy ship-owner. He commissioned the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler to paint the dining room. The painting in the room is called "The Princess from the land of Porcelain".
2- Depictions of the Orient in art
We can find depictions of Islamic Moors (Moslems who lived in Spain in the Middle-Ages) in Medieval and Renaissance art, but it was not until the 19th century that "Orientalism" in the arts became an established theme. In these works, we find mainly the myth of the Orient as exotic and corrupt. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme painted many depictions of Islamic culture. Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient as we can see with the painting The Turkish Bath by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. If Ingres would have painted Occidental women naked, it would have chocked many people. But sensuality was seen as part of the Orient and so as acceptable. For the artists, Orientalism was a way of expressing their erotic fantasy.
3- Examples of Orientalism in the arts
It is first through literature that depictions of the Orient appeared. Indeed, in 1704, Antoine Galland published the first French translation of The Arabian Nights. And in 1721, the Persian Letters by Montesquieu drew the public’s attention to the East. But the depictions of the Orient that we can find in literature are sometimes romanticized and convey a false image to the Westerners.
It is for example the case with a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Kubla Khan (1816). Kubla Khan describes the beauty and the sacredness of an eastern city, Xanadu, thanks to rich, sensual and exotic images. In the first stanza of the poem, we can find a lot of reference to nature: “sacred river”, “sea”, “fertile ground”, “gardens”, “rills”, “tree”, “forests”, “hills”, and “spots of greenery”. There is a dominant impression of light (“bright”, “sunny”) but with strangeness due to element of darkness (“sunless sea”, “caverns”). We find also elements of religion, sacredness: “Alph, the sacred river”, “incense”. We have the impression to be in an imaginative country. So the vocabulary used throughout this stanza and throughout the poem by Coleridge helps to convey an atmosphere of mystery and supernatural. It also helps to convey an image of the East as both fascinating, luxurious and frightful.
In painting too, the Orient is often represented with many distortions. The oriental men are often depicted as feminine and weak, yet strangely dangerous. It is for example the case with the painting of Eugène Delacroix, Arabe sellant son cheval, or with the one of Jean-Léon Gérôme, La Prière dans la maison. We can see that even alone or praying the Arabs are depicting with arms, knives, which makes them appear as threatening.
As for the representation of oriental women, they are both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic. An interesting thing to notice is that the word “harem” comes from the Arabic word, “haram”, that means “which is forbidden”. In the orientalist paintings, this meaning seems to have been totally forgotten. The women are very often naked in the paintings as it is the case in Odalisque by Delacroix and in Bain dans le harem by Gérôme for example. By seeing these paintings, we have the feeling that if we go to the East, it would be easy to go in harems and to see sensual naked women everywhere, which is obviously not the case. So, the orientalist art contributed to spread a false and sometimes negative image of the East and that is what Edward Said criticizes.
C- Edward Said and Orientalism:
1- Said's ideas
Despite the westerners' "romanticized" and distorted vision of the East in the 19th century, the word "Orientalism" carried no negative connotations. "Oriental" was simply understood as the opposite of "occidental". The word began to develop negative connotations following the publication of the work Orientalism by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the "Orient" was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. He studied many works of European scholars and writers specialized in the peoples of the Middle East in order to denounce the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in their texts. His book Orientalism is one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993).
2- Criticisms of Said
Many scholars now use Said's work to contradict the old Western ideas about the Orient. But others, such as the historian Bernard Lewis, also criticized Said's theory. Lewis argues that Westerners contributed to the study of Eastern cultures during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras and that Said ignores those contributions. Moreover, it is logical, natural, that other culture will be identified as "different", and even if many distortions and fantasies certainly existed, they were not always negative and the notion of the Orient as a negative mirror image of the West is not wholly true. Furthermore, in the 20th century, derogatory or stereotyped portrayal of Westerners also appeared in many works of Indian, Chinese and Japanese artists. And recently, the term Occidentalism has been used to refer to the negative views of the Western world that can sometimes be found in Eastern societies today.
To conclude, it is important to say that the East began to fascinate Westerners and became a new source of inspiration for the artists. A new artistic movement, Orientalism, was born from this fascination. However, Orientalism in the 19th century was not always representative of what and how the East really was. Many distortions and stereotypes existed, as we saw, and led to some criticisms from scholars like Edward Said. So, the Orient lost its mystery for a long time now, but it continues to fascinate since it is still in the heart of the debate nowadays.
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