Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that a somewhat forgotten genre of 19th century art has been regaining quite a bit of attention in both museums and salerooms.
In general terms, “Orientalism” was an art movement that depicted individuals and locations in the Middle East and North Africa, or at least inspired by such places. These areas were becoming more familiar to Westerners as travel to such locales became easier and more fashionable. Artists who visited places like Damascus, Algiers, or Cairo returned to their studios to produce canvases and sculptures which tried to capture aspects of the – to Western eyes – more exotic aspects of the people and places they had seen. Like all art movements, Orientalism was hugely popular with collectors for a time, but gradually fell out of favor thanks to market saturation and changing tastes.
Recently however, Orientalism has been making something of a comeback. Larger-than-expected crowds visited recent retrospectives on Delacroix (1798-1863) at The Met, and Fortuny (1838-1874) at The Prado, exhibitions showcasing the work of two artists who are particularly well-known for painting Orientalist subjects. In June, I’ll be seeing a retrospective in Barcelona on the work of Antoni Fabrés (1854-1936), an artist who, like Delacroix and Fortuny, worked in the Orientalist style for a significant part of his career.
Meanwhile, art dealers and auction houses are seeing an increase in interest in collecting Orientalist art, after many years of relative stagnation. Yesterday for example, Bonham’s in London auctioned off two works by Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), an Austrian artist who was an almost exact contemporary of Fabrés in terms of both dates and style. “At the Mosque” (1895) went for over $730K, above the high end of its estimate; “Respect” (1902) fetched above $660k, approaching nearly double its pre-sale estimate.
Why Orientalism is becoming the new thing in certain circles, one can only guess. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the soul-sucking minimalism that we’ve been forced to endure in both Contemporary Art and design for the last couple of decades. You can hardly get further away from Lucio Fontana and Philippe Starck than this stuff. Whatever the reason, this interest in things from long ago and far away, as seen through Western eyes, appears to be in the ascendant once again.
A fascinating discovery in England provides an interesting postscript to the Wars of the Roses. As reported by Live Science, an incredibly ornate, rather exotic-looking carved oak bed, which for many years was used in a hotel honeymoon suite and was thought to be a Victorian reproduction, turns out to be a bed that was created for Henry VII and Elizabeth of York – two of the protagonists in “Richard III” if you remember your Shakespeare – to spend their wedding night in. The very grand bed has now been conserved and restored, and is revealing all sorts of fascinating secrets thanks to scientific analysis: like the fact that the headboard was once painted ultramarine blue, which at the time was so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of patrons.
If you can read Spanish, this is a fascinating article in La Vanguardia; even if you can’t, it’s worth having a look just to enjoy the pictures. A few years ago, a property development company in Turkey decided to take the maxim, “Every man’s home is his castle” quite literally, and build a luxury residential community in which every single house looks like an ornate, miniature French Renaissance château. That might have worked in theory, but for the fact that not only are all of the houses almost exactly the same, but they are all crammed up one against the other; moreover, the developer never secured the financing to complete the project, so the bijoux châteaux are currently all sitting empty.
For those of you looking for what one imagines must be an incredibly demanding job, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is in need of a new President. The spaceship-like Museum, which is currently under construction in Los Angeles, will house the art collection of Director George Lucas, who in his collecting over the years has been particularly drawn to art that tells stories, naturally enough. The museum will also contain plenty of pop culture items, from Star Wars props to Lucas’ personal collection of comic books. A word of advice: if you do decide to apply and you land an interview, don’t bring up Episodes I-III unless someone else brings them up first.