The Imagined East: An Unexpected Revival

While much of the art world and the art market continues to be endlessly enthralled by the excretions of Contemporary Art, which for the most part say nothing new and display little actual “art” in their execution, a forgotten corner of art history has slowly been gaining in popularity among both collectors and the public.

The reemergence of interest in “Orientalism”, which I’ve written about before, is difficult to explain outside of pure aesthetics. Take Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), whose beautiful “Rider and His Steed in the Desert” (1872), shown below, is about to be the star prize for collectors bidding at Sotheby’s annual Orientalist art sale. What are collectors attracted to in these realistic works, that have nothing to do with trends in things like graffiti art or objects strewn across a floor? (Incidentally, if a major auction house has a separate sale and department dedicated to objects from a particular branch of art history, that is usually a good indicator that the branch in question is popular enough among collectors to be singled out for specialty marketing purposes.)

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In this painting, Gérôme shows a man in North African dress in a barren desert landscape surrounded by high mountains; he is seated on the ground and is holding his horse’s head in his lap. We don’t know exactly what happened here, but man and horse are clearly looking at each other with a note of sadness. Something has happened to the horse, who is either in pain or dying, perhaps from a broken leg, and the man is powerless to do anything about it. The less obvious part of the story is the implication of what will happen later: this is likely the prelude to the man’s own death, since it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to make his way out of the prison of stone and sand on his own.

The image here is touching, even heart-wrenching, but of course it’s a fantasy. Gérôme isn’t depicting something that he himself witnessed, or a scene described in history or literature, but rather an entirely imagined scenario of his own creation. Having traveled extensively throughout North Africa and the Middle East, he was able to use his studies of the people, places, and objects he observed when he returned to Paris, in order to create complex, well-executed images such as these. Much of his art doesn’t depict scenes from real life, but rather creates something more akin to a painted short story.

Yet although this is a classic example of what is commonly referred to as “Orientalist” art, it should be pointed out that Western artists imagined things like Moroccan battles, Persian soothsayers, or Arabian harems long before the rise of the 19th century art academies. And in fact, although not strictly speaking of the “Orientalist” school, this earlier blending of fact and fiction in Western art sometimes produced really off-kilter results, when you dig down more deeply into what they depict. Many examples of this can be found in portraiture, where painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) relished the opportunity to dress their subjects in clothes that were either Eastern in origin, or influenced by Eastern design, even if the individuals wearing them were from somewhere else entirely.

Take Reynolds’ magnificent “Portrait of Omai” (c.1776) for example, one of his most famous works and currently in the midst of a tit-for-tat between its current owner and the British government. Here we see a full-length portrait of a young man, dressed in white robes and sporting a turban, standing before a palm tree in a landscape. His hands and forearms are covered in tattoos, and we may even see a bit of tattooing on the left leg as well. If you were to guess the national origin of the subject based on how Reynolds has presented him, you would probably say that he was from somewhere in North Africa, the Persian Gulf, or even possibly the Indian Subcontinent.

The problem here is that Omai was a warrior from French Polynesia, not from anywhere in the Islamic world; he met up with Captain Cook during the latter’s exploration of Polynesia, and returned with Cook to London for a time, where he became something of a celebrity. [N.B. There is a screenplay waiting to be written about this, I reckon.] Turbans were not worn on the islands, and the overall outfit has more to do with the fashions of the Ottoman Empire than with traditional dress on Tahiti. The image captures a sort of cosplay that Reynolds has asked his model to engage in, rather than a careful ethnographic study: what we see is costume, not custom. It succeeded in its day, as indeed it still does, because Western collectors have always had a taste for objects and images that seem exotic or strangely foreign, long before the rise of the Orientalist school of art.

Why Orientalism is particularly hot at the moment after many years of disinterest or indifference is difficult to pin down. Prices for Orientalist works are (comparatively) low, inventory is good, and many of these paintings are magnificently well-executed eye candy. And of course, the more museums that hold exhibitions looking back at this school of art, the more potential collectors become aware of it. We shall see whether this is just another trend, or whether Orientalist works continue to hold and rise in value.

2 Comments on “The Imagined East: An Unexpected Revival

  1. What in the world is the matter with art historians, they use to be problematic and now many are impossible! Caroline

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