Roundtable Reconsiders Orientalism
Abu Dhabi 17 December 2013 – In the current edition of its monthly roundtable, Paris – Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD) organized a discussion session, Reconsidering Orientalism: Assessment, Reassessment, and Deconstruction, mediated by Dr. Thierry Laugée, assistant professor in European 20th Century Art at PSUAD, Dr. Anke Reichenbach, assistant professor in Cultural and Urban Anthropology at Zayed University in Dubai, and Dr. Ulrike Al Khamis, senior strategic advisor at the Sharjah Museums Department and co-director of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Session participants discussed how oriental art produced by western artists has often reflected a caricature of the oriental culture and how such artworks (painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, etc.) have gradually become an important part of the contemporary eastern cultural heritage.
The roundtable underlined the West’s ongoing fascination with oriental culture. Such interest and attraction were translated by westerners who traveled through the East and recorded their impressions in their art, thus immortalizing those faraway images. Easterners had an important heritage that helped define them and, with the rise of orientalism and western fascination with the East, artists were the leading figures in recognizing and interpreting in their art the magical allure of the Orient.
Dr. Thierry Laugée said, “Western obsession with the Orient grew, fueled by the French campaign to explore this mysterious expanse. The tales of the Arabian Nights stirred passion for everything oriental, which became synonymous with enchantment and brilliant sunlight. Orientalist paintings depicted folkloric scenery with rampant imagination. Some painters traveled the land and painted what they observed. They were interested in archeological sites, the fashions, habits, and customs of the people, their architecture and ways of life. The influence of eastern culture is palpable in Christian European art, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Oriental artistic sensibilities spread from the Mediterranean to most European countries.
“When speaking of orientalism, one must examine the evolution of art forms in painting, from the style of expression to the method of execution. One should also pay attention to the influencing factors on artistic production, such as political, social, environmental, scientific, and other developments. Since ancient times, meaning in eastern and western art was founded on philosophical concepts linked to sun worship that shaped the myths represented by primitive populations in their artwork.”
Dr. Anke Reichenbach underscored the importance of highlighting the artistic dimension of orientalism, and distinguishing between art produced by oriental artists and art created by orientalists or arabists, whether in painting or studies of eastern art. He stressed the importance of orientalism in art and the importance of painting in art, history, and civilization. He noted the difference between artistic orientalism and orientalism geared towards religious, colonial, scientific, or commercial purposes, and the effect this plays on art.
She also pointed to the clear early eastern influences on painting inspired by Byzantine art and Islamic art. The influence of the Arabian environment is evident in the works of orientalist painters, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and John Frederick Lewis, which capture ancient and Islamic architecture and eastern landscapes and art.
Dr. Ulrike Al Khamis said, “The Orient introduced warmth and sunlight into the works of western artists, brightening the colors of their paintings. They went in search of the exotic and the unfamiliar and brought back considerable eastern aesthetic sensibilities. Orientalism is merely one of the many periods of European fascination with exotic imports, a tendency that has persisted since the times of the Romans who imported Egyptian Isis worship and Persian Mithraism.
“Orientalism began with the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. This turning point heralded the diffusion of oriental sensibilities into the depths of Europe. Venice was the capital of artistic orientalism. The Venetian doges welcomed the turbaned Turkish ambassadors who were accompanied by janissary soldiers with their strange weaponry. Soon, Venetian painter Gentile Bellini traveled to Constantinople to paint the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. He was then commissioned to paint the Sultan Qaitbay and Sultan Al-Guri, and a tableau of the reception of the Venetian ambassador in Cairo. European painters first copied their orientalist paintings from the engravings of the Trachtenbuch (costume book) by Melchior Lorck which was published in the 16th century.”
The debate then touched on the importance of revisiting orientalism, especially in dealing with challenges that stem from public issues, notably: cultural, community, and period representations, the interdependence of knowledge and power, the role of intellectuals, and methodological issues relating to the interconnection of different types of texts, between text and context, and text and history. The panel also criticized the eternal narrow depiction of the Orient as primitive and at the opposite end of the spectrum from Europe.