Home Sociology Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage
Orientalism in arts and crafts revisited. The modern and the anti-modern: the lessons from the Orient
John M. MacKenzie
Edward Said’s Orientalism was a highly seductive book exercising powerful influences well beyond Said’s own literary field. To take but two examples, it became the foundation text of the group of historians known as the post-colonials; it also influenced a number of art historians who found in it new ways of interpreting Orientalist art.1 For them, the extraordinary flowering of artistic expressions of Oriental subjects could be explained as yet another western mode for representing, and therefore mis-representing, the Orient in the era of western imperialism. Such artistic expressions could be seen as a visual form of the West’s appropriation of Eastern subjects, yet another tool in the establishment of power and authority. Such slanted images of the Orient could be found not only in the canvases of large numbers of artists who travelled in and painted the East, but also in various other cultural artefacts, including performances on the stage. These performances invariably involved the art of the scene painter, another important means of presenting the East to a western public.2 Thus, the Orient was also the setting for plays and operas, starting in the eighteenth century and fully flowering in the nineteenth.3
For me, my conversion from the Saidian paradigm happened as a result of hearing a keynote at an art historians’ conference in which Edward Said gave a multi-media presentation on Verdi’s Aida, the text of which was subsequently published in his book Culture and Imperialism.4 This lecture surprised me, for Said seemed to be talking about a wholly different opera from the one I knew. As it happened, because of a long-standing interest in music and opera, I had given a lot of thought to Aida, a thoroughly intriguing opera from a cross-cultural and ideological standpoint. Although Said seemed to contextualise it impressively in terms of the history of Egypt of the time, the encroachments of the West and the opening of the Suez Canal, the activities of savants and archaeologists in the unveiling of Ancient Egypt, as well as Verdi’s reactions to the commission in his extensive correspondence of the time, still something did not ring true.
My problem lay with the fact that Said never mentioned the actual text of the opera, never analysed its apparent ideology, or indeed the centres of gravity of its music.5 The key phrase for me was that Verdi had produced, according to Said, a plot ‘that ends in hopeless deadlock and literal entombment’.6 Yet the immolation of Radames and Aida at the climactic point of the drama seemed to fit the longstanding trope of star-crossed lovers finding union in death - Hero and Leander,
Romeo and Juliet, Desdemona and Othello. I had always considered the opera to be about nationalism, about resistance to the imperialistic Egyptians, and about the relationship between landscape and patriotism. There is also a strong vein of the composer’s well-known anti-clericalism, obvious in the condemnation of the hero in the final act. In all of these, Verdi was following his predilections - his celebration of figures condemned by society (like Violetta in La Traviata), as well as his nationalist and anti-imperial passions. The fulcrum of the opera, it seemed to me, was Aida’s aria ‘O patria mia’, in which she invokes the great physical beauty of her homeland, Ethiopia.7 Verdi’s best music is here, and the entombment is an apotheosis, a triumphant signal of hope. In short, the Ethiopians seemed to have ‘all the best tunes’.
Thus, Verdi’s fascination with the ‘underdog’, so apparent in so many of his operas, seemed equally present here. After all, the title role is that of the Ethiopian, not the Egyptian, princess. The latter, Amneris, fails in love and seems vindictive in her vengefulness. The triumphalism of the celebrated Act 2 march and spectacle never seemed to me quite to ring true. Might it not be the case that Verdi was almost sending up such martial splendours, given the fact that it is known that he had little sympathy with either British or Italian imperialism?8 Was it not possible that Verdi was actually offering a very back-handed compliment to the Khedive of Egypt, who had commissioned the opera, and the elite European and Egyptian members of the audience who enjoyed the spectacle in the new Cairo Opera House? And might this not offer a clue to the hidden messages - or in some cases scarcely veiled intentions - of so much Orientalist art? Might not such art convey a critique of western societies rather than of the eastern ones which it depicted?
This disenchantment with Said’s Orientalism was confirmed when I read his Wellek lectures on music.9 Here again he seemed to offer a severe binarism in cultural constructions of West and East, whereas the experimentation of composers with eastern forms (however artificial and rudimentary such grappling with Eastern modes was at the beginning) seemed to me to represent efforts to take western music in new directions. French and Russian composers, for example, turned to Oriental themes and rhythms in an attempt to escape stifling conventions and the dominance of the German tradition, thus producing new sensations from an exoticism which drew on Russian contacts with Central Asia, on the one hand, and French experience of North Africa and the Middle East, on the other. Moreover, it seemed to me that there were three highly significant dimensions missing from the work of Said and some of his followers. These were the key factors of social class, modes of consumption of Orientalist products, and of the market in paintings and artefacts.10 It also seemed reasonable to argue that the victims of imperialism and of the imperial world-view somehow maintained their independent agency, however threatened, throughout the imperial experience. In maintaining such cultural independence, non-European peoples seemed to expose the essential weakness of imperial power, and to maintain processes of exchange within the patterns of dominance. It was soon apparent that some art historians, for example Emily Weeks, were indeed applying such ideas to art history.11 They seemed to confirm the view that the way forward was in considering the reality of reciprocities even within those acknowledged patterns of inequality of power.
Imperialism, far from being the all-conquering force which some nineteenth- century contemporaries and the sub-Saidian post-colonialists seemed to imagine, in reality carried within it a great paradox. Imperialism seemed to represent the triumph of the modern, yet for many the expressions of such modernism - as in industrially produced artefacts - were a source of doubt and anxiety. The reality is that so many of the cultural expressions of the era involved the almost ubiquitous juxtaposition of the modern and the anti-modern.12 Modernism and modernity are of course freighted with diverse and complex meanings, but for the purposes of this paper, the basic terms modern and anti-modern may be used simply to convey the nineteenth-century world of western industrial production, and of the consequent global conquest and settlement, counterposed against the anxieties about these developments which were constantly expressed in terms of the values that were being lost. Industrially produced artefacts, while capable of asserting power in striking ways (for example through the technologies of travel and of firearms), still lacked for many contemporaries the artistic worth of handcrafted items. Much of nineteenth-century art history and comment can be seen as representing this perceived dichotomy between industrial and craft values.
Hence, the truly striking thing about expressions of the modern in the nineteenth century is that its supposed antithesis was always present. The Great London Exhibition of 1851 is a perfect example. The architectural envelope in which the exhibition was displayed seemed to represent the essence of modernity. Paxton’s vast iron and glass ‘Crystal Palace’ owed its origins to conservatories and orangeries, but it was to become the classic - and indeed global - language of the railway station, the Victorian market building, and much else.13 It was of course dependent on industrial-scale production of both iron and glass. But, intriguingly, the interior contained much that looked like the anti-modern. Of course the exhibition was devoted to the application of aesthetic values to industrial items, but somehow such values could be imparted only through the celebration of crafts. Thus that pure modernist envelope contained a great clutter of both crafts and industrial products. So much was this the case that one scholar, Jeffrey Auerbach, has argued that it constituted not the expression of an overweening industrial and imperial confidence, as so often suggested, but actually a sign of anxiety, a fear of weakness in the face of, for example, what were seen as superior French values.14 Emily Weeks’s reference to positive attitudes towards merchants of hand-crafted goods, relating to J.F Lewis’s possible self-portrait in The Carpet Seller, should make us think of the transfer of such values to Europe.15
All subsequent Victorian exhibitions seemed to perpetuate this dichotomy between the industrial and the non-industrial, the modern and the anti-modern, in the process penetrating the significance of this paradox all the more deeply. The South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert (V&A), in London was specifically founded to attempt to raise the values of the one (the industrial) by study of the other (crafts).16 This stimulated a major industry, as it were, of craft revival. In India, another V&A, now beautifully renovated as the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, was founded in Bombay (Mumbai), opened in 1872.17 It was originally designed to promote precisely the same principles as those of South Kensington. One of its most influential curators was George Birdwood, who revered what he saw as the ideal craft production and aesthetic values of the Indian village. John Ruskin, while no admirer of Indian art, was also interested in the revival of craft values. Back in Britain, Birdwood became a major theorist of these notions which later fed into the work of William Morris and his associates in the Arts and Crafts movement.18 Morris was a considerable admirer of Oriental carpets and other crafts, seeking to represent them in his ideal home at Kelmscott. He also sold Oriental ceramics and other items at his shop in London’s Red Lion Square.19 Among a number of examples, the artist Frederic Leighton sought to reproduce the crafts and the atmosphere of such work in his Arab Hall (by George Aitchison) at his home in Holland Park, London, while William Burges worked on reproducing Islamic design for the Marquis of Bute at Cardiff Castle.20
For most of these proponents of the revival of craft values, this was a social as well as an aesthetic movement. Crafts represented the societal relationships of the village rather than of the industrial unit. They were thus rural rather than urban. They involved what was perceived to be the dignity of individual production in closely reciprocal relationships with other craftspeople. Such producers also had closer connections with customers and patrons, even if we would now see some of those connections as being economically exploitative. This contrasted with the supposedly debased aesthetic values of the industrially fabricated artefact, in which mass production ensured that manufacturers, who had relationships with machines rather than with the genuine raw material and aesthetics of the craft, were cut off from their markets. This of course represented theorisation about an ideal rather than a reality which often ensured that craft producers received inadequate rewards for their labours, just as industrial workers did. Nonetheless, most of the celebrated exhibitions of the nineteenth century acted as showcases for crafts and their products and many of them brought craftspeople from India and elsewhere in the East to demonstrate their work in a variety of media - wood, metal, textiles, carpets, ceramics and jewellery. Often the most striking images of such exhibitions are indeed the craftspeople at work and the ‘bazaars’ in which their products were sold. The Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914) produced a remarkable series of portraits of the Indian craftspeople who worked at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886.21 These so impressed Queen Victoria that she subsequently commissioned him to go to India to paint scenes and some of her ‘subjects’ there.22
Moreover, this fascination with Oriental (and other) craft forms entered into British production. Ornamental iron-work is a case in point. The celebrated companies that produced such materials (Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen ironworks in Glasgow is an excellent example) converted many oriental motifs into their work, which was exported throughout the British Empire and elsewhere. The exhibition displays of this company, such as at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888, had a distinctly oriental feel to them, as had its magnificent catalogue of its products.23 This Glasgow exhibition, which was partly designed to show off the heavy industrial production of the city, took place in temporary buildings so Orientalist in style that they were dubbed ‘Baghdad by the Kelvin’.24 The exhibition also boasted a Mooresque royal reception room, Howell’s tobacco kiosk, which was advertised as an Oriental smoking lounge with divans, and Doulton’s Indian pavilion for the display of ceramics. Yet again, the industrial was juxtaposed against the pre-industrial arts which seemed to be represented in these Orientalist forms. But it is clear that, contra the interpretations of Said and his followers, this was not done to denigrate or down-grade the pre-industrial, but to demonstrate the necessity of staying true to its ideals even in an industrial age.
Moreover, the work of the architect Owen Jones promoted this concern with Oriental design, through his studies of the Islamic architecture of the Alhambra in Granada (a major interest in the first half of the nineteenth century), his activities in respect of the V&A Museum, and his concern with the displays in the Crystal Palace, notably after its move to Sydenham.25 His magnificent Grammar of Ornament of 1856 (using a major advance in chromolithographic reproduction) sought to display examples of ornamentation from the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East towards the same objectives.26 These fed into the design of textiles, wallpapers, and much else. There was indeed something of a sequence of fashionable crazes in the second half of the nineteenth century, embracing North African and Middle Eastern designs, as well as examples from South Asia and the Far East. The Japonisme fascination, though much satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan and others, influenced certain areas of production, notably ceramics, over an enduring time-scale.27 While Liberty’s Store in London, somewhat more directly, made all sorts of Middle Eastern designs and artefacts highly fashionable for a season, many forms of exoticism also entered the architecture of leisure in Britain and elsewhere.28
This fascination with crafts connects very conveniently with Orientalist art. Yet another of the paradoxes of industrialism is the phenomenon pointed out some time ago by the American historian Martin Wiener.29 The fact is that many industrial figures in Britain converted their wealth into wholly non-industrial practices: they invested in great country houses and estates; they attempted to join the landed aristocracy in their social practices; and, in strikingly contradictory ways, they also sought to glorify the pre-industrial. A good example is Sir William Armstrong of Newcastle, a great industrialist who made a vast fortune in engineering and munitions. But his architect, Norman Shaw, created at Cragside in Northumberland a residence which combined antique pastiche in architecture and crafts with hydraulics and other modern techniques, thereby producing a picturesque and often medievalised composition nonetheless imbued with up-to- date comforts.30 The plunge bath there, with its blue tiles, is distinctly Orientalist in appearance, while many similar fascinations can be found around the house.
Among the pre-industrial activities that such a class pursued with fervour were a fascination with horses and hunting and shooting. Scotland became the happy hunting ground of the elite, who soon fanned out from Britain in search of new and apparently atavistic thrills around the world.31 Modern infrastructures like steamships, railways, and the telegraph enabled them to go further and further afield in their ironic pursuit of the pre-industrial and supposedly primitive. Hunting took such travellers to Africa, North America, India, and New Zealand.
Hunting combined the modern (firearms for example) with the pre-modern, the rational with the irrational, the romance of exotic landscapes with contact with indigenous peoples. This essential cultural context helps to explain the popularity of certain themes in Orientalist painting. Eugene Fromentin’s depictions of Arabs on horseback, hunting with falcons or with various forms of weaponry, fit these obsessions perfectly. (See, for example, Fromentin’s Falcon Hunt: Algeria Remembered in the National Gallery of Ireland.)32 And of course Fromentin (1820-76) had many lesser imitators, such as Francesco Coleman (1851-1918) and Georges Washington (1827-1910). Arabs Travelling in the Desert (1843) by E.J-H. Vernet (1789-1867) similarly emphasises colourful camel blankets, textiles, and firearms which are produced by craftsmen.
The travelling European hunters also desired to fill their homes with artefacts that their visitors could admire. Each great country house was invariably a private museum in which the choicest of crafts could be displayed - carpets, ceramics, metalwork, as well as carvings and paintings. These were sometimes of an antiquarian nature, but they were also often contemporary. It was an interest that can additionally be found among a wealthy white bourgeoisie in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Sometimes the material displayed was quite simply imperial loot collected by officers and others on colonial campaigns, classically from Ethiopia, the Sudan, or India. Such loot might include weaponry, armour, and shields. Orientalist paintings depicting such materials are legion. This analysis is not, however, based upon questions of aesthetic value. The important facts are that a large number of artists seem to have found a ready market and, regardless of quality, their paintings display aspects of craft manufacture, connoisseurship, and purchase.
Any survey of the several exhibitions of Orientalist paintings held in recent years, of their catalogues, or of the many other books on Orientalism in the visual arts reveals many examples. Among artists of the first rank we can identify the Scots David Wilkie (1785-1841) and David Roberts (1796-1864) working in the early nineteenth century.33 To mention but two examples, David Wilkie’s The Turkish Letter Writer (1840), supposedly inspired by a scene he had witnessed in the courtyard of a mosque in Constantinople (Istanbul), dwells on the textiles of the garb of the letter writer himself and the two women who are looking on, but the eye is caught by a shapely glass hookah, a fluted tear-drop shape, with a brass base and other brass fitments (both a watercolour sketch and a finished oil, Aberdeen Art Gallery). One of David Roberts’s celebrated lithographs is of the Bazaar of the Coppersmiths in Cairo. Later, this theme is developed further in A Coppersmith, Cairo (1884) by Charles Wilda (1854-1907), showing the craftsman at work on some magnificently burnished copper vessels.
The themes of crafts, connoisseurship, production, and sales can also be found in paintings such as At the Art Dealer’s Shop by the Italian Orientalist Gustavo Simoni (1846-1926) or The New Acquisition (1886) by the Czech Rudolf Weisse (1859-1930 - he also painted The Antique Shop and the Carpet Merchant). These feature the textiles and patterning of the robes of the dealers and customers together with the metalwork, carpets, an occasional firearm, and fine ceramics. A similar fascination with crafts is expressed in A Market, Cairo, particularly featuring metalwork, by Leopold Muller (1834-1892) or in A Bargain, by the American artist Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903) with metalwork, tiles, and fabrics. The titles of many of these paintings precisely illustrate the themes mentioned above.
Arthur Melville (1855-1904) was fascinated by the Middle East and North Africa and several of his paintings are rightly celebrated. Among these are Arab Interior, which demonstrates the play of light through the pierced wooden screens known as mashrabiyya, providing striking effects for the colourful clothes of the man sitting on the divan with its patterned textiles and cushions, together with the beaten brass table top and cups.
Melville’s two paintings Waiting an Audience with the Pasha of 1887 and Waiting for the Sultan, Morocco, pursue similar themes of striking contrasts of light and shade, architectural detail, carpets, and the dress of the people waiting. In the second one, the equestrian fascination of many of these paintings is represented by a beautifully realised white horse, also patiently waiting. Other paintings, such as Hhareem Life by J.F. Lewis (1804-76), certainly imply critiques of gender relations (a common theme of the age), but they also offer a feast of fabrics and an overdose of abstract design reminiscent of Jones’s exposition of ornament.
The fascination with crafts, of which these are just a few examples, are often combined with other aspects of perceived Middle Eastern life which also had resonances for those anxious about the very industrialism which they were promoting at home. Three examples are the frequent representation of spirituality, of music, and of learning. Examples of the first are J.F. Lewis’s The Commentator on the Koran, where ceramics, tiles, fabrics, and flowers are combined with a venerable studiousness, reflection, and religiosity, or At Prayer by the immensely prolific Austrian Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), who produced large numbers of paintings illustrating all the themes of this essay. The fascination with music is illustrated in The Music Lesson by Frederick Leighton (1830-96), whose artistic excursions into the Orient have been insufficiently studied, and Two Musicians by Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), both celebrating the beauty of traditionally crafted musical instruments; while learning is admired in Ludwig Deutsch’s El-Ashar, the Arab University in Cairo or Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Man at Study.
Thus, Orientalist art, far from exposing the primitive to the industrial gaze, far from producing a sense of a strict binary construction between the modern and the pre- and anti-modern, was actually revealing visual resonances which greatly appealed to Victorian contemporaries. Here was a world they had, to a certain extent, lost, and it was a world they wished to regain. It should make us think of T.E. Lawrence’s reference to the ‘civilisation disease’. It is a fascinating fact that considerable sales of such Orientalist art are now made through London galleries such as the Mathaf. In modern times, wealthy inhabitants of a Middle East shattered by oil, its related industries and an excess of wealth, are also in search of an older, gentler, and appealing world.34 The Victorian middle class and the modern inhabitants of the Middle East have, surprisingly, much in common.
Where I lived out the quiet morning of my life.
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