Following recent exhibitions of British orientalist painting in London and of the work of French orientalist painter Jean- Léon Gérôme in Paris, the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels has had the good idea of mounting a Europe-wide survey of this intriguing sub-genre of European painting.
Flourishing from the early decades of the 19th century to the early 1900s, when changes in taste and collecting habits rendered it almost extinct, in its hey-day many first-rate artists, and quite a few less exalted ones, tried their hands at producing orientalist paintings. The Brussels exhibition, entitled De Delacroix à Kandinsky, l'orientalism en Europe, shows how these included images of women in harems, picturesque ruins, slave markets and what for Europeans were oriental-looking types, all part of 19th-century European imaginings of the Middle East and all apparently snapped up by an eager international market.
While the core of the exhibition is made up of work by French and English painters, perhaps unsurprisingly given these two countries' colonial interests in the Arab world, the show is also noteworthy for its pan-European focus, showing how 19th-century artists from Germany, Belgium, Spain and the then Hapsburg Empire also turned out a wealth of orientalist canvases, most of them reproducing similar ways of seeing the Arab world.
Financial Times (Jackie Wullschlager)
Among the major lenders to Brussels’ alluring exhibition, From Delacroix to Kandinsky: Orientalism in Europe, is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. There is nothing Islamic, though, about the works visiting from Qatar. They range from a sweeping, translucent crater-like landscape, “Damas” by Edward Lear, and John Frederick Lewis’s intricate narrative, “The Love Message”, to Jean-Léon Gérôme’s polished “Armour Seller in Cairo” and José Villegas y Cordero’s “The Dream”. In this exquisitely finished, lavishly coloured work in loose, broken brushstrokes, a half-clothed Arab merchant sleeps among his rugs and cushions, still puffing on a hookah from which a whirl of smoke floats upwards to form the contour of a naked white girl.
In its description of eastern sensuality, lassitude and an archaic setting resistant to modernity, “The Dream” is a textbook case for everything that Edward Said, in his far-reaching study Orientalism (1978), criticised about European fantasies of an exotic, decadent, backward Middle East. Such images, Said showed, were inseparable from western political, economic and cultural imperialism, and in the 30 years since its publication, Orientalism has shaped every interpretation of this decorative, embattled genre. Tate’s 2008 exhibition of Victorian oriental pictures, with extensive commentary by Islamic writers, was an excellent example.