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Jewish World Review
August 19, 2008
/ 18 Menachem-Av 5768
Eye-stopping glimpses of an exotic and forbidden world
For anyone interested in fine painting, as distinct from 'great art', there is a treat at the Tate for them: a display of works by British artists, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, who depicted the Orient and those who liked to dress up in Eastern style. Many of the pictures are from private collections, and this is a rare chance to see them; they are often in their original frames, well preserved and of great beauty.
The pellucid waters of this subject were thoroughly stirred and muddied by the polemicist and troublemaker Edward Said, who invented 'Orientalism' as a term of political and racial abuse, and won himself a following in left-wing academia by his misrepresentations, even after he was exposed as a fantasist in a famous article published in Commentary. It was typical of Said that he presented Mansfield Park as a novel about colonialism and the slave trade. So visitors to the show should forget about such nonsense, and allow their own eyes to speak.
The division between East and West, in effect between Europe and Asia, has existed for 4,000 years, and Western intellectuals have attempted to bridge it from Herodotus on. The first significant figure to engage in systematic borrowing from the Levant was the 13th-century Emperor Frederick II, known as Stupor Mundi, and during the Renaissance painters such as the Venetian Gentile Bellini specialised in Eastern images, and a number of rich men and women dressed up in Oriental clothes. There were many more on the Continent than in Britain, and they can be studied in the best book on the subject, L'univers des Orientalistes by Gerard-George Lemaire, an English translation of which was published in Cologne in 2001.
The most fascinating pair of pictures in the Tate show were painted early in the 17th century by an unknown artist. They show Sir Robert Shirley (1581-1628) and his Circassian wife Teresia, who died in 1668. He held the extraordinary post of the Shah of Persia's envoy to all the European courts, which he spent his life visiting. The Pope, Paul V, gave him the rare and valuable privilege of the right to legitimise bastards, important in the inheritance of disputed estates. Of course the Pope's writ did not apply in Protestant Europe, but it was absolute in Latin Christianity, and Shirley must have had a way with him to get the grant. His life was crowded with adventures, and would we had his autobiography. He dressed as a Persian nobleman with a huge turban, and the elaborate embroidery on his silk coat and cloak is rendered with astounding fidelity and skill in the portrait. It is a wonderful piece of work and vaut le voyage.
His wife's portrait is, in one respect, even more remarkable, since it is the first to show a lady holding a pistol. It is true she also holds a watch, and it may be that these objects were put in to illustrate Western technology. But the lady looks as if she was quite capable of shooting, and given the various attempts to poison or assassinate her husband, maybe she needed to be. She survived him by 40 years, living in Rome and becoming a papal groupie, like so many women to this day.
The star of the show is undoubtedly John Frederick Lewis (1805-76), who came from a family of painters, studied under Bonington and Wilkie, and became perhaps the most accomplished of all craftsmen in the mixture of watercolour and gouache he preferred. Like many others, he penetrated the East via Moorish Spain and Morocco, and spent long periods living in Muslim countries. What attracted him and his patrons was the contrast between intense heat outside and cool interiors, whether of bazaars or houses. He specialised in tent and harem scenes, though the beautiful women he portrayed were probably Jewesses, Maronites or Copts rather than Muslims. His rendering of light filtering through slatted blinds and illuminating faces and interiors has never been surpassed, and is a miracle of skill and industry. The show includes his masterpiece 'The Carpet Seller', which may be a self-portrait of him in Egyptian rig and is now in the Blackburn Art Gallery. What a wealth of knowledge a serious art student could acquire by careful study of this work!
For another glimpse of this marvellous artist we must turn to Thackeray's delightful travel book, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846), where Lewis's eccentric Oriental lifestyle in the grand Mamluk mansion he rented is described with charm and fun.
There are some fine landscapes in the show, notably by David Roberts, the number two British artist in this genre, but who concentrated, unlike Lewis, on buildings and grand masses, as became his training as a successful scene-painter. But there are some fine Lears, one of them (in a private collection), completely new to me. It shows Petra, painted in that brief period after the late-winter rains when the floor of the normally arid valley becomes a luxurious mass of bright green. It is a masterpiece and belies the conventional wisdom that Lear is never at his best in oils. There are some notable Holman Hunts too, not to everyone's taste, though one should bear in mind that these painstaking works were done in conditions of great discomfort and sometimes of real danger. Personally I am deeply grateful to these gifted and courageous artists who took so much trouble, and so many risks, to give us faithful images of these places in the 19th century.
Although the French had many more artists specialising in the Muslim East at this time, there are none to match the British group in accuracy save Delacroix, and he only in his watercolour sketchbooks, which are outstanding, as opposed to his finished oils done in the studio. The French were much more critical of Muslim ethics than the British were: hence such horrifying and dramatic works as Henri Regnault's 1870 masterpiece, 'Execution Without Hearing under the Moorish Kings', now raising goosepimples in the Musée d'Orsay. The French also liked to emphasise the nakedness and eroticism of the harem, led by Chasseriau, Lecomte du Nouy and, above all, Ingres. His 'Turkish Bath' (Louvre) always makes me laugh, but it is a luscious piece of scabrous nonsense, originally more shocking but cut down from a square to a circle to eliminate naughtier bits. Ingres was a great painter in the sense that he knew how to grab the attention by the power of his images, and hold it by his superb technique.
There was no excuse, other than sales, for such an imaginative presentation of Muslim life. In 1860, for instance, an accurate and matter-of-fact book was published in Europe, written by the widow of a Turkish pasha, and entitled Twenty Years in a Harem. Such a work could not possibly be published today, given the ferocity of our creeping censorship.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson