Orientalist Art: The Marketplace of Sinbad the Sailor

From the Romanticism of Eugène Delacroix to the academic style of Jean-Léon Géröme, and from the photographic quality of Ludwig Desutsch to the almost impressionist style of Alphonse-Etienne (Nasreddine) Dinet, yesterday’s Orientalist Art Course took us to imagined communities where the Orient features as a carefully constructed geography.

It is not a style, not a school of art, not an artistic ideology. Orientalist Art was a current, a cultural phenomenon that swept across France and other parts of Europe throughout the 19th century in the wake of the European colonialism. Some argue that imperialism is the main motive behind Orientalism; some claim it was spontaneous and innocent…one thing holds true: it has, for over a century -and till our present day in some cases, shaped the way in which Europe has traditionally perceived the Orient.

Through the paintbrushes of Ingres, Fortuny, John Frederick Lewis and other Orientalists, the European audience could navigate a fantastic world of tiled walls, carpeted halls, Turkish hammams and exotic souqs to meet characters that seem to belong to a tale of One Thousand and One Nights: snake-charmers, harems and odalisques, muezzins and dervishes, warriors and slaves, merchants and street vendors selling everything under the sun.

The sensual feast is made complete through a soundscape dominated by the noise of the bazaars and the synchronized calls for prayer; light shines playfully on tanned skin, and one can almost smell the zesty oranges and the fragrant spices of the East. It is beautiful, definitely inspiring, yet anything but a spontaneous representation of these communities. One look at Jean-Léon Géröme’s Snake Charmer is enough to reveal the preplanned juxtaposition of exotic elements from different Eastern Cultures: Turkish, Egyptian and Indian, all in one and the same impossible setting.

Then came Dinet who learned Arabic and converted to Islam –becoming Nasreddine Dinet, fully integrating himself into the Berber communities of Algeria: an example on a more profound and honest reflection of the primitive lifestyle in the face of the sickening advance of French colonialism. Dinet was trying to capture the last glimpses of a ‘paradise lost’.

The last in focus was Ludwig Deutsch, whose attention to detail surpassed the skill of all his contemporaries, lending his artworks an almost ‘documentary’ value as he invites us to contemplate well-known Cairene neighbourhoods and alleys like al-Sanadqiyya and Atfet al-Hammam.

Finally, many thanks to all those that joined my course; see you all next year!