5.23.2008

Orientalism


"Orientalism... is a complex idea, made up of history and scenery, suffused with imagination... We frame to ourselves a deep azure sky, and a languid alluring atmosphere; associate luxurious ease with the coffee-rooms and flower gardens..." Thus an anonymous author in The Knickerbocker, June 1853, attempted to set out a definition of the term, with further visions of fountains and minarets dancing in his head.

Orientalism: A fascination with the East (more Near than Far*) by the West as manifested in the arts. That is how I define the term, anyway. I associate it squarely with the 19th century and the Victorian Imperial vision of a dreamy Romanticized land of caravansaries and hookahs. Think of all those "harem" and "Turkish Bath" paintings that gave artists the chance to depict pretty ladies in dishabille or the exotic photographic landscapes of Frith or Du Camp. Orientalism, which got a big boost in the 20th century from the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1924, connects the dots between Lawrence of Arabia (the person), and The Mummy (the movie) and Camel cigarettes.

The New York Historical Society is presenting a small but worthy show of choice Orientalist tidbits: Allure of the East-- Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930. Included are a Gerome painting, Tiffany lamp, a Zoave costume, posters and tobacco advertisements among other items. The N-YHS exhibitions department has rather effectively transformed the
space into a vest pocket Moorish arcade and all is accompanied by a graphic identity of unabashed pastiche by yours truly.

*The preoccupation with things Japanese that flourished after Japan opened trade with the West in 1853, seems, to me, a thing apart. The West wanted Japanese lacquer, vases, metalwork– but no one seemed to have the desire to be Asian. Japonisme mimicked and adapted Japanese asymmetry and spareness to Western decorative arts, Europeans liked the "alien" approach to line and space, but no one dreamed of inhabiting Asian landscapes or fantasized acting out tales from Japanese history. The Orientalists, meanwhile, engaged in a fair bit of projecting and playacting. From creating Hajji Baba Clubs to themed fancy dress balls the West seemed to envelope itself in dreams of Pashas and swordplay. I would think this distinction of coveting a style at arm's length vs appropriating an interpretive cultural identity has something to do with the imperial/colonial contact with and subjugation of the Near East. Not having read Edward Said's book on the subject I cannot say whether I have just discovered the color of Napoleon's white horse.

Bottom photo: Mrs. Arthur Henry Paget (1853-1919), dressed as Cleopatra for the 1875 Delmonico Ball.

3 comments:

Florizelle said...

And in june at the Tate Britain,
The Lure of The East !
http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/britishorientalistpainting/default.shtm

angela said...

Oh I know! I would love to go see!

lotusgreen said...

i completely agree with the distinction you make between orientalism and japonisme (when & why did the word 'oriental' change connotations?), but think you give japonisme short shrift.

nevertheless, the points you make are really interesting.

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