"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.


Museum day

Recently I went up the the CooperHewitt to see the Rococo show. What I like about that museum is their usually adventurous curatorial take on whatever subject they tackle. In this case it is establishing the Rococo style in its own time period and then interpreting and teasing out Rococo "revivals" and influence in decorative fashion up to the present. While I was interested in Rococo more than, say, Baroque, I was not prepared to be so completely enamored by this stupendous silver Meissonnier covered tureen (top) from about 1735. It may strike you as a a blob of molten swirls in this photograph but I tell you it is one of the most heart-stoppingly peculiar and wonderful things to behold in person. A fantastical whirl of meticulously rendered mushrooms, carrots, shells and leaves, with a lobster peeking over the top and a dead pheasant or quail laid on for good measure. Second row above shows a couple other 18th century favorites including the delicate, almost icy Chinese-style Rococo mirror at right. English-made, in 1755, the mirror is one of several later international interpretations of the original French court style. It's interesting to see the variations. In the English version you can see the Chinese fancies thrown in, and the spindly spidery characterisitics sometimes incorporate Gothic as well.

Often dismissed as highly sophisticated nonsense, the style's whimsies, linear and intricate,
are more suited for "mere" decoration rather than transformation into things more substantive like architecture. But at its best, rococo throws together astonishing realism and unsettling surrealism. The representation of nature-- shells, leaves, water–is startlingly realistic, but the manner in which items are swept up together, as if in tumult, puts everything in flux. It's a beautiful representation of disturbance. The style becomes, at times, unhinged from any semblance of underlying framework and all is swirl, asymmetry, accretion, and encrustation.

A surprising notion I took away from the show: some of the characteristically "Victorian" bombast of mid-19th century interior design, like the hilarious Belter settee shown (third row), could be considered Rococo Revival. Hmmm. I'd never heard that one. But its an interesting insight into "what were they thinking."

Fourth row down is the exquisite Belgian "Heatwave" radiator that I've been eyeing from afar since its unveiling in 2003. Below that is a poster by illustrator/designer Marian Bantjes.

Two other small Cooper Hewitt exhibits are not to be missed are the Campagna Brothers curator's choice selections off the main hall (whence the wonderful and spidery chairs) and Multiple Choice, a display of samples and sample books, on the lower level (two delicious porcelain color samples-- if they do not produce a set of these plates, as is, it is criminal) .


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