Orientalism

Orientalism is an exhibition at the Tate dedicated to European painting of the Middle East, one of the latest in a quite long series of exhibitions at various London institutions dealing with the Middle East. The first room announces that the theme is rather predictably inspired by Edward Said, although it admits that Said has become a controversial figure. This seems a pity, as much of the exhibition does go a long way to undermining Said’s case. It shows paintings by people who had effectively gone native, were motivated by mysticism or who were opposed to imperialism or who were simply motivated by a love of the exotic. Although Said’s case that the West depicted the Orient as a decadent, barbaric other (as in Byron’s poetry) is validated to some extent (as with the many pictures of the harem or slave market, although it’s interesting to note that a French painting is the only one to explicitly sexualise the slaves, to the apparent disapproval of a British Empire that was banning such practices), he fails to perceive that as nineteenth century civilisation grew increasingly grey and industrialised, its writers and artists increasingly sought refuge in their own medieval past or in other places unpolluted by modernity. Ruskin sought this in Venice, the likes of Wilkie and Holman Hunt in the Orient. With the ruins of Rome already excavated and familiar, novelty dictated that the ruins of Egypt and Jordan were the next to be discovered. Equally, if the West was decadent, much of the appeal was that Westerners wanted to lose their inhibitions. Figures like Lewis and Leighton often came to show Western figures in Oriental settings.

The exhibition begins with portraiture; the daughter of English merchants who had grown up in Turkey shown in Western dress, the painter John Frederick Lewis depicting himself as a carpet seller in the bazaar, figures like Holman Hunt and Wortley Montagu in Eastern clothing. The depiction of Islam by Lewis is especially sympathetic, with his paintings showing himself at prayer in the Mosque. I’m interested in Wilkie’s portrait of the Ottoman Sultan, shown in mostly Westernised dress. It seems to be forgotten that cultural interchange worked both ways, with foreigners dressing as Arabs and vice versa; again, Said’s account assumes that orientalism can only be an imperialist ploy rather than a form of cultural exchange; the most clearly imperial portrait here, of Napoleon in Egypt, is notable for the stark contrast between the Eastern setting and the Western attire of the dictator. Something similar is at work in the painting of European explorers, dressed in Roman togas, rediscovering the ruins of Petra with their Arab guides. The nearest there is to a validation of Said’s theories is an Augustus John painting of TE Lawrence in Bedouin clothes, although Lawrence was a poor sort of imperialist at best.

The later paintings move onto the subject of religion. During the course of the nineteenth century, wealthy westerners financed the establishment of Jewish homes and collective farms in Jerusalem, which accordingly grew more and more Judaicised. Figures like Holman Hunt grew increasingly interested in Judaism, leading to support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. His painting of The Scapegoat combines both Christian and Jewish themes, although much of his painting of Jersualem and its churches is more straightforwardly christian. It has to be said that the most interesting paintings (and some of the most numerous) in the exhibition are of architecture and landscapes though. For instance, Lord Leighton’s paintings of Algiers and Damascus, Frederick Lewis depicting the bazaars of Cairo, Edward Lear’s view of Constantinople from a cypress filled cemetery or the pyramids from a tree lined avenue, Holman Hunt showing the pyramids reflected in the Nile (he didn’t care for them much and managed to make them look like Silbury Hill) David Robert’s depiction of the ruins of Petra, Baalbec, Philae and Karnak. Judging from this, it’s very clear that both Lear and Roberts are very much underrated as artists.

As an exhibition, there’s more cultural and historical interest than artistic here. None of the paintings are poor but few are masterpieces. To take a few that stood out, there’s Stanley Spencer’s paintings of mosques in Sarajevo, Bomberg’s modernist painting of Jerusalem, Dadd’s strange concatenation of Bedouin tribes and Roman soldiers into a strangely symmetrical painting an allegory whose meaning is forever lost. Before, I leave I take the opportunity to have a look at The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. It fills an entire wall of the gallery and is easily the finest masterpiece that I saw that day. It’s a pity I’ll probably never see it again.

Like Said’s Magnum Opus, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is an interesting text, if not one I can bring myself to entirely agree with. The second section discusses the history of the nude, with its tendency to depict women as passive objects of the male gaze. It’s difficult not to sympathise with much of this argument (especially that non-Western traditions have not focussed exclusively on the passive image of a woman), but it still seems rather limited. The nude in the likes of Cranach or Titian heralds the vanquishing of the medieval prohibition of sexuality, a reawakening of the sensual and physical (it’s interesting to note that there’s absolutely no discussion of the role of religion in Western art in Berger). A figure like the Rokeby Venus, as Camille Paglia might argue, surely has its own power and is difficult to solely characterise as passive. More generally, Berger’s argument seems to have been undone by the passage of time and the increased sexualisation of the male body; Germaine Greer is surely right to argue that women, as much as heterosexual men, have a right to this form of visual pleasure.

The third section is probably the one I most agree with. Berger argues that the physicality of oil painting was ideal both for the depiction of material objects, whether still lives or other forms of property (e.g. land in Constable or animals in Stubbs) and for the establishment of the oil painting as a form of property in its own right. Berger counterposes this to the ethereal figures in Blake’s engravings. Berger does deal with an aspect of the Western tradition I have little liking of here, but it seems a little strained all the same; I can’t say I would swap the physicality of a Vermeer with its pleasure in the physical world for a medieval triptych especially gladly. Equally, given the prominence of the romantic depiction of nature from Rosa and Ruisdael to Holman Hunt and David Friedrich, the argument that nature is not present except as property seems frankly ludicrous.

The final section deals with the transition from oil painting to colour photography in advertising, from the wealth and status of the elite to the promotion of wealth and status to the lower echelons. The argument is a familiar one, revolving around the role of advertising in manufacturing false wants by associating certain products with sexuality or status. I tend to suspect that this argument requires one to accept the Marxist idea of false consciousness (as Popper pointed out a mechanism that simply dismisses any obstacle to Marx’s account of social history as being an aberration); Berger certainly speaks of advertising as a form of force rather than a form of consent.

By contrast, Susan Sontag’s On Photography is considerably more appealing to me. Noting that a photograph is essentially an accidental and serendipitous combination of how light interacts with chemicals, Sontag sees it as a way of seizing aspects of the world than a composed artform. Sontag accordingly disdains the rigid compositions of Weston in favour of Atget’s more disorderly ‘captures.’ Where Berger’s approach is Marxist, Sontag sees photography’s overthrow of the distinction between high and low art as being essentially akin to surrealism. The only problem is one of period. Digital photography is rather less accidental than the film cameras Sontag was writing about. Techniques like high dynamic range photography or photoshop manipulation mean that photography becomes rather more akin to painting, which Sontag had seen as imitating photography. Of course, there’s also a movement towards using older cameras, even pinhole ones, although the element of ‘historical slumming’ to this often seems a counterpart to more modern ways of aestheticising photographs, even to the extent of photoshopping marks and flaws onto the image.

Donald Richie’s Japan Journals rather reminded me of Forster’s accounts of Italy, Ozpotek’s Turkey or the North Africa of Bowles, Burroughs and Orton. It’s an odd sub-genre whereby the Western gay male looks for sexual liberation in a culture that lacks Western moral inhibitions or the mechanised and staid nature of Western society. In a lot of cases, the culture in question was a patriarchal one where homosexuality could be hidden within broader homosocial social structures. It’s also a partly obsolescent sub-genre given that moral inhibitions are now more likely to be considerably stronger in Tangiers than in London. Perhaps, this is as well given the connotations of imperialism and economic exploitation in it alongside the escape from Western mores. "You seem to have deserted Japan in favour of the Third World," a friend tells him as his attentions turn from the Japanese to immigrant workers. "It was not I that deserted Japan," he writes, "but Japan that deserted the Third World . . . It was the Third World in Japan that so appealed to lubricious me, and now that Japan is more First World than even the USA, the appeal is no longer there. That makes me that figure of fun, the garden-variety colonial imperialistic predator." As Japan westernises, Richie begins peevish complaints against the ignorance of sexual indifference of Japanese youth, with friends departing for less affluent Thailand.

In this context, Japan is an odd example, having gone from being a traditional patriarchal society to a modern Westernised society where Richie documents the rise of women’s rights. While Japan lacked the traditional opprobrium directed against homosexuality in the West, it nonetheless remains more conservative than a modern Western society. Richie is suspicious of the elevation of sexual preference to a component of social identity but there is something rather tragic in an existence of cruising and losing his lovers to marriage (Mishima’s widow and children living in permanent denial as to his homosexuality). On the one hand, Richie documents the role of the transvestite performer in Japanese theatre, festivals undertaken by mostly nude men, fishermen who worked nude, carpenter’s dancing women’s dances and on the other he documents Yukio Mishima’s hyper-masculinised identity and his identification with western classicism and the figure of Saint Sebastian in preference to Japanese models. Richie notes that "a dandy, far from being the individual eccentric he is often though to be, is really a strict conformist.. the dandy is no rebel, and no true reformer or renegade was ever a dandy. Maybe that is why society is no tolerant of dandies." However, Richie elsewhere notes that the bricolage Mishima constructed his identity from is that of the Western rebel, as with Brando. The version of homosexuality preferred in Japan is an unthreatening one that hardly seemed to fit Mishima’s identity, leading to him becoming more conformist and conservative than Japanese society itself (Richie notes that Mishima’s suicide says nothing about contemporary Japan). Mishima is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Tom of Finland cartoon. Richie’s position in Japan is that of gaijin but notes that Japanese society would otherwise be far more oppressive than that of the society he had fled. Richie repeatedly decries the conformity of Japanese society, its absence of intellectuals or individuals. Nonetheless, his attitudes to sexuality belong to the age of Proust and Forster who only seemed capable of finding stronger heterosexual men arousing.

Reading Soseki’s I am a Cat it occurs to me that Soseki is veering between two extremes. On the one hand, his feline protagonist serves to dismiss all humans as vicious and depraved. On the other, his principal human character serves to dismiss westernising tendencies in Japan. The two are linked by being increasingly marginalised voices (the cat describes his master as being superior to his fellows by being weka minded, just as he is described as a runt in comparison to all the other cats he knows) but they only intersect at certain points. For example, Sneaze is told that "the ways of our ancestors are much wiser and more effective than the ways of Europe.. the craving for satisfaction remains unrealised, the quest for the ideal eternally unrealised." This advice comes from a character dismissed as nearly insane and dangerous and Sneaze is ridiculed for his adoption of this viewpoint. Sneaze eventually seems to agree with his cat by dismissing all of his friends as lunatic, irrespective of their philosophical views. Nonetheless, this does not stop Soseki ending the novel with the theme of suicide as a harbinger of increased westernisation; "this overweening consciousness of self never lets up.. word such as serenity and self composure have become no more than so many meaningless strokes of a writing brush."

Viridiana surprised me as a film. Having seen An Andalusian Dog, The Golden Age and The Exterminating Angel before I was expecting something more self consciously surreal. Although the symmetry of its structure and some of its allegorical references are clear enough, it’s still essentially cast in a realist vein. I found myself frequenting comparing it The Exterminating Angel where the bourgeoisie are trapped at their dinner party as an act of metaphysical revenge in the class war. Here, the film ends with Viridiana playing cards with the wealthy land owner, her project to house the poor having miserably failed. The dinner party here as the paupers invade the house is almost a parody of its counterpart in The Exterminating Angel.

I’ve often thought that authors like Sterne, Voltaire and Diderot are the nearest approximation to the modern playfulness of authors like Perec, Nabokov and Calvino. Reading Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew reminded me rather of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees or The Beggar’s Opera; in satirising modern vices they also implicitly undermine modern ideas of virtue. Diderot’s habit is persistently to make a statement and then undermine, as with his disingenuous endorsement of Rameau; "the famous musician who has delivered us from the plainsong of Lully, who has written so many unintelligible visions.. not a word of which he or anyone else has understood." The narrator frequently denounces his interlocutor, but only to receive the response that he is the rule not the exception; "there’s nothing degrading in doing the same as everyone else. I didn’t invent them and I should be incompetent if I didn’t conform… a thief happy to be among wealthy thieves." Instead the emphasis shifts from personal to public vice; "what a bloody awful economy, some men with bursting stomachs others clamour with hunger."

Advertisements