Challenging Orientalism: New questions of perception and reception

Emily Christensen, The Courtauld Institute of Art,

Erica Payet, The Courtauld Institute of Art,

Western visual culture has long depicted themes of Orientalism in paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and films. Since Linda Nochlin applied Edward Said’s theory to paintings in 1983, these works have occupied a complex and often uncomfortable place in Western art history. Nevertheless, Orientalist artworks continue to present their dissonant character, as simultaneously crowd-pleasing favourites and critically discounted works. Recent exhibitions, including Oriental Visions: From Dreams into Light (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, 2019), Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art (British Museum, London 2019–20) and Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse (Musée d’Orsay, Paris 2019), reveal differing approaches to Orientalism and suggest a need to reconsider its place in contemporary art historiography.

Furthermore, the production of Orientalist visual culture did not end with post-colonialism. Contemporary examples continue to be produced and circulated, from the fine arts to cinema and the media, often without critical scrutiny. In parallel, the last decades have witnessed growing private and public collections of Orientalism throughout the Islamic world, notably in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Sharjah and Kuala Lumpur. How does their reception in these locations, and their inclusion and recontextualisation alongside collections of art from the Islamic world contribute to the existing Western art-historical narrative? Where do Orientalist works sit in a post-colonial and neo-colonial world?

This session seeks to enlarge a contested field of art-historical study by re-evaluating its historiography, offering novel studies of Orientalist art from the 19th century to the modern day, and examining the contemporary practices around its display and reception

Speakers and Abstracts

Developing Orientalism: ‘Potential history’ and the exhibition of Victorian glass-plate negatives

Sean Robert Willcock (Birkbeck, University of London)

In 1879, The Graphic ran a front-page illustration showing the Emir of Afghanistan peering at a glass-plate negative and watching his portrait emerge from the wet-collodion emulsion prepared by a colonial photographer. Photography was thus encountered not as a positive print captioned according to colonial taxonomies, but as a developing image. This was how Victorian Orientalist portraiture was often witnessed by those who sat for the camera: as an ‘event of photography’ whose intended final product – a positive print with an accompanying caption or title– remained absent. This paper reassesses Orientalist photography from the perspective of the glass-plate negative and its delicate materiality: not in terms of the detail which the Victorians prized about the medium, but through the haziness of latency; not in terms of the stasis and instantaneity often associated with photographs, but through durational and contingent processes of preparing, loading, exposing and chemically ‘fixing’ a fluid image. Through a critique of recent exhibitions in Europe and Asia which have celebrated Orientalist negatives for their aesthetic qualities, I present them as resources for what Ariella Azoulay terms ‘potential history’, recuperating occluded agencies and political options. The published output of a prominent Orientalist photographer such as John Thomson (1837–1921), for instance, needs to be seen in terms of his rejects and choices regarding cropping, labelling and framing – decisions that are only recoverable due to the survival of his archive of negatives. Working with negatives enables latent histories to develop which complicate traditional notions of authorship, subalternity and spectatorship.

The Orient Within: Spanish and Moroccan perspectives

Claudia Hopkins (Centre for Spanish and Latin American Art, Durham University)

How can we understand the paradoxical adoption of the prolific Spanish Orientalist Mariano Bertuchi as ‘spiritual father’ by Moroccan artists? Bertuchi visualised Spain’s Protectorate of Morocco (1912–56) and Andalusia for wide audiences. He also served as the first director of the School of Art of Tetuan until his death in 1955. Following Moroccan independence, Mohammed Sarghini took up the School’s directorship and continued to work in Bertuchi’s style.

Adopting a contrapuntal approach, this paper focuses on perceptions of Bertuchi and Sarghini in pre- and post-colonial times, starting with their participation in exhibitions organised by Spain’s colonial administration in 1950s Madrid. In these politicised contexts, their works were appreciated as nostalgic evocations of medieval Iberia under Muslim rule (al-Andalus) and its continuity in Morocco. In the official discourse, Spaniards and Moroccans formed a ‘brotherhood’, an idea that justified Spain’s presence in North Africa. From a Moroccan perspective, the memory of al-Andalus was a source of pride, nurturing Moroccan nationalism.

Today Bertuchi and Sarghini are on display in the Centro de Arte Moderno de Tetuan, which exhibits Moroccan painting from the mid-20th century until today. According to the director, both artists are founding figures whose works evoke the ‘historical memory of Andalusia and Tetuan’. Their works also continue to be exhibited in other spaces in Morocco and Andalusia for different social, commercial and political purposes. While foregrounding the ideological underpinnings of the uses of their work, this paper challenges overfamiliar understandings of Orientalism as a discourse that excludes Islamic cultures from European identity. Spanish Orientalism is generally an under-researched area. This paper contributes to widening our perspectives.

Massage to the Orient (1993): Reassessing the role of the ‘Orient’ as ‘avant-garde’ during the rise of globalisation

Clarissa Ricci (Università di Bologna, Italy)

Passage to the Orient is one of the most quoted exhibitions of the 1993 Venice Biennale. Its fame is doubtless linked to its display of works by 14 Chinese painters, exhibited for the first time in Venice. Passage to the Orient, however, was not devoted solely to Chinese art. It comprised also the re-enactment of Gutai’s performances, the French group of Lettrism, young Russian artists and installations by Yoko Ono and Shigeko Kubota.

The exhibition was intended as the manifesto for a new International approach by the Biennale and was devoted to reassessing the importance of dialogue with the East in artistic creativity, intended here as ‘otherness’. The symbolic figure of Marco Polo, who inspired the title of the exhibition, recalled the idea of ‘trespassing’, of moving beyond personal, geographic, political and historical boundaries. In the curator’s intentions, the concept of the ‘orient’ evoked a tension towards the unknown, but also towards the new.

With the goal of redefining how the term ‘orient’ was used during the rise of globalisation at the beginning of the 1990s, this presentation aims to demonstrate how, moving from a loose interpretation of Levinas and Said, ‘orient’ functioned as a framing concept for marking a continuity between the historical avant-garde and contemporaneity.

The presentation also analyses Passage to the Orient in comparison with other exhibitions from the period – i.e. The Other Story curated by Rasheed Araeen (1989) – and against the concept of ‘Marco Polo Syndrome’ which developed at the beginning of the 1990s.

Orientalist Collections in the Middle East: Taste as knowledge and shifting narratives

Nadia Radwan (Institute for Art History, University of Bern, Switzerland)

This paper seeks to question the potentialities of private collections of 19th century European art located in the Middle East in the recontextualisation of Orientalism. By focusing on the collections of Shafik Gabr in Egypt and Sultan bin Muhammad el-Qasimi in the United Arab Emirates, it investigates how the migration of Orientalist artworks from Europe to the spaces they allegedly represent may generate new art-historical narratives. Firstly, it examines the ways these shifting narratives can change the value and meaning of the collections by challenging the canonic post-colonial discourse of Orientalism. In this specific context, it reflects on the notion of taste and the production of new forms of knowledge. Secondly, it interrogates the ways representations of stereotypes and otherness are renegotiated as they enter the collection and all the more so the moment the private collection leaves the intimacy of the collector’s home to enter the display of the museum. What criteria for taste and value emerge and how are they transmitted to local audiences? How are Orientalist tropes translated into narratives of art history or heritage in the region? Finally, this paper sheds light on a couple of Orientalist artworks that are authored by painters from the so-called margins. It reflects on the inclusion or exclusion of ‘oriental’ orientalists, not only in collections but also in Western narratives of art history and their possible place in a broader definition of Orientalism.

















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