Those other Orientalists

A few months back, art historian Kristian Davies sent me a copy of his new book The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia and India. This is more than a lavishly illustrated decoration for a coffee table. It’s a provocative dissent from the Saidian take on nineteenth-century Orientalist art. I’ll let Davies say it himself:

In the 1980s, the great age of deconstructionism, Orientalist paintings were thoroughly deconstructed and dismantled from every angle: the questionable authenticity of what the paintings depicted, the subliminal intentions of the artist, the genre’s ties to imperialism, the supposedly unavoidable corruption of an artist’s perception of the East before even traveling abroad, the way in which artists portrayed women, violence, commerce, the streets, poverty, and architecture, and what the Orient even was. Everything was implicated, every brushstroke, until as is often the final outcome of deconstructionism, one was left with the feeling that one should believe nothing and suspect everything.

“Fortunately,” Davies adds, “in the twenty-plus years since Said’s Orientalism was published, many of his theories have been sufficiently and successfully refuted.” And he goes on to quote Bernard Lewis, John MacKenzie, and myself–very gratifying.

Davies is plainly moved by these paintings. He describes the moment he succumbed to their allure: he turned a corner in the Musée d’Orsay, “and there I saw it: a painting of a camel procession coming directly at me.” It was Léon Belly’s Pilgrims Going to Mecca (1861) and Davies “felt a very potent sensation brewing.” (A detail from that painting is on the book jacket, and an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing it.) The Orientalists is potent, too, written in an accessible style for non-specialists, and the quality of the reproductions is outstanding. (For more, see this review.)

Of course, what keeps the interest in nineteenth-century Orientalist art in an upward trajectory is the fact that, pace Said, today’s “Orientals” are enamored of it. It’s a market that was pioneered by a London dealer in the 1980s, and today some of the most impressive collections are held by private enthusiasts in the Gulf countries. When Christie’s opened shop in Dubai earlier this year, it sent over some outstanding examples of the genre for a showing, in advance of a June auction in London. At that sale, John Frederick Lewis’s A Mid-day Meal, Cairo (1875), which had been shown in Dubai, fetched $4.5 million. It’s mind-boggling.

If you’re in New York City, make a point of seeing the very respectable collection of Orientalist art at the Dahesh Museum, which is now showing off its best pieces in a tenth-anniversary exhibition. (The one I personally most appreciate is Gustav Bauernfeind’s vast and dramatic 1888 depiction of Ottoman forced conscription in the port of Jaffa. Davies devotes a chapter to Bauernfeind as well, and includes two spendid details from this painting.) The best time to visit the Dahesh? The evening of Thursday, September 1: Kristian Davies will be lecturing in the auditorium.