Orientalist Art Makes a Surprising Comeback

Critics called the movement patronizing and repressive, but it is having something of a resurgence

By J.S. Marcus | The Wall Street Journal

This article originally appeared here >

While French Impressionists were creating their masterpieces in the 1870s and ’80s, the glory often went elsewhere-to artists known as Orientalists, who worked in their Paris studios on fanciful scenes of North Africa and the Middle East, brimming with sensual harems and menacing palace guards.

The rise of modernism rendered the Orientalists old-fashioned; later on, the fall of the European empires and the rise of cultural criticism made them politically incorrect. But now Orientalist art is having something of a comeback-at museums and among a new wave of North African and Middle Eastern collectors, who view the works as part of their heritage.

The late Columbia University literary critic Edward Said, in his 1978 book “Orientalism,” argued that patronizing Western depictions of North Africa and the Middle East had helped justify colonial rule. Said’s landmark book colored the way many curators now view Orientalist art. Gender-studies scholars have also examined Orientalist paintings, which often depict semi-clothed women as lascivious, at a time when proper Western women were not supposed to show their ankles.

“It’s tricky to put Orientalist paintings up in a museum in 2015,” says Mel Buchanan, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which recently reinstalled a wide range of Western depictions of both the Near and Far East from its permanent collection. “Orientalism: Taking and Making” includes a few key paintings by French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), the leading luminary of the movement at its peak.

Although these paintings are nominally realistic, Ms. Buchanan says, their use of cultural clichés puts them in the realm of fantasy. In works like “The Snake Charmer,” Gérôme is not providing “a window onto Middle Eastern culture,” says Ms. Buchanan. “It’s really a French artwork.”

In Montreal, Nathalie Bondil, the director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, says that while Benjamin-Constant is “a truly fabulous painter,” it is “important to appreciate those paintings for what they are-a complete fantasy, mainly made for Western men.” The Montreal show counters the Orientalist vision with a selection of works by women artists from Morocco.

In contrast to many Western curators and scholars, Shafik Gabr, an Egyptian businessman and Orientalist collector, does not view the works in his collection as patronizing or fantastical. Mr. Gabr, the chairman and managing director of Cairo-based holding company Artoc Group, says he thinks of artists like Deutsch and Gérôme as chroniclers of his culture before the rise of mass media.