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 The Serpent Charmer, 1880, oil on canvas, Jean-Léon Gérôme,
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum

   
       

RE-
VALUATION


 
 

Romantic

Orientalism

   

 

L'Espagne c'est encore l'Orient; l'Espagne est à demi africaine, l'Afrique est à demi asiatique

(Spain is still the Orient. Spain is half-African, Africa is half-Asiatic)

Victor Hugo, in the preface to Les Orientales

 

Scholars have of late been rethinking the idea of Orientalist Art.  In recent years, the Tate in London has had shows and talks with names like The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting and Orientalism Revisited.  And there was the recent and much-talked-about show of the works of Jean-Léon Gérôme(1824-1904) at the Getty.  Gérôme, who though rather successful in his day, went out of favor with the public and critics with the rise of Modern Art...pushed aside by the Impressionists and Cubists.   His native town of Vesoul rejected the paintings he had bequeathed it, citing a lack of room to hang them!  But critical reevaluation of his work is under way (see the Getty's publication, Reconsidering Gerome).  And he’s been revalued in a more pragmatic sense – prices for his work and for Orientalist Art have been on the rise – Gérôme’s Veiled Circassian Beauty recently sold for 4.1 million dollars. 

 

The Reception, 1873, John Frederick Lewis, oil on panel

 

Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings have an almost-photographic yet always painterly realism, a lushly erotic, tongue-in-cheek consciousness; his is a sensuous and sensationalist art.  And the same revaluation for British Orientalist Painter, John Frederick Lewis, whose works had long been dismissed and are now selling for new highs. 

 


 Moorish Bath, 1870, oil on canvas, Jean-Léon Gérôme,
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

 

Gérôme's painting The Snake Charmer (top), graces the cover of Orientalism, the book by Edward Said, which viewed this artistic and literary movement with some suspicion.  Turnaround time is here--those lenses seem to be falling to the wayside.  Even the Tate slyly asks: What is the current debate on Edward Said’s radical book Orientalism?  Is his argument too binary between East and West?  Most interestingly, we came across an article on the website of the Saudi Aramco magazine World, titled Behind Orientalism's Veil, which talks about the rising prices of Orientalist art:  'In July 2008, Orientalism brought £21.4 million to Christie’s in London, “the highest total ever achieved for this category”...' and also notes, “... interest in Orientalist art has been led by the cognoscenti of the cultures depicted—mostly in the Arabian Peninsula, followed by North Africa."

 

European Romanticism and the idea of Ex oriente lux (out of the East, light).  Romantic Orientalism in literature (Shelley’s Alastor, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Byron’s The Giaour), Hugo with his influential Les Orientales (and later in Les Chants du Crépuscule: L’Orient, L’orient, qu’y voyez-vous poètes?  Tournez vers l’Orient vos esprits et vos yeux).  The Orient became a revitalizing force in the Romantic Movement, a yearning for some imaginary other place...fantasies perhaps fed by the Arabian Nights which truly belong to the entire world.  Moorish Spain was in some sense a center of these romantic fantasies, the Alhambra seen as an earthly paradise, and from this, the idea of Alhambraism.  For Granada was where the Orient and the Middle Ages coexisted, where Gothic Christianity met Arabian customs in the spirit of convivencia.  Even American Washington Irving succumbs to the lure with his delightful Tales of the Alhambra.

 


The Alhambra

 

So if you are overcome, in Romantic fashion, with a certain ennui at the very idea of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or the thought of visiting Abstract Expressionist New York (now previewing at MoMA), we say look to the East for the light (travel to the Alhambra, buy some Orientalist Art, or curl up with Tales of the Alhambra!)

 

Read: Reconsidering Gérôme, Scott Allan & Mary Morton

 

Read: Behind Orientalism's Veil

 

Read: Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving

 

Tags: fashion  literature  art  travel spain  england  france  egypt  museums  poetry
 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Veiled Circassian Beauty, 1876, oil on canvas

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