With more than 150 paintings and sculptures, the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich has just hosted one of the largest recent exhibitions on Orientalist art, organised jointly with the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (where the event was on until 9 January 2011): “Orientalism in Europe: From Delacroix to Kandinsky”. Almost at the same time, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris dedicated an entire show to the contested work of the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose images of the desert had a relevant place in Munich as well.
Even though these exhibitions are formally closed, the show based in Munich will soon be transferred to Marseille (where it will be on until August 2011) and a number of other events on the subject of ‘the East’ are scheduled for next summer both in France and other places in Europe. One could affirm that an ‘orientalist’ wave in art is rising, revealing a renewed interest in the issue of East and West relations and their historical construction, which was probably enhanced by the Tate’s 2008 “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting”. Before then, the last major survey of Orientalist painting dates back to 1984, with exhibition “Orientalism in Art”, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
What is interesting about it, in my opinion, is how the word ‘orientalism’ or the adjective ‘orientalist’ have made their way into everyday language, to be absorbed and normalized as almost neutral descriptions of an historical practice. Looking at how the exhibition held in Munich was organized, I will try to outline my understanding of the contemporary implications of this term.
The exhibition flyer promises the unveiling of images of the Middle East, North Africa and the Islamic Orient produced from Napoleon’s expansion towards the East onwards, by gathering together “magnificent” works by European artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st century, including Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugene Fromentin, Auguste Renoir, Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis. By doing so, a genealogy of Orientalism is sketched: tentative representations of the Orient appear to be deeply connected with the French campaigns in Egypt and with the succeeding figurative trend that came to be known as Egyptomania.
The originating point chosen interestingly provides a clear example of how art and politics can mutually sustain each other: when Napoleon engaged a military campaign in Egypt, he brought with him around 167 painters who had the task of portraying the mission in North-Africa as a victorious one. Nonetheless, the identification of such a late start for a process that Edward Said would summarize as “portraying, fixing and capturing the Orient” suggests that the political categories into play here remain unquestioned: implicitly Europe, conceived in a vaguely modern understanding of the term, and France appear as already constituted political powers with their fixed borders, whose gaze is cast on an Oriental spectacle to be represented in order to be tamed.
Although the exhibition clearly stresses how the mythic Oriental subject is caught in-between timeless stereotypes, such as the dream-like figure of the lascivious woman (exemplified by Benjamin Constant’s Odalisque) and the ecstatic man smoking hashish or the aggressive soldier ready to kidnap white women and children, it does not challenge the power-play that surfaces through the works. In the meticulous comments that accompany the paintings no mention is made of Edward Said’s seminal texts Orientalism or Covering Islam and of the fact that Islam as well as Orient are manufactured categories creating otherness while representing it.
This doesn’t go without saying, especially as one of the rooms of the showing is dedicated to what has been labelled as “Scientific Orientalism”, where the birth of anthropology is connected to the need for physical representation of ‘other subjects’: the space is filled with statues representing the ‘veritable’ features of, for example, Moroccan and Somali people. Such a neat compartimentalization of national identities appears particularly disturbing when it is not followed by any explanation of where, how and to which purpose these works were commissioned, nor to the fact that in the 19th century, Italian or French colonization were yet to come and they relied on such scientific classifications of human species and on the knowledge provided through the lens of cultural progress.
Although the exhibition did witness some critical comments, these have also been neutralized by arguments on the importance of the displayed works. For example, some of the reviews of the exhibition raise the issue of political correctness: is it politically incorrect to show these works? I don’t think this is the right question to ask; I prefer to address the issue of: what does such a show do? Or better: what did Orientalism come to mean in everyday language? And, has the widespread use of the term diminished the critical impact it had in Said’s writings?
Some of the critics suggested that the revitalization of ‘orientalist art’ derives from the need to re-launch the fluctuating market connected with these contested works. My feeling, and judging from the crowd attending the event, is that the fame of Delacroix’ The Death of Sardanapal or Gérôme’s representation of the desert doesn’t need much promotion and the idea of seeing Klee, Marc and Kandisky is attractive enough to state the success of an art exhibition. Also, the growing global awareness of the colonialist assumptions on which contemporary asymmetries of power are constructed has become part of a mainstream cultural debate and raises a quite generalized interest.
Unfortunately though, the event does not suggest a critical move: the quasi-objective, detached descriptions of the art works displayed re-direct any possible political criticism towards an appreciation of the beauty of the European artists’ techniques. Ironically, in the context of a new political interest towards North Africa and Middle East due to the Egyptian and Lybian revolutions, the key-role of Israel etc., the show ends up asserting that what is called ‘Orientalist’ here is a two-hundred-years old Western drive to map and represent the Orient, but not the construction of the Orient as such. No deconstruction of the identification of Europe with the West is suggested or put across; no critical distance is seriously taken.
On the other hand, in my view, it is precisely in this crucial moment that it becomes essential to stress that the term ‘Orientalism’ cannot be flattened and merely become a way of describing the charming fantasy of the East that characterizes its figurative representations; it is a central political notion that seeks for re-evaluation under the light of contemporary events.
 Said, Edward, 1978, Orientalism, London, Penguin; 1997, Covering Islam. How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, London, Vintage