Orientalism isn’t a dirty word anymore. The Yale Center for British Art’s (BAC) two new exhibits, “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, 1830-1925,” and “Pearls to Pyramids: British Visual Culture and the Levant, 1600-1830,” lay out the images and influence of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East during the latter half of the millennium. Overall, these exhibitions have found a way of presenting controversial subject matter that promotes discussion on this thorny subject rather than polarizing the audience or attempting to propose an answer.
Christine Riding of London’s Tate Gallery served as visiting curator for the Orientalist exhibition. She explained that a simplistic, moralizing tone was exactly what she wanted to avoid, despite employing in her title the notorious term made controversial by Edward Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism.” Much about this “infinitely subtle” text, Riding argues, has been misunderstood, especially when it comes to the visual arts. Thus, the show provides a glimpse into the artists’ imagination rather than depicting them as blood-sucking culturemongers.
“Because of empire, these are loaded images,” Riding said. “[But] we’re talking about individuals who have political, cultural and social baggage. In the end, what’s different is that they’re artists, creating a commodity that is an expression of their imaginative power, using existing genres and being challenged by the new environment they’re in.”
Accordingly, there is little in the way of chronological narrative to the Orientalist exhibition. Instead, the show is organized by categories into five groups: portraiture, genre scenes, scenes of the harem, scenes of Jerusalem and landscapes. It’s notable that all the images of the Orient were painted by those who had actually traveled there. Thus, the image was at least derived from personal experience, if not always particularly accurate or flattering.
Within each section, variety and diversity are key in providing the broadest survey possible. Among these, the harem and landscape sections are the strongest as they provide the largest and most interesting variety of interpretations. Standouts include the harem paintings of John Frederick Lewis, which recall Vermeer in their masterful use of light and space. Specifically, “Hhareem Life, Constantinople” recalls Jan Van Eyck’s “Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride” in its complacent, hierarchical, symbolically complicated scene of domestic bliss. This is an interesting contrast to the more hot-blooded interpretations such as Frank Dicksee’s “Leila.” Then there’s Henriette Brown’s “A Visit,” which seems almost biblical in its use of monochromatic drapery as clothing and empty, sparse space as the backdrop for a complicated interaction. In all, it’s easy to see what Riding is going for: a large number of varied interpretations, fueled by an exotic-looking subject.
“Pearls to Pyramids,” in contrast, has a definite narrative. First, there’s geographical and historical context (“Trade and Travel”); then come the commercial and social ramifications — coffee and the three-piece suit, for example — of increased trade with the area (“Commodities”); then the ways classical and biblical sites affected art, architecture and design (“Classical Orient, Romantic Orient”); finally, military images and landscapes nod to the political history of the period (“Imperial Views”).
This narrative was not necessarily easy to come by. One of the biggest challenges to this subject, curator Eleanor Hughes said, was the absence of a cohesive and thorough study of the period’s social and cultural standards. “[The Levant provides] a temporal and geographical intersection that hasn’t received a large amount of scholarship,” she said. “It’s all been researched from different angles in different ways — it’s the bringing together that is new.”
The exhibits are set up as complements, with “Pearls and Pyramids” covering the years up until 1830, and “Lure of the East” picking up where the other leaves off and covering up to 1925. Following the recent Jamaican exhibit, the latest showings at the BAC are, intentionally or not, making their presence known by the hefty political issues they highlight.
Julia Marciari-Alexander, associate director for exhibitions and publications at the British Art Center, said the Museum was pleased with this fortuitous sequence. Not surprisingly, she seems optimistic about the possibilities afforded by the two new exhibits.
“[This is] a unique opportunity to look at ways visual culture functioned within different moments of encounter between not just England and the New World but also among England, the New World, the Old World, and the farthest reaches of the globe,” she said. “We hope to raise through these projects difficult questions about the central issue of empire and its legacy that allows for the broadest discussions and debates about this topic, whose repercussions extend today.”
The ambiguous and evasive phrase “raise difficult questions” is enough to make any cynic’s hair curl, and the lack of narrative message makes it difficult to reconcile two competing impulses on viewing Riding’s curatorial work. Ultimately, no matter the imagination, we need history and context to make sense of it all. Yet the cause is worthy enough to pique interest and promote reflection. And the paintings are pretty good, too.