London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Another season of Orientalist auctions is upon us. A recent sale at Sotheby’s brought in GBP 6,339,500 (USD 9,679,149), well in excess of the pre-sale estimate. Commenting on the results, Claude Piening, Sotheby’s head of Orientalist Painting, said: “Our sale confirms the robustness of the Orientalist market…. Ludwig Deutsch’s The Offering achieved a new world record price for Deutsch at auction, GBP 2,154,500 (USD 3,289,491).”
This painting is a tour de force of Orientalist art, a masterful observation of the customs, costume and architecture of the Middle East. The polished surfaces and hallucinatory realism of his work were founded on his passion for the then-new art of photography.
A Moment of Prayer by Rudolph Weisse also achieved a record for this artist at auction, powerfully paying tribute to Islamic culture. The architectural features recall those of Islamic Spain or North Africa, notably the Lion Court of the Alhambra. Unusually, Turkish Orientalism was a feature of this auction. Herman Corrodi’s The Fountain of Sweet Waters of Asia on the Bosphorous, achieved a record price. It depicts a summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans, the Küçüksu Palace, and evokes a peaceful aspect of Constantinople life.
Christie’s also recently held a London sale of Orientalism art, including a highly detailed Marketplace at the entrance to a bazaar by the most important Italian Orientalist, Alberto Pasini, who spent several years in Istanbul, Egypt and Iran. He avoided the more exotic style of Orientalism, preferring a more documentary approach, with photographic attention to detail conveying a sense of immediacy, as in this market scene.
Not only was the growing influence of photography evident in Orientalism as the 19th century wore on, but also in the Impressionist movement. Christie’s had some exquisite interiors painted in Algeria by Frederick Arthur Bridgeman, showing the daily and often private lives of women, some of which are obviously partly imagined. These interiors and scenes on terrace rooftops are characterized by a soft Impressionist handling of paint, eloquently capturing the sunlit luminosity of luxurious interiors.
So what is this niche corner of the art world so little known and appreciated that its very name, Orientalism, is confused with Oriental or South-East Asian art?
The term “Orientalist Art” originated from the Salon des Orientalistes held in Paris in 1899, though the movement started in the 1830’s and continued for around a century. The salon exhibited work by Western, primarily European, artists of their fantasies of Arabia—paintings of people and places in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa.
In a sense, the “Orient” was defined for mid-19th century Europeans by convenience of travel—steam travel, to be precise. Tourism flourished in places relatively easy to reach by boat, which included the Muslim Mediterranean. Some Orientalist artists were invited to follow military, scientific, or diplomatic missions in Mediterranean countries, producing topographical representations that emphasized a Western vision of Oriental life and customs in colonized areas. Others were drawn to visit and paint there on a personal basis, many of them developing a genuine respect for and liking of the regions in which they traveled—for their peoples and cultures, architecture, desert and oasis life, which they depicted, and with which they so identified that some settled there. Others, notably the Italians, worked from photographs, painting in the comfort of their studios.
After the initial, feverish “discovery” of new subjects, design details and light, later Orientalists—notably Jean-Léon Gerôme, Ludwig Deutsch and Rudolf Ernst—painted highly sensitive portraits every bit as sympathetic to their subjects as they would have been to fellow Europeans. Above all, the Orientalists, early and late, portrayed what they responded to: the grandeur, dignity and beauty they found in the Arab world.
With world attention directed towards the Arab Awakening, that dialogue is even more culturally relevant today than in the past. Since the oil boom of the 1970’s, the Middle East has been investing in new museums, art-educational institutions, and encouraging cultural tourism. Orientalism is increasingly perceived as a valuable part of the region’s national heritage, to the extent that the only Orientalist Museum in the world is in Doha. In turn, arguably since September 11, intellectually curious people outside of the region have wanted to know more about it, immersing themselves in Middle Eastern studies and its art.
Towards the close of the 19th century, some Orientalist artists settled in the region for long periods of time, particularly in Egypt and North Africa, developing largely imaginary representations into a different vision—not just a Western fantasy vision, but realistic depictions of everyday life.
A unique collection featuring such works will be auctioned by Christie’s Paris on June 20. This collection concentrates on the work of Etienne Dinet, one of the artists committed to authentically recording the daily life as experienced by the people of the region. Dinet fully immersed himself in the daily life of Algerian oasis towns, painting their vicissitudes as well as their pleasures—in short, painting their realities.
Dinet began his travels in Algeria in 1884, moving permanently to a Saharan oasis town called Bou-Saâda, where he learned to speak Arabic fluently. He converted to Islam in 1913. With his personal guide, who became a friend, Sliman Ben Ibrahim, he created a book called Mirages, and together they went on hajj to Mecca in 1929.
Dinet is considered a master painter, a poet of Arab life, immortalizing on canvas rural realities, traditional ceremonies and dance, and rapidly modernizing cities. With natural, uncontrived compositions and fluid, almost Impressionist brushstrokes, he empathetically and accurately documented prayer rituals, Qu’ranic schools, loving couples, the expressions of people watching performers, and children playing. He was also politically active: for example, his painting, La procession, depicts a rebellion against colonial authorities.
Clearly, Orientalism contributes towards an understanding of the Arab world of its time. For the largely Arab clientele who buy it, it is thrilling that their heritage, historical evidence for which is rapidly vanishing, is celebrated in Orientalism. With its undisputed technical excellence and soft, poetic beauty, it is clearly far more than an outsider’s attempt to peer beyond the veil.