Sensual slaves and the ‘exotic’ Orient: How the male artistic gaze became toxic
A Paris show suggests orientalist fantasies of women in particular gave way to a new reality that helped usher in modernism and abstraction
Massage in the Hammam, by Édouard Debat-Ponsan. Photograph: Musée des Augustins
The concept of orientalism is the legacy of the great Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. Throughout their imperial, colonial and then neocolonial epochs, western powers used their domination to impose a simplistic view of the East as sensual, corrupt, devious, lazy, tyrannical and backward, Said explained in his 1978 book Orientalism (which he updated in 1994 and again in 2003, the year of his death).
The exposé of deeply ingrained western prejudice against the Orient – for which read “Near East” – remains Said’s greatest legacy. He gave orientalism such a bad name that the fascinating exhibition Oriental Visions: From Dreams into Light, at the Musée Marmottan Monet, in Paris, until July 21st, studiously avoids the term.
In its largest sense, orientalist painting goes back to Gentile Bellini’s 1480 portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, or Rembrandt’s numerous 17th-century portrayals of men wearing turbans.
Jean-Dominique Ingres’s paintings of velvety odalisques languishing in harems set the stage for 19th-century orientalism. His Petite Baigneuse (1828, Musée du Louvre) opens the exhibition at the Musée Marmottan. The female slave or concubine “is the alpha and omega of western fantasms about the East”, says the show’s commissioner, Emmanuelle Almiot-Saulnier.
Ingres never travelled to the East and never saw a harem. He was inspired by the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the 18th-century wife of a British ambassador to Turkey. French painters long relied on books, engravings and early photographs to concoct their orientalist fantasies, using clothing and trinkets brought back from the East as props.
For Delacroix, the East was synonymous with passion and excess. He painted his Death of Sardanapalus (1826-1827) six years before travelling to North Africa. The original is too large to leave the Louvre, but the smaller version loaned to the exhibition shows the same mountain of writhing, naked flesh. Delacroix read about the ancient king of Ninevah in a play by Lord Byron. Threatened by a revolt, the king immolated himself, along with his harem and animals.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot painted his favourite model, Emma Dobigny, reclining in the French countryside in eastern clothing. He titled her Young Algerian Woman Lying on the Grass (1871-1873, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.)
Not unlike modern-day journalists and academics who travel to the Middle East and then continue to churn out cliches, the painters were not affected by first-hand experience. Théodore Chassériau visited Algeria in 1846 but subsequently painted bare-footed Arab women dancing with shimmering veils, and a naked woman emerging from the bath in the serail.
Some 13 years after his 1853 trip to north Africa, Charles Landelle painted a milkmaid from Normandy in a gauzy gold-embroidered dress. He called her The Jewess of Tangiers (Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts).
This western concept of the eastern woman as a sensual slave became very toxic over time. I don’t think Ingres had perverse sexual tendencies. It is really the West which transformed and perverted this image
Jean-Louis Gérôme’s travels in Egypt and Turkey lent a veneer of authenticity to the decorative backdrops of his paintings, but he too portrayed scenes he could not possibly have seen, including a beautiful white nude standing passively as a potential buyer in Arab robes inspects her teeth in The Slave Market (1866, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Massachusetts).
“The problem is us, not the East,” Almiot- Saulnier said. “This western concept of the eastern woman as a sensual slave became very toxic over time . . . I don’t think Ingres had perverse sexual tendencies . . . It is really the West which transformed and perverted this image.”
In The Snake Charmer (1879, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), also by Gérôme, a naked Arab boy has wrapped a python around his body. He holds it by the head and tail, for the amusement of an ageing Arab potentate and the African slaves or warriors who sit alongside him. The men lean against a wall of ornate turquoise blue tiles. Edward Said used this painting on the cover of Orientalism.
Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s Massage in the Hammam (1883, Toulouse, Musée des Augustins) is the signature painting for the exhibition. Le Figaro’s critic notes that Debat-Ponsan was a minor painter, whose masterpiece “was long considered to be the height of kitsch voyeurism”. It shows a half-naked female black servant massaging a white woman who lies stomach down on a marble slab, against a backdrop of tiles. The painting reads like an orientalised version of Manet’s Olympia, which scandalised Paris 18 years earlier.
Arab men figure far less often in orientalist paintings than women. Eugène Fromentin published two books about his travels in north Africa, which he portrayed as a cruel and often lethal place. Le Pays de la Soif (between 1820 and 1876, Musée d’Orsay) shows Arab and African travellers dying of heat stroke and thirst in the desert. Fromentin suffered temporary blindness after one such expedition. “I am constantly dreaming of light. I close my eyes and I see flames, radiant orbs, or a vague spreading glare,” he wrote.
In 1852, Fromentin witnessed violent battles in Algeria, which he described in A Summer in the Sahara. His painting Rue Bab-el-Gharbi à Laghouat (1859, Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse) was commissioned by the French government. The canvas is split between sunlight and shadow. Arab men sleep in the shadows to the right. The viewer is not certain if they are merely napping or are victims of a massacre. The 19th-century critic Théophile Gautier compared them to “cadavers wrapped in their shrouds”.
Yet despite the hardness of life in Arab north Africa, painters such as Fromentin were drawn back repeatedly. Émile Bernard married a Christian Egyptian woman, settled in Cairo, learned Arabic and adopted Egyptian customs. His demure Abyssinian Woman in a Silk Dress (1895, Musée du Quai Branly) defies Orientalist clichés of harem women. The brush strokes, bright colours and striped wallpaper make one think of Matisse.
Matisse often used Arabesque motifs in his paintings. His reclining Odalisque à la Culotte Rouge (1924-1925, Musée de l’Orangerie) is a direct descendant of Ingres’s sensual nude. Except that with her loose tunic and ballon-like red Turkish trousers, Matisse’s odalisque is almost cartoonish.
Landscapes from the East sometimes appear so neutral that their geographical origin seems immaterial. Albert Marquet purchased a house in Sidi-Bou-Said, near Tunis. I spent a holiday there in 2016, and immediately recognised the exquisite view of the Mediterranean and mountains beyond in Calm Sea. Sidi-Bou-Said (1923, Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts).
The French friend who travelled with me to Tunisia was horrified to see veiled Arab women sitting on the beach while their men went swimming. Marquet’s landscape is neutral precisely because no human beings introduce cultural differences to the equation.
Although orientalism in art was a byproduct of imperialism and colonialism, it petered out before the first World War, decades before decolonisation. The novel thesis of the exhibition is that the heat and brilliant light of north Africa and the Near East led painters to abandon form in favour of light and colour, thus hastening the advent of modernity and abstraction.
The subtitle of the exhibition is From the Dream to the Light. The “dream” was Ingres’s orientalist vision of sequestered naked women. With the advent of impressionism and postimpressionism, the attention of painters shifted from these cliches to architectural features and the intense light of southern countries.
Two painters best illustrate this. When Paul Klee travelled to Tunis and Kairouan in the spring of 1914, he had the impression he was dissolving in light and colour. Innenarchitektur (1914, Kunst und Museumsverein im Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal) is a tangle of Arab arches, doorways and windows in moody evening blues and violets. It prefigured Klee’s shift to abstract painting the following year.
Klee’s fellow Bauhaus painter Wassily Kandinsky had led the way, visiting Tunisia repeatedly from 1904 until 1914. In Arabische Stadt (1905, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou), Kandinsky portrayed the white walls of an Arab city set against the ochre-coloured desert.
Four years later, Kandinsky’s Oriental (Munich, Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhause und Kunstbau) hovered on the verge of abstraction. There is a hint of veils, turbans and minarets, but the brilliant reds, blues, yellows, purples and greens are the real subject of the canvas.
Almiot-Saulnier’s theory that biased orientalism evolved into egalitarian abstraction is intriguing, if not convincing. One suspects that painting would have followed the same course, regardless of those journeys to hot Arab lands. And orientalism lives on, in our preconceived notions about Islam and Arab terrorism. Its vectors are no longer paint and canvas but media coverage and the pronouncements of politicians.