05 Jan 23 2015 The Oriental Mirage
The Oriental Mirage
When Napoleon Bonaparte led an expedition to Egypt, 1798-1801, the balance of power was shifting in Europe and combined with a weakening Ottoman Empire, European powers were desperate to expand their colonization into the Middle East. Prior to this, the spread of Islam and the Ottoman Empire’s dominance, particularly over the important trade routes to the Far East, meant that vast areas were relatively inaccessible except for merchants or ambassadors and their retinues. With a shift in colonial power and sea travel becoming cheaper and more reliable, greater opportunities for travel now arose.
The Grand Tour, which originated in the 18th century when the children of wealthy families were sent to Europe to finish their education to study the Arts and widen their horizons, rarely involved venturing further than Athens – the classical world mainly being thought of as Italy and Greece. As travellers became more adventurous, published tourist guides multiplied and European curiosity craved to know more about the lands of the Arab speaking world. After all, this was a world deeply embedded in their psyche. Jewish and Christian religions both had their roots there: blood had been shed in the Moorish invasion of Spain in 711 and during the Crusades, and the end of Byzantium with the loss of Constantinople to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 was a bitter blow to the Christian world. Yet the fascination for these ancient and mysterious lands had existed long before the first Orientalist painters began to make an impression on the West. Egypt in particular, had long been seen by the West as an extension of western culture. Roman Emperors integrated Egyptian religious cults, in particular, the Cult of Isis into their own pantheon of Gods, and Renaissance scholars did not confine their interest only to Greek and Roman civilizations.
The artists that we perceive today to be among the first Orientalists made their mark in the 18th century. Jean-Baptiste Vanmour painted at least a hundred small pictures of Ottoman daily life and the Seraglio at the behest of the French Ambassador in the late 18h century. A decade later, Jean-Etienne Liotard, son of a Geneva merchant, also entered the service of the French Ambassador. Antoine de Favray, another Frenchman who lived for some time in Valetta in Malta, received a series of church commissions from the Knights of Malta. After painting a portrait of Grand Master Pinto in 1751, de Favray was made “knight servant at arms”. His portraits depicting attractive Maltese women and their dress, gained great acclaim at the time.
During the 19th century Antoine Ignace Melling, an artist and architect, arrived in Constantinople in 1785 and quickly established a high reputation in embassy circles. Kadidja, the Sultan’s favourite sister, made him a royal favourite. When he left Turkey for France in 1802, he exhibited his drawings at the Salons from 1804-1810 and prepared 13 volumes of his major work under the patronage of the statesman, Talleyrand, The project was dedicated to Napoleon and the first volume appeared in 1819. The Turkish Nobel prize winner for literature, Orhan Pamuk, in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City, talks about a half-sized facsimile edition being given to the family by his uncle. He writes of deriving a “sweet illusion” from these paintings. “Melling balances the painting’s almost academic air with humanizing details slipped around the edges”. He goes on to say that “As I leaf through this book, the very thought that this lost heaven has bequeathed to me even a few of the houses and landscapes I’ve known in my lifetime produces a kind of rapture”. So it is little wonder that I was inspired by these images for Andreas’s frescoes in the Grand Salon at La Maison du L’Orient in The Embroiderer.
With Mellings’ work and Napoleon’s expansion into North Africa, the scene was now set for Orientalism to expand in all areas of the arts from painting to literature and the new medium of photography. Writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo and Lord Byron, the painters Delacroix, Gerome, John Frederick Lewis, Ingres, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Renoir, Matisse and Paul Klee, and the photographers, Roger Fenton and Maxime du Camp; all would make their mark on the exceptionally rich tapestry of art that we know call Orientalism.
But what of the mystique of Orientalism? The mere mention of it conjures up a seductive and romantic view of the world: a revelation of brilliant colours, sumptuous textiles, labyrinthine alleyways, minarets and Turkish baths, slave-markets and exotic odalisques, and caravan trains criss-crossing the epic desert landscape with its shimmering, searing heat: a mixture of fairytales and fear and of sensuality on the one hand and despotic Arab fury on the other – lands that fire the imagination. This is the oriental mirage.
With the fall of Algiers to French forces in 1830, further opportunities opened up to explore the Maghreb, and Morocco, which had never fallen under the Ottoman yoke, came to the attention of the French public with Pierre Blanchard’s painting Funeral in Tangiers in 1841. Both Algeria and Morocco became the preferred destination for many great Orientalist painters.
“I can still hear the snake-charmer’s pipe and the oboe. Dreaming, nostrils wide open, I breathe in this smell of old hay, of butter and dust, which is heaven to me, a smell which grabs hold of you at the first step you take on Moroccan soil”, wrote Alfred Dehoclencq who lived in Southern Spain and spent long periods in Morocco from 1853 onwards. All this was a painter’s paradise.
As Ottoman Sultans gradually adopted western lifestyles, more western artists were invited to the Imperial Seraglio in Istanbul where a uniquely Ottoman school of painting was taking place. Strangely enough, it began in the Military schools where young officers were taught linear perspective, a notion foreign to that culture. From the mid 19th century onwards, promising students were sent to Europe to study and it was not uncommon to see high-ranking military officials studying in the studios of great painters. Because Islam prohibits human representation, the artists generally confined themselves to painting landscapes. Huseyin Zekai Pasha is thought to be one of the first Ottoman painters to introduce human figures into his painting – The Ablutions Fountains at Hagia Sophia 1904, and The Sultan’s Bench at Haghia Sophia 1907. In the early years, painters depicting the human form, especially women, usually hid them from view.
In 1883 the painter, Osman Hamdi Bey, established the Imperial School of Fine Arts in Istanbul. He also played a major role in archaeological work for Turkey. Although others painters were to follow in his footsteps, including Ahmet Ziya Akbulu, Hoca Ali Riza and Prince Abdulmecid – the last of the Turkish caliphs who was later forced into exile with the formation of the new Turkish Republic – the world on which Orientalism was based was about to disappear. With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars and The Great War, and the subsequent dissolution of empires and the formations of new borders, the art world was undergoing a new artistic order and Orientalism as we have come to know it would remain as elusive as ever – an oriental mirage.
Buy The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
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Purchase directly from the publisher here: www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk