Mon
Aug 23 2010 3:27pm

From a land, from a faraway place

I have always found writing about Orientalism in illustration hard. It’s hard, because every picture becomes its own Arabian Nights; threatening to whisk you off into a different realm. Self-contained themes lead you away into another idea—and another, and another. Before you know it, you have leapt so far into a single image, clambering after ethereal motifs, that you cannot see your original starting point and—like a magic carpet that flies only so long as you believe in it—you start to sink.

Dulac, Omar KhayamThe perils of this journey are manifold. You are, after all, talking about big ideas in small pictures. And they can be vague ideas, ideas that mean different things to different people; contradictory, mellifluous, beguiling.

In the context of illustration, there is an additional challenge. Orientalist pictures—especially the ones that accompany fairy tales—are ostensibly fiction. And yet, they represent non-fictional ideas and attitudes also. In one sense, these are drawings without a line. The “real pictures” awash in fiction; the fictive pictures no less real. Love them too much, and you’re no better than the racist Victorians; reducing complex cultures to one-dimensional caricatures. Refuse to love them, and not only do you ignore some terrific art, but a major part of history, too.

The Sultan Pardons ScheherazadeThis dichotomy, though somewhat uncomfortable, gives Orientalist images a wonderful source of tension, and we can see it in some of the earliest depictions. I love Houghton’s images; they are so visually rich (an attribute we will see time and time again with images of the Orient). It’s not just the drapes, the flowing robes, the dark backgrounds, it’s the sumptuous interplay between light and dark, clean lines and cramped hatching. It’s only black and white, yet there’s still so much here. The Orient, to Victorian eyes, is sensual in the literal sense–textures, tones, tastes.

There’s another motif in this image that we will regularly see. Look at Scheherazade, begging for a pardon after so many stories. She’s different to the sultan. She’s… very white. Not merely her clothing (white in both colour and nature), but her skin. And the sultan is so very dark. He’s black like midnight.

These binaries—white, especially feminine vulnerability and inscrutable, malevolent Other—represent a keystone of Orientalism.

King of The MountainsLooking at this Charles Robinson image, King of the Mountains of the Moon, we can again see that opulence—no doubt in part a response to tales of Oriental wealth that go back to Rome’s era, and really sumptuous use of texture.

The king’s face is impassive and unreadable; we can’t even see his eyes. What is he thinking? We don’t know. This element of mystery is just as central to Orientalist ideas as wealth. The Orient: vast, unknown, and ultimately unknowable. It wasn’t merely new animals, environments and diseases that threatened the Occident, there was an intransigent cultural gulf as well, one that repeatedly cost the Victorian Imperialists.

So again, we’re brought back to tension-building binaries. Black against white, wealth against danger. There’s also another source of tension in this image, and that’s sexual. The prince’s harem hints at possibilities almost inchoate in the prim Victorian mind.

Much like our pre-Raphaelite friends, Orientalists swaddled their female subjects in robes, but the robe often slipped, and these are not the stern expressions or chaste dismay of the pre-Raphaelites.

Chasseriau - Harem

There is so much happening in this Chasseriau picture. The unabashed, heavy-lidded sexuality mixes with regular Orientalist motifs: white, sexual femininity juxtaposed with black, threatening masculinity. But the thing that I really love about this picture is the reflexivity. Everybody in this picture is looking, is desiring. The men, the clothed concubine, even the subject herself through a mirror. Into this maelstrom of desire and voyeurism our own contemplation goes almost unnoticed; it seems natural, if not logical.

But it would be unfair to view Orientalist art solely through its sexual politics. There are plenty of striking images with nary a harem in sight. Something that they do have in common, however, is colour.

The Orient—compared to the drab, workaday hues we’re accustomed to—is suffused with colour. The air itself seems pregnant with hue. They aren’t necessarily intense, but they are omnipresent in an almost impressionist haze, and one slice of the spectrum is especially favoured.

Take a look at these images by E.J Detmold and Rene Bull. Visually speaking, these two are in quite different places; Bull’s stylised, posed pictures contrast with the deeper, more expansive Detmold. Bull’s paintings leap out at you, but Detmold’s lure you in with their depth and exquisite composition.

And yet both of them favour these umber, fulvous hues—and they’re hardly alone in doing so. I have thought about what this might have meant to the Victorian mind. The immediate association obviously is desert and sand: dry, sere colours for a sun-baked land of jinn and griffin. But I think there’s slightly more to it than that.

It’s also the colour of the sun—especially a rising sun; the sun of the east. It’s the colour of skies unmarred by cloud or coal-smog; of dry, clean earth. A colour of haze, of space. In Orientalist images there is no grey, no stains, no stippled, crazed buildings with mould, and grime, and soot. A starker contrast to the colours of Victorian Europe, the blacks; the blues; the greens, could not be fathomed.

And this is an important point—these images could not exist without the west. Orientalism is a philosophy of two halves, Orient and Occident. Even if the Occident is not in the frame, it surrounds and permeates the image like a miasma. These images are created by the Occident, for the Occident—they could not exist without the Occident, without us.

And that’s because even the most documentary images are not actually showing us the Orient. After all, what is the Orient? A region that stretches from Morocco in the west, to Japan in the east; that’s half the world, and a thousand different cultures, languages, ecologies. In this respect, engaging with the Orient through fairy tales and myth is entirely appropriate. It is a make-believe land, spun from a tangled skein of western anxieties, fantasies, half-remembered stories and silk-road scuttlebutt, campside fables and religions packed between bales of spice and tea.

If the humdrum bromide of our everyday lives produced the domestic stories and images of boggarts in the kitchen; elves in the barrow; russalka in the millpond and leshii in the forest, then the pictures of rocs, genies, manticores and wizards of the Orient sprung from its counterpart: a yearning for something that exists beyond the everyday. Something vast and unpopulated, fabulously wealthy and unimaginably destitute, something unknown. Of course what we’re seeing isn’t real—even when it is real—because the very foundation of the Orient is what we don’t know, what we can’t experience, what is fundamentally different to what is possible.

This makes the images everything we’re not in the day-to-day: Sexy, mysterious, dangerous, and imbues them with a glamour not even the questionable alchemy of sexism, racism and colonialism can dispel.


Patrick Garson lives in Sydney, Australia. He also occasionally writes about fantasy tropes on Australian political blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

22 comments
rachel-swirsky
1. rachel-swirsky
This was an interesting, well-done article. Thanks!

It would really have helped me as a reader if the images under discussion had been labeled with alt-text which would have helped me make sure that I was looking at the right one when the text referred to it.

(Also, though it would take more work, it would also be nice if the alt-text were descriptive enough for visually impaired people to be able to follow.)
rachel-swirsky
2. Saladin Ahmed
Nice piece. It's worth noting, though, that the version of the Nights linked to here (Burton's), while a great example of Victorian Orientalism, is pretty awful in terms of accuracy. Readers interested in reading something like the Arabic version should go for Husain Haddawy's relatively recent translations.
Jessica Reisman
3. jwynne
I would second Saladin's comment about the Husain Haddawy's translation; while Burton's is fun reading, the Haddawy pretty much blows you away.

Also second the sentiments about it being a nice article--enjoyed it.
Patrick Garson
4. patrickg
Thanks guys!

Rachel I didn't even think about that with the alt-text, but will be sure to do so in a future posts.

Agreed with all that Haddawy's translation is stronger, but I feel that - in the context of this piece - the Burton has two potent advantages:

1) It's free!
2) It's what the people making these images would have been reading.

Thanks again for the feedback, I really appreciate it.
rachel-swirsky
6. Saladin Ahmed
@ PG

Certainly, Burton's version is entirely appropriate as a sort of literary equivalent of the beautiful images discussed here. I'd only add that your well-put observation that 'the Orient' "is a make-believe land, spun from a tangled skein of western anxieties, fantasies, half-remembered stories and silk-road scuttlebutt, campside fables and religions packed between bales of spice and tea." carries with it an important caveat: the fact that the lands of 'the East' were/are also real places with real people living in them, people who suffered the quite brutal consequences of having an imperial imaginary projected onto them. As you suggest, approaching this aesthetic thus requires a pretty daunting balancing act of love and critique. I think Said's *Orientalism* walks this line in a much more nuanced fashion than most critics (esp. Western critics) have given credit for. Said, who was far more of a canon-loving aesthete than either his inheritors or his critics suppose, saw both sublime beauty and vicious pillage in these works -- and I'd say that any reading of Burton has to account for both sides of this coin as well.
rachel-swirsky
7. dwndrgn
Great post and interesting art. And thank you very much for placing the Aladdin theme music into my brain for the rest of the day...;-)
rachel-swirsky
8. Duncan Long
I'm sure this artwork is included on TOR's pages for a reason (though it wasn't underscored in the article): This type of artwork basically laid the groundwork for the fantasy and science fiction illustrations of the 20th and 21st centuries. As such we owe it much, both for its realism as well as its ability to tackle the unknown and make it real for the reader. (And even laid the groundwork for those scantily clad gals in the 1950s sci-fi novels.)

Orientalism opened up new worlds and possibilities for illustrators for the decades to come. For that we owe these artists a great debt.

--Duncan
=====================
Freelance illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Fort Ross, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See my science fiction illustrations at:
DuncanLong.com
rachel-swirsky
10. S.M. Stirling
"Orientalist" paintings, particualrly landscapes and cityscapes, are now fetching huge prices in the Middle East; it turns out they're the only fairly accurate art depicting the place and period.

As for the late unlamented Said, the Baron Munchausen of the Palestinians, nobody who can be taken seriously takes him seriously.

"Orientalism" is notorious in the field as an exercise in alternate history, full of the most ludicrous errors of fact (names, dates, places, titles of books, contents), and that's before even getting on to the even more ludicrous interpretations. Which essentially amount to defining curiosity as aggression.

It isn't a work of scholarship at all, merely an emotional howl, a "grito", and an attempted act of cultural sabotage.

Saladin Ahmed: "people who suffered the quite brutal consequences of having an imperial imaginary projected onto them"

-- oh, what bat-guano.

I don't recall the Ottomans or the Barbary Corsairs or the slave-raiders of the Khanate of Crim being particularly un-brutal, when -they- had the upper hand.

Ain't payback a bitch?

And right into the Victorian period their general level of information about the Western countries makes the most arrogant and sterotypic Victorian orientalist look like a miracle of well-informed and detached objectivity.

The plain fact of the matter is that Western scholars knew the East far better than anyone there knew about Europe. The reason Western painters liked eastern themes and often went to great lengths to research them was that they were curious about the Islamic lands in a way the latter simply weren't about anyone else.

Muslims in that period almost never learned Western languages except on the most utilitarian basis until their own catastrophic military weakness became impossible to deny, and they didn't translate Western books except when their desperate need of technical data became unbearably evident.

As late as the Napoleonic period, Ottoman diplomats sent into Europe were still engaging in medieval-level folk-reportage, like the one who solemnly stated that the Austrian Empire was ruled by women because he saw the Emperor rein in his horse and remove his hat to a passing lady. They had little or no idea of Western politics beyond the immediate border area... and this in a state which had been in close military and diplomatic contact with Europe for centuries.
rachel-swirsky
11. onelowerlight
@S.M. Sterling,

In your attempt to lay the blame on the victims, you're missing out on a lot of history that is both more recent and more relevant. The infrastructure of the Mukhabarat in many modern Arab dictatorships such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt was essentially created by the British and French colonial powers. The unending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not a religious conflict, but a land dispute that has its roots in the contradictory policies of the British mandate. Western powers during the Cold War suppressed democratic movements in order to promote their short-term interests--as seen by the CIA instigated coup in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister and replaced him with the Shah.

In short, when Saladin Ahmed talks about the "quite brutal consequences" of Western imperialism, he's talking about something that is quite real--something that your puerile "ain't payback a bitch?" comment fails miserably to address.

I don't mean to turn this into a political discussion, but I think you need to be very careful not to ignore the narratives that run counter to your own. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the same racist, ethnocentric mistakes as the Imperialist Victorians who painted these paintings--and believe me, racism and ethnocentrism were and still are major problems.

As for the article itself, thank you very much--I loved it. If anything, I'd like to see some specific examples of science fiction and fantasy that has been influenced by orientalist art. It would be fascinating to see what the impact has been on the genres over time.
Patrick Garson
12. patrickg
Thanks very much, Onelowerlight! I would agree with the rest of your comment, too.

S.M Stirling, I think you're creating somewhat of a false dichotomy, there. This isn't a competition of which "civilisation" was the most sensitive, interesting, outward-looking etc. I certainly don't know enough about the cultures involved to speak to whether there was a penchant for "Occidentalist" art - nor even what that might be - and given your fairly bold - and unreferenced - assertions that cover a huge range of states, cultures etc, I'm not sure whether you do, either.

I'm the last person to posit Said as unproblematic exemplar of cultural theory, however I think you've demonstrate some of the same traps in your comment; namely a focus on binaries at the expense of ambiguity and subtlety.

For example, it's more than possible that the orientalist artists and writers were both admirers of oriental cultures, primitive anthropologists if you will, and at the same time racist, chauvinist, shallow and destructive. These a complex, multi-layered histories that span centuries and thousands of personalities, visions, and ideas. Both worldviews can be true, both can be true at the same time; an opinion which I hope I conveyed in the post. These images contain multitudes.

Trivialising what subjugated people endured under imperialist rule is really not very sensitive, or appropriate. Moreover, if you want to have a competition over who suffered the most: the population of Europe, versus the Oriental cultures forced to become their subjects, you cannot seriously argue the tally is in the Europe's favour.

But really, such a divisive, acerbic worldview doesn't pertain to the elusive, otherworldly, byzantine haze of these images - though I think both are equally fantastic...
rachel-swirsky
13. Saladin Ahmed
Mr. Stirling

Feels a bit weird to be arguing with a novelist I admire so, but...

Mr. Garson's original post was enjoyable precisely for its nuance and openness. My reaction was not 'Said is flawless and Orientalist art = evil white men,' but you've caricatured it as such. Ah well. I think the two posts following yours pretty much cover what I'd have said, re: the insult-added-to-injury quality of your glib and dismissive remarks. A lot of human beings are *still* living with the grisly repercussions of the ugliest manifestations of Imperial Orientalism, but I guess one man's suffering is another man's 'bat guano.' So be it.

I'll only add that

A) The notions that curiosity and exploitative intention as mutually exclusive, and that Ottoman Imperial brutality somehow negates British Imperial brutality are...curious.

B) The pirate-lover in me feels compelled to point out that the Barbary Corsairs -- a term that itself problematically collects a wildly disparate array of murderers, slavers, heroes, and rogues -- are hardly comparable to the British Empire, in body count, omnipresence, or centralized authority.

C) "the Baron Munchausen of the Palestinians" seems to me to entail more of a compliment than was intended :)
kathlyn smith
14. castiel
I really enjoyed reading this article, as I've always been a huge fan of Fairy Tales, wherever in the world they have come from. I particularly liked the comment that this is where much of our Sci-fi pictures have come from, but I would take that further and say that Fairy tales, Mythology, and a love of Other (as in anything not from our own culture at that time) is where all our Sci-fi and fantasy has come from, and to be honest, that's what I love about reading it (and looking at the pictures).

It's a pity that people have chosen to hijack this thread for a discussion on the rights and wrongs of different cultures in history, but these pictures do seem to push us back to a time when that idea of 'I'm right, you're not' and 'might makes right' were the rule...let's hope that the fact that we can at least discuss this is a good sign for the future!

As for the paintings themselves, whether they accurately depict the Orient (as seen by Victorian Europeans of course!) or not, they are still beautiful to look at and, for me at least, hark back to more innocent times (even the 'raunchy' ones are modest by today's standards!) ...but then, I didn't have to live in those places or times! For me, they just have the FEEL of a fairy tale, and that's what I love about them.
rachel-swirsky
16. AusJeb
Regarding the use of color, it would seem that many of these 19th Orientalist paintings could have been inspired by authentic Persian images, such as:

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Molla2.jpg
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zand-majles.jpg
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shah_Abbas_I.jpg
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jami_Rose_Garden.jpg
rachel-swirsky
17. xoil
Stirling's characterisation of the crimes of Empire as deserved "payback" against the East (for the crimes, apparently, of the Barbary Corsairs) is sufficient to reveal him as a committed racist.
rachel-swirsky
18. James P Fuller
There’s another motif in this image that we will regularly see. Look at Scheherazade, begging for a pardon after so many stories. She’s different to the sultan. She’s… very white. Not merely her clothing (white in both colour and nature), but her skin. And the sultan is so very dark. He’s black like midnight.

I'm guessing art critics and jocks are largely non-overlapping groups but a white guy who has not otherwise had much experience seeing dark-skinned people naked or near-naked will, while dressing out and showering in, say, a football summer camp locker room, notice that dark-skinned folks tan too! An outdoorsy athlete who is café with plenty of au lait where his shorts normally are will be many shades darker on his face, neck, arms and other places that get lots of sun.

Now then, very many of these orientalist paintings depict times and cultures in which men go out in the blazing sun and women either do not get out much, or go out in voluminous hijab. No doubt some--an undetermined and undeterminable 'some'-- of the male/female coloration difference that struck our critic is due to the painter inposing his cultural baggage on his palette. And some of it (remembering those guys in the locker room, a lot) is the painter painting exactly and colorimetrically what he saw, which modern viewers then view through the impediment of their different but equally cherished cultural baggage.
Patrick Garson
19. patrickg
James that kind of supposition would stand up a lot more if white men in non-oriental stories were equally swarthy, but that's definitely not the case; they are as Scherazade's shade.
rachel-swirsky
20. S.M. Stirling
>onelowerlight

>The infrastructure of the Mukhabarat in many modern Arab dictatorships such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt was essentially created by the British and French colonial powers.

-- also true of their educational setups, their system of sewer maintenance, and their post office departments.

Everyone on the planet (outside the more conspicuously failed states) uses administrative methods for -everything- which are based on 19th and 20th-century Western models because those are the ones which work.

It's like wheels. Everyone makes them round.

The secret police departments of the states you mention are incidentally (or in the case of Iraq, were) specifically closely modeled on Soviet ones. Which were, in turn, closely based on the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police -- Okhrana training manuals were used by the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/KGB into the 1960's.

Next point?

> The unending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not a religious conflict

-- well, a lot of the people involved consider it to be one; or an ethnic/national conflict. You, however, know infintely more about it that they do, I suppose?

>as seen by the CIA instigated coup in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister and replaced him with the Shah.

-- largely a historical urban myth. The CIA -tried- to overthrow M. but failed. Then the bazzaris and the mullahs got together and actually did it; much the same alliance that overthrew the Shah a generation later.

It' ain't what you don't know that'll get you, it's what you think you know that just ain't so, as the saying goes.

>I don't mean to turn this into a political discussion, but I think you need to be very careful not to ignore the narratives that run counter to your own.

-- I'm not ignoring them, I'm dismissing them because they're false-to-fact. See above.
Stephen Stirling
21. joatsimeon
patrickg
>This isn't a competition of which "civilisation" was the most sensitive, interesting, outward-looking etc.

-- no, that's not how inter-group competition works. It's about which the best at producing and generating power. All human beings (through the collectivities in which they have their being) try to do this. Some do it better than others, in any given place/time. The rest is largely propaganda.

>I'm the last person to posit Said as unproblematic exemplar of cultural theory

-- I'd posit him as a "lying creep", more specifically. It should be evident by this point that I have neither liking nor respect for the man, or his "work".

>at the expense of ambiguity and subtlety.

-- you don't get subtlety in a Tweet-length sentence.

> Moreover, if you want to have a competition over who suffered the most

-- you're mistaking my point, which was that suffering conveys no chops.

In collective terms, the fact that someone makes you suffer doesn't mean you're more virtuous than they are; it just means they're more efficient, and/or got the jump on you.

The reason holier-than-thou arguments are ludicrous is that nobody's significantly holier than anyone else, in other words.

I generally don't think in those terms, anyway.
Stephen Stirling
22. joatsimeon
>Saladin Ahmed

>and that Ottoman Imperial brutality somehow negates British Imperial brutality are...curious.

-- that isn't what I said. I merely pointed out that everyone acts about the same way when they have the upper hand. Judging by the evidence of forensic archaeology, this has always been the case; given that, I see no reason to doubt that it won't always be the case in the future, too. As long as there are human beings, which of course may not be all that long.

>The pirate-lover in me feels compelled to point out that the Barbary Corsairs are hardly comparable to the British Empire, in body count, omnipresence, or centralized authority.

-- but not for want of trying.

I'll conceed that we Anglo-Saxons are far and away history's best pirates, buccaneers and bandits. As opposed to all the people who tried to rival us in these activities, and failed.

You see my point?
Stephen Stirling
23. joatsimeon
> xoil

>Stirling's characterisation of the crimes of Empire as deserved "payback" against the East (for the crimes, apparently, of the Barbary Corsairs) is sufficient to reveal him as a committed racist.

-- wow, I bet nobody saw that one coming... 8-). Is it really possible you don't understand how intellectually bankrupt that single sentence reveals you to be?

But hey, I'm actually going to engage in rational discourse with you.

Look, have you ever traveled in the Middle East?

If you had (and I have, extensively, starting 40 years ago), you might have noticed something; insofar as "race" exists at all, most Middle Easterners are what is known as common-or-garden variety white people.

You can't tell an individual Greek from a Turk or a Syrian from a Sicilian without cultural clues. You can't tell an Israeli Jew from a Palestinian, either.

For that matter, you can't tell an individual Syrian from a Swede, although you might have a good chance at identifying two groups of 100 selected from each population. But if you -mixed- those two groups, you couldn't separate them again by physical appearance -- there are plenty of black-haired Swedes and pinkish blue-eyed Syrians (the late Haffez Assad, for example.)

You see, race _doesn't_, in fact, exist in the commonly understood sense of the term. It's a myth.

Physical variation in human beings is (or was until the post-Columbian mass migrations) a matter of "clines"; groups of physical traits gradually merge into each other

The only reason we have a concept of "race" is that the post-1492 period suddenly brought people from the -opposite ends- of those clines into contact on a large scale.

So race exists only as a myth. To use a horrible and usually misleading neologism, it's "socially constructed".

Mind you, historically it has been a very -powerful- myth.
Stephen Stirling
24. joatsimeon
There’s another motif in this image that we will regularly see. Look at Scheherazade, begging for a pardon after so many stories. She’s different to the sultan. She’s… very white. Not merely her clothing (white in both colour and nature), but her skin. And the sultan is so very dark. He’s black like midnight.

-- ancient Egyptians used exactly the same artistic convention; women are invariably shown as several shades lighter than men.

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