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.
The 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.
This 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.
Looking 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.
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.