Sunday, 27 July 2008


Tate Britain’s exhibition The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting begs comparison with one put on some years back by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Admittedly Roger Benjamin, curator of the Sydney show, had a wider brief than his British counterpart, featuring work by French and German artists in addition to the British, and including as well photographic work. Both shows limit the ‘Orient’ to North Africa and the Middle East following the practice of Edward Said’s book Orientalism but I felt that the arrangement of the Tate exhibition was the less satisfactory of the two. Beginning with a room focussed on ‘the Orientalist portrait’ it left no space for any gaze other than that of the colonialist. The room devoted itself not just to portraiture but to portraits of the administrators, artists and adventurers themselves, decked out in ‘native’ dress. These mostly establishment figures became by default silent guides through the rest of the exhibition. I felt that the order of the whole show could well have been reversed and the portraits placed in a side room alongside the maps (positioned midway through the exhibit); better still, the original order could have been retained and the portraits scattered throughout, with some (like Lord Byron) appearing with the maps, others included in relevant spots (T E Lawrence could have been placed in the very last section: ‘the Orient in perspective’). This would have ensured that the audience took in from the beginning the strange double-nature of Orientalism: a desire to depict the visible with scrupulous accuracy coupled with a desire to penetrate real and supposedly invisible realms (the fascination with the harem, for instance, which could only be entered by outsiders if they were women, like Lady Montagu). The latter desire now reflects a morbid pathology of the colonial and subsequent periods: suspecting that the ‘other’ is more available and more ‘deviant’ sexually than we are. The former desire has proven more ambiguous. If the fantasies of sexual conquest and imperial power are ignored what often remains of these paintings is their hunger for verisimilitude and this in turn has proven useful to those whose great-great-grandparents were the ‘subjects’ of the work. One of the many pleasures of visiting the Sydney show was the sight of Australians of Middle-Eastern background fascinated by the detail of places and objects they may only have read about. And because that particular show was not set out as a European adventure it proved itself more inviting to a wider audience.

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