Linda Nochlin and The Imaginary Orient
In the guest book at the Dahesh Museum which used to be on Madison Avenue, in Upper Manhattan,  there is an entry by a tourist, possibly German, who enthuses about the Orientalist paintings in the collection, saying how much she admired and enjoyed them. Then, almost as an afterthought, as though she has only just remembered to put on her ideological spectacles, she adds words to the effect that, "of course, they were Orientalist works, hence imperialist and reprehensible." Apparently, she felt guilty for having enjoyed and appreciated Orientalist art. How many other ordinary lovers of paintings, sculpture, drawings, watercolors and engravings have had their natural inclination to enjoy works of Orientalist art damaged, or even destroyed by the influence of Edward Said and his followers? How many people have had their enjoyment of Jane Austen spoiled by Said's insidious claim that Austen was condoning slavery?
Nowadays when discussing Orientalist art, one often begins with Linda Nochlin's article The Imaginary Orient , a work obviously influenced by Said's Orientalism. Nochlin's article can hardly be called art criticism. It is purely polemic, and, at times, quite hysterical. For her, the important element in any analysis of such art must be "the particular power structure in which these works came into being. For instance, the degree of realism (or lack of it) in individual Orientalist images can hardly be discussed without some attempt to clarify whose [italics in original] reality we are talking about." We are immediately in the fantasy world of relativism and parallel universes—"whose reality," indeed. Nochlin assumes that the Orientalist artist must in every case be a symbol of the prevailing political reality, in other words, in the the grip of blind historical forces against which he is helpless, that he must have an imperialistic agenda, and must be a racist. The thought that the artist may indeed be an individual, with his own personal, aesthetic reasons for being in a foreign land, that he possesses freewill, that the artist may actually love the country and its people that he paints, never seems to have occurred to her. For her, he represents the Occident, out to rape the submissive and backward Orient.
The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme
It is unfortunate for her ideological argument that she begins with Gérôme's Snake Charmer, which she claims is "a visual document of nineteenth-century colonialist ideology." It was placed in Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire and seat of the Caliphate, and, of course, was not a European colony. The fact that so many Orientalist artists were working in parts of the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey itself, or Syria and Palestine and the Holy Land, is a simple refutation of this non-stop nonsense about "colonialist ideology." Egypt was conquered by the Ottomans in 1517 and remained a Turkish colony until 1798, when the French expedition under Bonaparte arrived with the intention of reinstating the authority of the Ottomans. The French interlude lasted barely three years. In 1801 a joint British-Ottoman expedition ended the French adventure. Between 1801 and 1882, Egypt was not occupied by a European power, and it was certainly not a European colony, and indeed, in a strict sense, it was never a European colony. It was an Ottoman colony for nearly three hundred years. David Roberts, who painted many magnificent scenes of Egypt and her monuments, died in 1864, and so could not have known that country under European occupation. Algeria was under French rule for 132 years, but as we shall see, those artists who went there developed an affection for and commitment to it, artists such as Eugene Fromentin. Morocco and Tunisia were under French rule for a brief period, roughly forty years each, only in the twentieth century.
Nochlin continues, "the watchers huddled against the ferociously detailed tiled wall in the background of Gérôme's painting are resolutely alienated from us, as is the act they watch with such childish, trancelike concentration. Our gaze is meant to include both the spectacle and its spectators as objects of picturesque delectation." "Ferociously detailed tiled wall?" What exactly is her complaint? The wall is very skillfully rendered, and Gérôme, like many other Orientalist painters, delighted in depicting sensuous, colorful detail of materials, cloths, carpets, costumes, and ceramics and marble. "Childish, trancelike concentration": apart from the condescension implicit in "childish," Nochlin's finds their gaze "trancelike;" I would describe it rather as "interested," especially the black figure on the left who leans forward in eager anticipation, with a slight smile on his face.
"Clearly, these black and brown folk are mystified—but then again, so are we. Indeed, the defining mood of the painting is mystery, and it is created by a specific pictorial device. We are permitted only a beguiling rear view of the boy holding the snake. A full frontal view, which would reveal unambiguously both his sex and the fullness of his dangerous performance, is denied us. And the insistent, sexually charged mystery at the center of this painting signifies a more general one: the mystery of the East itself, a standard topos of the Orientalist ideology."
Notice how Ms Nochlin's own mystification suddenly, by a sleight of hand, becomes the Orientalists' topos of "the mystery of the East." What is the mystery? We cannot see the boy's genitals. In which case, how does she know he is a he? She finds his buttocks "beguiling," and apparently is disappointed that she cannot see more. She hates being left in an "ambiguous" state. And why are the spectators—condescendingly described by Nochlin as "black and brown folk"!—mystified, since they do have a full frontal view of his sex and hence of his performance? Sexually charged mystery indeed! In what way would a full frontal view reveal to us a "dangerous performance" that is not obvious from the dorsal view? Perhaps the performance is dangerous simply because it involves a snake, but we do not need a front view to figure that out; any angle will do. It is Nochlin herself who leaps from one canvas to generalize about all the Orient. It is Nochlin herself who is guilty of the very reductionistic, essentialist Orientalist generalization of which she accuses this artist. How can one go from one scene depicting a snake charmer to the claim that this represents the entire East? Perhaps it does for Ms Nochlin. It certainly does not for me or thousands of others.
Nochlin claims that the watchers in the painting are "huddled" against a wall, but huddled implies discomfort. They do not look at all uncomfortable. It is Nochlin who is uncomfortable looking at them. She claims that they are "alienated" from "us," but the "us" is really an elliptical expression for herself, for Linda Nochlin. Some of the watchers are looking at the boy with the snake, but some appear to be watching an unrendered event behind the flutist. This further undermines Nochlin's analysis.
"Gérôme suggests that this Oriental world is a world without change." Gérôme, claims Nochlin, avoids the French presence. But there was no French colonial presence in Turkey where this painting is placed. "The absence of a sense of history, of temporal change, in Gérôme's painting is intimately related to another striking absence in the work: that of the telltale presence of Western man. There are never any Europeans in "picturesque" views of the Orient like these." But here Gérôme is not painting a historical subject or scene. All that Nochlin's extraordinary criticism amounts to is a demand that he paint another picture altogether, whose subject matter is to be dictated by her. Gérôme did indeed paint historical subjects, such as his impressive Napoléon and His General Staff in 1867, now in a private collection.
Napoléon and His General Staff by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Of this painting, Lisa Small of the Dahesh Museum wrote, "This particular image combines Gérôme's two great themes, Orientalism and history, depicting a somber Napoléon retreating from Acre. As [Earl] Shinn [ 1837-1886, editor of one hundred photogravures of Gérôme's paintings in ten volumes] describes it, the emperor, mounted on his ungainly beast of burden, in this burning and dreary march...with his discontented and defeated army around...experiences, for the first time, the bitterness of disappointed ambition."
Several points need to be made. First, history was one of Gérôme's important themes. Second, the subject is Napoléon's defeat; there is no colonial or imperialistic triumphalism. Many Orientalist painters tackled historical subjects, especially the presence of the French in the Near East and North Africa, though Nochlin insists that the French are always "absent." Phillipe Julian's excellent survey defines Orientalism as "a form of Romanticism just as it is a new way of painting history, with which it is often closely linked. The artists found fresh inspiration in political events. Between 1820 and 1830, the independence of Egypt, the liberation of Greece, and the conquest of Algeria brought the Near East and the Middle East into the mainstream of European affairs." The painting of history is a part of the definition of Orientalism, hence Nochlin's claim is jejune. Historical works placed in the Orient include: Gérôme's Oedipe ou le général Bonaparte en Égypte; Antoine-Jean Gros' The Battle of Aboukir, 1806; Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's Revolt in Cairo, 1810; Alexandre Bida's Massacre des Mamelouks; and Antoine-Jean Gros' Charge de cavalerie exécutée par général Murat à la bataille d'Aboukir. Many Orientalists painted Napoléon in the Orient, among them, Jean Charles Tardieu, Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Henry Lévy, and Leon Cogniet.
"Indeed," continues Nochlin, "it might be said that one of the defining features of Orientalist painting is its dependence for its very existence on a presence that is always an absence: the Western colonial or touristic presence."
If you have ever visited the Taj Mahal, the seventeenth-century Moghul masterpiece in Agra, you have not resisted the temptation to take a photograph of it. If you have taken a photograph, you were anxious not to include some fat Western tourist, in shorts, hat, and sunglasses, with a camera slung 'round his neck, in the frame. You waited until there were no tourists near to spoil the view; such tourists would have looked out of place and as inapproriate as their dress. Orientalist paintings were often commissioned by Europeans or Americans back home, and the latter certainly did not want to buy views that showed tourists. Evidence of this comes from the books of two very gifted modern Indian photographers, Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh. No Western tourists disfigure their photos. In Raghu Rai's photo portrait of Calcutta, there are sixty three black and white photos of Calcutta in the 1980s, and its inhabitants. Some are of busy city scenes, others are almost rural, still others are portraits of individuals of the city. Not one single photo shows a Westerner. Indeed, many of them have the genre quality we associate with Orientalist paintings: Women and Kali along Ganga river; A Marwari takes a rickshaw to work; Workers carrying a wooden beam into a sawmill; Transporting potatoes to the vegetable market; Monsoon rains flood the streets, and so on. There are no Western tourists in sight.
To view Raghu Rai's Magnum photographs, please click here.
Raghu Rai's book of photographs of the Taj Mahal is pure Orientalism, using this term in a non-pejorative sense. Taken in the 1980s, his photos have a remarkable affinity to the work of the Orientalist painters of the nineteenth century. One shows what may be a camel skeleton lying in a river bed, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gustave Guillaumet's Le Sahara in the Musée d'Orsay. There are striking images of decaying monuments, Indian women in colourful traditional costumes, naked children playing on dirt roads, and women carrying copper or metal vessels on their heads.
One can imagine what Nochlin's criticism of an Orientalist work that did show a European in one of their paintings would be: "Of course, Gérôme would have to put in a European to remind us that it is really the European who is the master; there is no space that belongs to the Oriental, it has all been usurped by the colonialist. The Oriental cannot be left alone even in his own home....."
Nochlin complains of Gérôme's technique: it is too smooth, she thinks he is trying to hide his art. But Gérôme is famous precisely for his meticulous finish; it is a style of painting shared by other great painters, such as Ingres, with his superb draughtsmanship and precise Neo-Classical linear style, and without thick impasto. As Delacroix put it, "...the sight of a few Ruysdaels, especially a snow effect and a very simple marine where one sees no more than the sea in dull weather, with one or two boats, appeared to me the climax of art, because the art in it is completely concealed. That astounding simplicity....."[Emphasis added] Second, there is the naive assumption that if we can see the broad brush strokes and bright daubs of colour, we can somehow better understand the technique, and this, according to Nochlin, is a good thing. A far more sympathetic analysis of Gérôme is offered by Gerald Ackerman. He seems to be answering Nochlin when he wrote, "[Gérôme's] compositions are models of effective simplicity. In the famous histories, our eyes are led through the narrative as if this were the natural way to observe. In work after work resonances of shapes and colors occur, almost unsuspected under the objective exactitude of his realism, as in the delicate, First Kiss of the Sun. The brilliance of his coloring is always within a controlled harmony. Each canvas seems to have its own particular color scheme; he does not always bang at the same chromatic chords. But above all Gérôme loved the act of painting, the exercise of his skill. It was not a task for him, even though, as a true academician, he believed that the conception of the idea was the real creative act and that the rest was "execution." He nevertheless did the "execution" energetically and cheerfully. He never tired out at the corners, and only in old age did he allow pictures of a lesser finish leave his studio. Most of his paintings are meticulously finished with labor that only love could sustain. Gérôme worked with a limited palette, but he knew his pigments profoundly, even using some colors that seemed harsh but which he knew would eventually tone down in harmony with the colors around them. His objectivity may have produced a surface that some find offensive because they think it conceals art—a skill always admired in actors—but it is one of the self-effacing traits of his realism; he was matching the objectivity of his technique to that of his observation."
In any case, Gérôme's technique was not followed or copied by all Orientalists. Some were even close to the Impressionists in their style, such Félix Ziem; some Impressionists, in the strict sense, such as Degas, Renoir, and Manet, also painted scenes from the Orient.
Nochlin complains about "a plethora of authenticating details," especially the "unnecessary ones." Orientalists are accused of painting an imaginary Orient, and then also accused of "insisting on authenticating details. One cannot have it both ways. Should they have left out the authenticating details? Would that have improved the paintings? And would not these details help dispel the mystery that seems to vex Ms. Nochlin? Surely it is the artist's prerogative to decide which details are necessary and which not.
"Neglected, ill-repaired architecture functions, in nineteenth-century Orientalist art, as a standard topos for commenting on the corruption of contemporary Islamic society." Has Nochlin ever been to the Orient? It is her Orient that seems to be imaginary. Even now, one of the most distressing sights, at least for me as someone originally from India, is the physical decay of so many beautiful historical palaces and monuments in contemporary India. It was even worse in the nineteenth century, until a British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, did something about it. The situation was, and is, similar in North Africa, Syria, Egypt, and other Islamic lands. The Orientalists painted what they saw. It is true that ruins do attract the Romantic mind, and have been popular at least since the ruins of ancient Rome were painted by Hubert Robert [1733-1808]. But delight in ruins is an aesthetic attitude, not a political statement.
New York Times journalist Alan Cowell wrote in 1989 that Cairo "oozes decay." As for Istanbul or Constantinople, Orhan Pamuk's entire book on the city is about decay, ruin, neglect and poverty. He grieves for "a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years;" he finds melancholic joy "in the crumbling fountains that haven't worked for centuries; the poor quarters with their forgotten mosques,...the dilapidated little neighbourhood shops packed with despondent unemployed men; the crumbling city walls like so many upended cobblestone streets...." It is ironic and amusing that Edward Said was himself accused of "Orientalism" in the pejorative sense when he complained of the decay in modern-day Cairo.
And, it is well-attested that tiles in Turkish mosques often fell off simply because of the poor quality of the glue used. To capture that dilapidation in paint is not part of the "project of imperialism." Is not Nochlin's claim that Orientalists always paint a timeless Orient, "a world without change," contradicted by her other claim that Orientalists were always painting decay? Decay is a sign of mutability, that things are no longer what they were. Nochlin wants to have it both ways.
Nochlin complains that there are too many lazy natives in Orientalist paintings, not enough people doing their jobs, not enough activity. But she cannot have looked carefully. There is a rich-toned work by Rudolf Ernst in the Dahesh Museum of two men in their workshop, beating into shape copper objects; Charles Wilda's A Coppersmith, Cairo ; E. Aubry Hunt's The Farrier, Tangiers; Edwin Lord Weeks and Eugène Girardet painted tailors at work; and there are any number of paintings of the bazaar bustling with activity, such as Germain-Fabius Brest's View of Constantinople of 1870, now in the museum in Nantes; Albert Pasini's Bazar at Constantinople; Amadeo Preziosi's Market Scene in Cairo; Fausto Zonaro's Barbers Working in a Square in Constantinople. Then there are busy port scenes in numerous paintings such as Carlo Bossoli's Oriental Port. Dervishes are often portrayed, and they are hardly inactive. There are also paintings of hunting with falcons, guns, on horseback, and so on, as in the works of Eugene Fromentin. And what of the exhilarating sense of movement in Giulio Rosati's Successful Raiding Expedition?
View of Constantinople by Germain-Fabius Brest
The absence of certain activities in a painter's oeuvre cannot possibly be taken to mean that he, the artist, thought the natives were "a lazy bunch of layabouts." In such a shallow interpretation, from the Dutch and Flemish genre paintings of the seventeenth century one would get the impression that the Dutch spent their entire time in taverns, brothels, and merry-making. There are few paintings of people engaged in any work or craft; exceptions include Metsu's Interior of a Smithy, and Brekelenham's Interior of a Tailor's Shop. Yet we know that seventeenth-century Netherlands was a hive of commercial activity, and extraordinarily successful economically. As the art-historian Wayne Franits notes, there are also few paintings of commercial activities in Dutch ports, but we know how busy the ports were.
Nochlin lets fly one baseless charge after another. One wonders if she has bothered to really look at, let alone enjoy, a work of Orientalist art. Here are her final thoughts on Orientalist art: "Works like Gérôme's, and that of other Orientalists of his ilk, are valuable and well worth investigating not because they share the esthetic values of great art on a slightly lower level, but because as visual imagery they anticipate and predict the qualities of incipient mass culture. As such, their strategies of concealment lend themselves admirably to the critical methodologies, the deconstructive techniques now employed by the best film historians, or by sociologists of advertising imagery or analysis of visual propaganda, rather than those of mainstream art history." Evidently, for Ms. Nochlin and her ilk, Orientalist art, as John MacKenzie pointed out, "exists on an entirely different plane from that considered by 'mainstream art history.'" In his brilliant demolition, so far from the fashionable nonsense of 'deconstruction' offered by Said and his ilk, MacKenzie takes them to task for their imprecision, especially the cavalier way they talk about "imperialism". MacKenzie insists, "It will not do to pick and mix artists from different points in the nineteenth century and portray them as locked into a set of racial and imperialist assumptions. The durability of the oriental obsession, from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries must raise doubts that its 'deconstruction' can be anything other than highly complex, producing different results at varying periods, as well as opposing dualities among artists and even within the single artist's work."
Orientalist art must be seen as a continuation of those aesthetic impulses that began at the dawn of Western painting. Many Orientalist painters and sculptors were motivated by the same artistic desires as those of the Renaissance. Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio and other Venetians, but also Rembrandt and the Flemish Pierre Coeck d'Alost, have been mentioned. Nochlin seems irritated by Gérôme's Arabic calligraphy, but in fact, a little "mainstream art history" would reveal that from the late thirteenth century onward, Western artists were fascinated by Oriental scripts and used it in many of their works. Many artists, not knowing Oriental languages or scripts, invented pseudo-scripts for decorative purposes and used them on textiles, gilt halos, and frames for religious images: artists such as Duccio, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Andrea Mantegna, Gentile da Fabriano, and so on. The one exception was Pisanello, who copied almost exactly the Arabic script that says, "al-Muayyad Abu Nasr Shaykh," in his Studies of Costume Worn by the Emperor John VIII Paleologus and Esatern Delegates at the Council of Eastern and Western Churches in Ferrara, 1438, a drawing now in the Louvre. Rosamond Mack points out that "Italians admired the aesthetic qualities of Islamic calligraphy" and used it in patterned textiles. Early Italian painters were confused about Arabic writing, but Mack writes, "the misapprehension was driven by Western veneration of Christianity's Eastern roots and the desire to possess and preserve that sacred heritage."
Artistic concerns were paramount: "Artistic concerns also played an important role in the various adaptations of Arabic writing and the Islamic objects on which such writing appeared. Giotto and his contemporaries developed an immediately recognizable version of the Eastern honorific garment to make their representations more vivid and, and in their view, more accurate. The imitation writing on halos and frames was ornamentally sophisticated, consistent with the Eastern garments, and perhaps also emphasized that these were images of a universal faith." Aesthetic concerns, along with the ubiquitous Western desire for universalism, were the main impelling forces.
Gérôme and other Orientalists were more successful in rendering Arabic script; they also admired the aesthetic qualities of Arabic calligraphy. Referring to the Arabic inscriptions in Gérôme's Snake Charmer, Nochlin quotes Ettinghausen, a great scholar and expert on Islamic Art, as saying that they could "be easily read." Then Nochlin adds a contradictory footnote: "Edward Said has pointed out to me in conversation that most of the so-called writing on the back wall of the Snake Charmer is in fact unreadable." Pace Said, the large frieze at the top of the painting, running from right to left, is perfectly legible. It is the famous verse 256 from Surah II, al-Baqara, The Cow, written in thuluth script, and reads,
There is no compulsion in religion—the right way is indeed clearly distinct from error. So whoever disbelieves in the devil and believes in Allah, he indeed lays hold on the firmest handle which shall never break. And Allah is Hearing, Knowing
Unfortunately, the inscription thereafter is truncated, so that the upper part is lost, but even then one can make out parts of it, probably not a Koranic verse but rather a dedication to a caliph; the name Uthman is just visible, and possibly the word Sultan. The Turkish artists and architects often added a dedication in mosques, and even on coats-of-arms, such inscriptions as, “The ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdülhamit who puts his trust in God." Or was Gérôme simply copying faithfully a real wall with those very verses? I have learned from Professor Gerald Ackerman that Gérôme executed the painting in his Paris studio, copying a photo from the Topkapi Palace published by Abdullah Frères, the Istanbul photography firm. This discovery makes Nochlin's remarks even further off the mark.
Many copper vessels, plates, and weapons decorated with silver and gold and produced in Egypt, Turkey, or Morocco, both contemporary and those manufactured a hundred years ago, show what purport to be Arabic scripts or inscriptions, but in fact are gibberish, since the artisan producing such objects is often illiterate, certainly ignorant of Classical Arabic, and the complex rules of Arabic calligraphy.
Let me summarize: Does the frieze represent actual writing? The answer is yes. Is the writing in any sense legible? Here again, the answer is yes. It is not easily legible, but nor are all the stylized inscriptions in, for instance, the Dome of the Rock. It is simply a feature of Islamic calligraphic art, and in this case Gérôme was not inventing the writing. But even if Gérôme had invented the inscriptions, what conclusion would follow? Only that Gérôme did not know Arabic. But neither does Nochlin. If Gérôme's ignorance of Arabic is an obstacle to painting about the Orient, why isn't Nochlin's ignorance of Arabic (or Turkish) an obstacle to writing about Orientalism in art?
There were at least four hundred Orientalist artists of stature, British, American, French, Italian, and German, producing thousands of works of quality and artistic merit. It does not do to generalize about artists from so many varied backgrounds, each with his cultural, and above all, aesthetic perspectives, in the calumniating fashion that Nochlin does. It is Nochlin who sees the entire Orient defamed in one painting. It is her generalizations and tendentious readings that are offensive. It is she who is degrading the Orient by such claims, not the artists she misreads and exploits for tendentious ends. These artists often portrayed the essential dignity of that non-European Other, the Oriental.
To comment on this article, please click here.
Join leaders of the American Middle Eastern community to endorse
Donald J. Trump
for President of the United States
and spend an evening with his foreign policy advisors featuring
Dr. Walid Phares
and other surprise campaign guests.
Monday October 17th
Omni Shoreham Hotel
2500 Calvert Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20008
cocktails at 6pm - dinner at 7pm
Business casual attire
$150 per person / $1500 per table
Sponsored by the American Mideast Coalition for Trump