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June 24, 2008

Enough Said: The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting
Tate Britain, London
4th June - 31st August 2008
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

Pity about the ambiguous title. A splendid collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century British paintings of the Levant, the region between Constantinople and Cairo, genre paintings, portraits and landscapes does not deserve to be labelled by a word now associated with Egyptian Ed, the Said with the brain of a Sa'idi.

The curators make matters worse by placing alongside interesting historical details about the paintings comments by sundry silly Muslim academics. The worst of them call themselves Muslim feminists and are therefore the epitome of silliness - believing they can subscribe to both feminism and Islamic ideology. For good measure, some of them are even so foolish as to take seriously the common absurdities of psychoanalysis and Arab dream analysis and even drag in Foucault. How stupid can you get?

Their central fallacy is one they share with many leftists, notably Gunnar Myrdal, that the art and thought of a class or in this case a nation, are a simple expression of its interests. The painters are somehow painting for British imperial ambition and for Christian superiority, painting for the advance of Western modernity. In consequence they depict the Muslim peoples of the Near East as backward and inferior, which of course from an orthodox Marxist view they were - objectively that is, comrades.

There are much simpler explanations.

The painters' perceptions obviously were shaped by their national and religious origins and by the material, technical and scientific superiority of their civilisation. It does not follow that they despised the peoples they were painting or sought mastery over them. Indeed many of the portrayals are remarkably sympathetic. They depict qualities such as tradition, dignity, simplicity that the painters may well have feared their own society had lost.

Many of them placed traditionally clad Palestinian semi-nomads in a romantic landscape because they evoked Bible stories. Edward Lear's beautiful landscape Jerusalem, 1865, or William Holman Hunt's Nazareth, 1860-1, have local figures in the foreground to bring out proportion and perspective because they evoke a Christian sacred past. From a purely technical point of view they could have used bourgeois French tourists in top hats or Anglican suffragan bishops on a pilgrimage.

Likewise a view of Roman or Egyptian antiquities may well not be the arrogance of empire but a sense that all empires pass away. This may well be the best way to view their depictions of the ruins of Palmyra or Baalbec or The Temple at Edfou.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty and despair…..

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

But what can Muslims know of our doubts and fears? They are mere Occidentalists whose view of us tries to square their arrogant and baseless sense of religious superiority with an utter inability to match our scientific and cultural achievements. We Kafirs, whether Western or Hindu or Chinese, have made it big and they can't stand it. They dream that the Caliphate can return and are embittered that it won't. We can see that the future lies with secular East Asia. They can't. How can they possibly even begin to understand us?

Some of the paintings are remarkably sympathetic to the Muslims, such as John Frederick Lewis The Commentator on the Koran, 1869. Here is not a howling maniac in the West Midlands cursing us kafirs and calling for their death but a quiet, pious, bespectacled scholar taking notes while the Koran sits sacred on a cushion. To his right are bright flowers in elegant vases to mark his appreciation of beauty and below and outside his alcove rest his slippers and his cats, a mark of his humility and humanity. He is as at peace and as absorbed in his thoughts and learning as a scholarly bearded Lithuanian rabbi, such as Rebbe Schechter.

The same may be said of the same artist's (John Frederick Lewis) The Carpet Seller, in the market in Cairo, 1860, or Arthur Melville's An Arab Interior, 1881. Calmness, dignity, contemplation are their dominant qualities. The Victorians were as much in love with nostalgia as with progress.

Jews who settled in Palestine in the 1930s have complained to me that the British favoured the Arabs over them because they fitted British preferences for the ordered life and lacked the active, striving argumentative qualities of the proto-Israelis. The penalty of responsibility is that you can't please anyone.

Yet the proto-Israelis are here too in David Bomberg's Jerusalem looking to Mount Scopus, 1925, a cleverly angled view down the rooftops to the site of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, now the most important centre of scholarship in the entire region but about to be boycotted by the Trotskyite dominated British university and college lecturers' trade union.

When the portrayals are critical the criticism is well deserved, as in William Allan, The Slave Market Constantinople, 1838. A young family is being broken up, the husband taken to the army, the mother deprived of her baby, to be the concubine of some lecherous Turk. It is luxury and chaos, a dramatic moral tale with the sale taking place in front of a mosque. But what is wrong with that? The Muslim slave trade, the original slave trade merely copied by Europeans, was evil and its worst aspect was the way in which families were wrenched apart.

But we are told by the curators or their hirelings that:

Britain had only abolished slavery in its empire in 1833. The Ottoman slave market was eventually closed in 1847.
It is the Grauniad howl of "we are all guilty". The British had in fact abolished the slave trade in 1807 and the use of images like this had played a part in its abolition. It is hardly surprising that the zeal thus aroused should now impinge on those parts of the world that were still morally indifferent to the evils of buying and selling people - in this case the Ottoman Empire.

The Muslim Ottoman Empire never did any good for anyone and nearly destroyed European civilization. The descendants of those who lived under the British Empire may resent their former subjugation but they can and will concede the many benefits it brought and they often preserve its institutions. By contrast those Europeans who had the misfortune to be conquered by a Muslim empire from the Middle East lost everything and gained nothing. The Bulgarians still speak of the Turkish yoke. The Christian Armenians were regularly murdered and finally became the first victims of modern genocide. Are the Bulgarians' and Armenians' perceptions merely one more aspect of Orientalism?

We again see slavery in Jean-Léon Gérôme's For Sale, Slaves at Cairo, 1871. A naked female slave leans back against the wall, others are slumped on a carpet in the sun waiting for a purchaser. A Muslim sits in the shade within the building with his parrot. No doubt it is a painting for lascivious French voyeurs but does this matter in comparison with a reality in which a purchaser of a female slave might well want to see her naked and even to paw her? You don't buy a car without looking under the bonnet, nor in the past purchase a horse without examining its teeth. That is what you do with commodities, especially when they are women.

Much is made of the failure of the British to make good their claim to have used their influence to get slavery abolished in Egypt but that is beside the point. When I worked in Gujarat, my Hindu colleagues took me to visit an African village on the coast where everyone except the Indian shopkeeper was descended from slaves brought in across the Indian Ocean by the local Muslim ruler, despite the British ruling India. So what? The important fact is that the British did their best to stop the slave trade and without them the Arabs would still be kidnapping and selling slaves today; indeed for all I know they are.

If we despised them it was not because they were "Oriental" but because they had refused to accept certain basic, for us universal, standards of human behaviour. We alone had the power to coerce them into giving up a practice that they saw as permitted by their religion and customs. Had it not been for our navy, they would still be sailing out of Muscat and Zanzibar and the Barbary Coast on the scout for human victims and the status of the trafficked Ukrainian women now working en masse in Dubai, the Vegas of the Gulf, would be even worse than it is.

The post-modern concept of "Orientalism" is not an analytical one but an ideological one. Neither in intention nor in practice does it give us cultural insights we would otherwise have lacked. Rather it is a device for the Muslim or Arab ferbissene (morose embittered one) and alienated Western leftists to attack and undermine our pride in our great western culture. It has no place in a British art exhibition.

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain. He has travelled extensively in the Middle East and given lectures by invitation at two local universities there.


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I am frankly surprised to see overt bigotry of this sort published here. Substitute the word 'Muslim' with "Negro' or 'Jew' to see what I mean. This man, angry and bigoted, has no place in a website that aspires to be taken seriously.

So many trends across diverse, modern Islam (all 'Arabs' to Mr Davies) stem from mallign Western influences. The effect of National Socialsm on, first, Arab nationalilsm and Baathism, then even on the radical Islamists, has been well covered elsewhere.

The Western Left's succesful policy of divide and conquer, seeking political power by encouraging the self-identification of special interest groups, is largely responsible (first or second hand) for anomalies like Islamic Feminism and the peculiar attitudes taken by the art show.

As the Indians copied Fabian Socialism out of love and respect for Britain (but happily outgrew it), so too much of the Muslim world has adopted what it saw in the West and continues to do so, some good and some not. This is not a problem for Mr Davies, for whom all Muslims are to be despised for the colour of their skins, or their religion, or their thousands of years of values somewhat but not enormously different than ours.

I find it amusing that writers such as Mr Davies, so pugnacious over people's alleged right to peculiar personal behaviour, become so happy to suppress, kill and slander whole nations with whom he disagrees. I am also amused that a writer who, a generation ago, was better known for his anti-Soviet views than for his academic achievement, has become a kind of soviet himself. I suspect that he is a hypocrite and a coward as well as a racist.

Posted by: s masty at July 3, 2008 05:33 PM
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Dear me. Isn't nasty Masty cross.
I can find no reference to race or colour in the review. The exhibition is about the Levant where most of the peoples differ little in ancestry or appearance from me or my fellow Welshman, Mr Davies. It is their Muslim beliefs and values that are the problem. These are nothing like our own .
Their attitudes towards women and equality of the sexes are abominable.
And as Davies points out, had it not been for the British navy, they would still be running a vigorous slave trade at the expense of East Africa and the Balkans. Christian Wilberforce ended the slave trade in Britain but such a reform could not have emerged from Islam. We Christians and our mentors the Jews are morally superior to these sons of Ishmael..
Where does Davies say he wants to kill Musllims as alleged by Masty ? Why is he cowardly ? He has bravely defended the rights of gays and lesbians whom many cowardly Muslims do kill .
It is now time to take my ' haram' dog for a walk, a large handsome friendly Alsatian . I think I shall take the route du cote de chez Mohammed, the road past my local mosque

Posted by: John A P Williams at July 5, 2008 11:55 AM
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In regard to the main article, my main impression of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” is that it’s a version of what I call “Concoctionism”. This is the theory that something was cooked up as an agent of social control. My own experience tells me that much “Orientalist” writing is sympathetic to the East, but the genre was turned into kitsch in order to appeal to the mass market, and only later served to lubricate the Myth of Empire.

An example of “concoctionism” was a BBC programme which almost implied that the Hindus invented their religion in order to create a mechanism for their caste system. Anyone who reads their Chesterton will learn that that is not the way things happen. Men declared a place sacred, then built their city, not the other way round as a later social engineer might do it. The commonest accusation of this type is levelled at the Pentateuch, as if Moses and his writings were composed in order to provide a “framework” (how contemporary!) for the Jewish people.

As for National Socialism and the Arabs, my impression is that in the latter half of the 20th century Marxism was the prevailing miasma which poisoned the Middle East.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 7, 2008 08:58 AM
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I have read that when Edward Said was at Victoria College in Alexandria, his chief tormentor was the head prefect who went on to become the famous actor Omar Sharif. I wonder if there is something about the elite British educational system that turns some people against Britain. I also have in mind that ring of spies for the Soviets, the Cambridge Five.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 8, 2008 09:48 PM
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Interesting thoughts again from RH Olley. Yes, in addition to the Muslim world, Marxism poisoned so many ponds.

The historian John Keay has an interesting take affecting the origins of Hinduism, using a recent linguistic study that found (presumably in Hindi) that the words for religion and pastoralism were overwhelmingly Sanskrit while the majority were Dravidian (from memory). He suggests that the early history of India, in the 'Puranas' and written by Sanskrit-speaking invaders, overestimated the relative impact of Aryans. I may not be explaining this too well, but it sounds as though much of India was left unchanged by the Aryan invasion/immigration while new bits were merely taken onboard by the aboriginal inhabitants.

A dry Scot, he says that Indian adoption of English traditions may also be similar. But it seems certain that many modern Hindu deities were indigenoius before the Sanskritisation or Hinduisation, and that the Aryan 4 varnas of caste simply fit over existing divisions of labour that themselves grew more numerous and complex as population and economies enlarged.

I love the note from Chesterton, who must be right. In the case of the Hindus, the Ayran gloss is an attempt by invaders to show how India has always 'needed' invaders (just as British invaders sought to peddle the same malarkey, says Keay). Reality is deeper and older and still mysterious.

Posted by: s masty at July 9, 2008 07:06 AM
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