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01 May 2019

Embracing the Orientalists

The controversial Orientalist painters of 19th century Europe have gained appreciation across the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to Claude Piening, Senior Director of Sotheby’s London


Few artistic movements have been as hotly debated over the last few decades as the Orientalists. The movement comprised of Western authors, from the US and Europe, who painted what was known at the time as ‘the Orient’— which comprised the North African, Ottoman and Arab worlds.

Though these varied in intent and quality, some, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, gained worldwide renown and influence, which continues to this day. In terms of the Middle East collector, in addition to Muslim collectors worldwide, however, something has happened—these artists have started to gain popularity.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years, we’ve seen a big uptick of interest from the very regions depicted. I’m not only referring to North Africa, Middle East and Turkey, but I’m talking about the wider Islamic world,” Claude Piening, Senior Director of Sotheby’s in London, tells WEALTH Arabia.

What has caused the shift? “People of an Islamic background seem to feel they can relate to the subject matters, many of which are Islamic in feel, such as the prayer scene by JeanLeon Gerome, which depicts evening prayers on the rooftops of Cairo,” says Piening. There have been more changes in the region as well.

Rising affluence in the region, and a want to connect with the region’s history, are also contributing factors. Sotheby’s itself could be partially responsible, as it has held its own Orientalist sale for the better part of the current decade in conjunction with its Islamic art sale.

 “In terms of awareness—when we launched this sale in 2012 alongside the Islamic sale, which was a longstanding sale, the Orientalists really opened up people’s eyes to Orientalist art, particularly to our Islamic buyers, who have since become real supporters. They now spend more on pictures than they do on Islamic art, when they were introduced to this through Islamic art,” says Piening.

It’s not just individuals who are driving the market. “There’s institutional buyers as well active now, such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as other museums that are quietly collecting as well. There are even more museums in the wider Islamic world that are being developed and are acquiring works in the meantime, such as in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Even though none of these pictures depict this part of the world there’s an understanding of the world,” says Piening. The Islamic art sale in particular pairs well with these paintings, allowing people to see both the real life artifacts and the way that western artists depicted them.

“What’s fascinating also is having the sale in tandem with the Islamic sale is that the pictures depict some of the costumes, ceramics, tiles, metalwork and weapons you find in the Islamic sale, so there is a dialogue between the pictures and the objects,” says Piening. For its 2019 sale, the key pieces are by Gerome, who also is known for his 1896 non-Orientalist painting Truth Coming Out of Her Well.

“Gerome was a key proponent of the Orientalist genre. He is arguably France’s most famous Orientalist painter of his day. The popularity is not driven by the artist but the subject matter. It’s been interesting to see people not driven by the artists but as by the subject matter. Buyers have come into the field who haven’t heard of what is to me famous artists, but are simply drawn by the compelling subjects,” says Piening.

Gerome’s painting Rider and His Steed in the Desert, a rare masterpiece, was sold for $1,494,224. Another one of Gerome’s most famous paintings was also sold in the auction, Evening Prayer, Cairo, which commanded the second highest price of the sale at $950,870. The former was sold to an institutional buyer, while the latter was sold to a private buyer. “Gerome, as you can tell by his proto-photographic style, was very influenced by photography.

In fact, his brother in law was Adolphe Goupil who was a publisher of prints after painting and was also a key photographer. He travelled to Egypt with his brotherin-law, as Adolphe took a lot of photographs which Gerome would take back to the studio, study and he would actually work his compositions up from photographs taken from the field as well as sketches he himself made,” says Piening.

Gerome traveled to Egypt at least six or seven times. He went up and down the Nile, spent time in Cairo, he also travelled to Turkey, went to Istanbul and Izmir. You can’t expect a westerner to fully understand the culture—how could you—but he made a good attempt to try. He was not an armchair orientalist, he didn’t attempt to feed off other people’s accounts or pictures.

He took poetic and artistic license, and his picture saren’t always true, they are at least founded upon first hand experience, which is more that could be said for the more exoticising orientalist, who depicted things such as the harem, who could never have had access to that those spaces.” Rider and His Steed in the Desert is a particularly striking piece. “This picture in particular is not only photographic but cinematic.

It was painted in 1872, long before cinema had even been invented, but there’s something in this painting that to me anticipates cinema and I’d like to think that cinematographers took some inspiration from artists, not just the other way around. This is like a shot out of Lawrence of Arabia. It also evokes more modern films—the great desert panoramas of George Lucas, or of Westerns.

This is an eastern sea, but it could be the great American west. The contrast between the incredible focus between the horse and the rider and the more sketched background, which of course is exactly how the human eye perceives, and indeed the camera— you can only focus on one thing,” says Piening. “The reactions I’ve gotten ranged from moving to awesome, in the true sense.” 

Connecting with history is indeed one of the most important parts of these paintings, for collectors as well as art and history scholars worldwide. These pictures do fill an important visual historical void, because when these pictures were being made, photography was around but not really prolific. Local artists in the region were not painting in a figural way—they were more interested in craft and geometry and metalwork.

There is very little in the way of a visual record of these places as they looked 100 or 150 years ago. What a lot of people in the region are now coming to realise are that these pictures are a window into that world, despite of what has been said about Orientalism by the likes of Edward Said. I think his thesis is a little bit dated now, considering we have such an appetite for these pictures in [the Muslim world],” says Piening.

Edward Said, whose 1978 book critiquing the Orientalists, entitled Orientalism, had Gerome’s painting on the cover, changed the academic conversation around the Orientalists, though some have said that people’s interpretation of his critiques was overblown, as his critiques do not necessarily mean that there is no room for appreciation of these works of art.

“He did not say that Orientalist depictions of the West’s Other were merely fictions. If they were, they would be much easier to deconstruct and dislodge. Quite the reverse, classical Orientalism drew upon elements of positive knowledge and scholarship, work that was often admiring of—at times, even besotted with—its object.

The problem with Orientalism was not that it was false in some crudely empirical sense, rather that it was part of a discursive system of ‘powerknowledge,’ a phrase Said borrowed from Foucault,” Adam Schat wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2019.

Viewing the paintings from a different perspective, and in collections across the Muslim world, does not necessarily mean that these paintings are still being viewed from that gaze, allowing collectors to potentially appreciate them in a different way, Piening agrees that the paintings are not always strict depictions of the subject matter.

Instead, they try to find the truth that a photograph can’t capture. “Whilst ostensibly accurately observed, it’s not actually true. He would manipulate reality to create a more subjective or deeper reality, which photography can’t match,” says Piening.

At the auction, another painting by a European artist—a striking portrait of a young Suleyman the Magnificent (circa 1520) sparked a lengthy three-way bidding battle, which saw it surpass its estimate of GBP 350,000 – 500,000 by eighteen times to sell for GBP 5,323,500.

“We witnessed an epic auction duel with three bidders, including one joining us on the internet, battling it out for the Venetian portrait of fabled Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, an artwork that perfectly encapsulates those elements most sought after in a work of art—rarity, beauty and provenance—as well as embodying the cross-cultural dialogue that enriches this varied collecting category.

There was a real breadth to the array of artworks on offer reflected both in the strength of bidding and the participation of a wide spectrum of collectors from over 50 countries,” said Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s Middle East and India Chairman.

“Twelve new auction records were set for artists from across the region, amongst them established, indeed treasured, modern masters as well as lesser-known names that we were introducing to our collectors for the first time. It is wonderful to witness art and artists from the Middle East gaining ever wider recognition, reflecting the truly global appeal of this rewarding area of the market.”





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