For centuries, the term Oriental has been widely used by the people of Europe to signify various phenomena referring to the East, and it was equally applied to geographical and cultural entities, opposite to occidental or Western peoples and cultures. However, the Orient came to mean different things in different periods of history, changing its scope and cultural context and becoming a contested word with unspecified connotations. While in art classifications Oriental art exists as one of the major branches, it is still undetermined what exactly falls under this category and the confusion originates from the misconceptions related to the geographical amplitude of the East when looked through the eyes of the Westerners. Furthermore, it is equally important to distinguish between genuine Oriental art and pseudo-Oriental art or Orientalist art, born in Western Europe as a sign of fascination with the Orient, whatever it was supposed to be.
Oriental art is often interchangeably used with the terms Eastern or Asian art and it refers to the historic and contemporary art originating from various Asian cultures and reflecting on the society in which it was produced. Most commonly today, Oriental art is used to classify Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian art along with art from Central and Southeast Asia and the sacred art of Asian religions in order to make a distinction between Eastern and Middle Eastern art traditions. However, if we take a brief look into the Hermitage Museum collection of Oriental art, we might be surprised to discover that pre-Columbian American art, Byzantine, and traditional African art have also been subdued under the same label. As many critics argue, the misconceptions regarding Oriental art appear to be the consequence of the Eurocentric view on foreign cultures that were all together hushed under one great monolithic concept, regardless of their particularities. This is why art critics nowadays hesitate to use the term and suggest that it should be replaced with more specific, localized labels.
While Oriental art refers to a variety of practices originating from the Asian continent, the notion of Orientalism is related to a particular tendency in visual arts to represent eastern subjects or assume stylistic characteristics original to the East. The tendency derived from Orientalist studies of Near and Far-Eastern societies during the period of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th century and it is still one of the most debated trends in art history. Even prior to the 19th century, when Orientalist painting was established as an academic art genre, the fascination with eastern styles was notable in European arts and handicraft mostly manifesting through the adoption of traditional eastern techniques. Turquerie was born as a popular style which relied on the imitation of Turkish and Ottoman fashion and decoration trends, Chinoiserie as the European interpretation of Chinese decorative arts and technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics, along with Japanese art of lacquer and wood-block prints. However, beyond the imitations of style, Orientalism also indicates a pictorial genre dealing with the representations of eastern subjects.
In the 19th century, the Orient, including present-day Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa became popular and established themes in European art, especially academic painting. The colonization of the Middle East and Northern Africa, along with the increasing number of Western travelers to Near and Middle East and the rise of Romanticism fueled the interest in Oriental ways of life in the European communities, giving birth to a new painting genre. Orientalist painting was exploring the myth of the Orient and satisfying a demand for the exotic, quaint and mysterious, focusing on the sensual, eroticized and stereotyped aspects of non-Western cultures. Some of the typical subjects depicted by Orientalists were slaves and slave markets, Bedouin warriors, mosques and nude exotic beauties in harems. Some of the well-known representatives of the genre are Eugène Delacroix who took up themes of violence and cruelty in Oriental subjects, Antoine Jean Gros, a history painter famous for his propaganda paintings in support of French imperialism, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, painters of Oriental genre scenes often featuring scantily robed odalisques. Although Orientalist painting was pushed on the margins in the twentieth century, the taste for Orientalism remained in the works of European artists including Renoir, Matisse, Paul Klee, Kandinsky and many others who all embraced Orientalist themes.
Despite the Western romanticized and distorted visions of the East in the ninetieth century, Orientalism had no particularly negative connotations until the publication of the work Orientalism by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said in the late seventies, when the meaning of the word changed forever. Looking back on the cultural representations of the Orient in Western academic and artistic discourse Said came to the conclusion that fictional depictions of the East were strongly tied to the European imperialist ambitions and Orientalism was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture, conflating the different societies of the Eastern world into the homogeneous world of "the Orient". According to Said Orientalism was enforcing racial stereotypes, creating patronizing and demeaning views of the non-Western world. Said’s ideas have deemed the works of Orientalists as racist and politically incorrect, influencing the way curators and art professionals in Europe and the United States now perceive 19th-century Oriental art. Oddly enough, in recent times, this genre has made a comeback on the art market among North African and Middle Eastern collectors who are beginning to view these works as part of their cultural heritage and chronicles of their culture.
Editors’ Tip: Persian Painting: The Arts of the Book and Portraiture by Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani
If you want to further explore different aspects of Oriental art, take a look at this book examining Persian miniature paintings and manuscripts from The al-Sabah Collection. Persian miniature painting is among the most well-established and celebrated traditions of Islamic art. Featuring more than forty masterpieces of Persian miniature painting, manuscript illustration, and bookbinding in The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait placed in their historical and artistic context, this books comprehensively traces the development of this artistic practice. These two eminent scholars document the movement of manuscripts through their owners’ seal impressions and librarians’ notes, and identify various works by scribes and illustrators involved in their production. Richly illustrated and featuering even rare examples from the pre-Mongol invasion period never before reproduced in print, and much more, this book provides a valuable insight into this prolific artistic genre.
Featured image: Leon Cogniet - The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte, 1835; All images via Wikipedia used for illustrative purposes.
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