In fine arts „Orientalism“ means an artistic illustration related to oriental themes and sceneries particularly from Northern Africa and Middle East. Orientalism is neither a school nor a painting style of arts, but rather a genre, such as the maritime or landscape painting.
In the past "Orientalism" was accompanied by a lively exchange of art critics, which can be traced back until the 19th century. Even today, the topic is often picked up by the media, when they have to reappraise together Art, Orient and Colonialism. Recent examples are the critical comments on the exhibition "Orientalism in Europe" by Delacroix to Kandinsky, which took place in Munich 2011.
The controversial debate reached its highlight with the publication of Edward Said’s critique on "Orientalism" in the late 70s. In his analysis, he mentioned that the Western world creates an image fraught by dominance and authority and supremacy towards the Orient. With that occidental feeling of superiority against the Orient, the criticism is still attributed to the former colonial power structures. Said defined his "Orientalism" by a specific Western European way of thinking which is typical for Western civilization. He attributed everything to the "Orient" that did not belong to this way of thinking. Thus, the core of his critique about "Orientalism" was the Western European perspective; that he rejected because of its arrogance and degradation.
Historically, "Orientalism" is however a much wider term as specified by Said. The term refers completely value-neutral to movements about the Orient, including literary trends, Orientalist paintings, or architectural art. Some are talking of a knowledge field or an academic discipline. Then again, other people are meaning a cultural flow of the Occident or just a movement. Today, in journalistic reporting the term "Orientalism" often is cited in relation to "Islamist movements".
Not only representatives of Said's theses but also the media take advantage of this broad defined term in their critical analysis to point out the Occident’s feeling of superiority about the Orient by referring to examples from politics, literature and the visual arts. This reappraisal of the colonial period did not pass on the Orientalist painting of the 19th Century without leaving any traces, because some paintings are illustrating scenes from military campaigns, slave markets, scenes in harems or hammams, sultan's palaces or unrealistic visions of an imaginary Orient. This was sufficient for some art critics to discredit and to give a negative touch of meaning to a whole genre of painting (orientalist), which had already established its position in the history of fine arts during the pre-colonial period, which had seen its peak in the 19th Century and which evolved to this day in a field of the contemporary painting. They reported of kitsch and an Orient that never did exist.
But such postcolonial evaluations lose rapidly their significance, if they are no longer considered from the superficial perspective of today's artistic taste, but taking into account the period when the paintings have been produced. Most of the paintings exposed on the criticism have been painted around the time of the Paris World Exhibition in 1889. It was the colonial era. The paintings show the historical context in that time. In the same way as today, the painters have seen and illustrated things from their own artistic perspective. Some have painted realistic scenes of the Orient. Others felt free to realize their own artistic interpretation of the Orient by giving it a mystical and surreal image. Perhaps we could find there any initial stages for today's surrealist painting? Some artists have undertaken trips to the Orient. They were impressed with the local lighting and captured their impressions in paintings. Others painted the Orient, without having been there once before, which can be seen on closer analysis of one or other work. If you step back in those days, it is almost normal to find in some paintings colonial features. Many paintings were also commissioned works, which simply corresponded to the taste of customer's demands at that time.
Art critics of Orientalist paintings often refer to such representations to confirm Said's theses and draw mostly polemical conclusions as the feeling of superiority of the Occident over the Orient. But they ignore completely that these art works represent only a fraction of the total existing Orientalist paintings in the world so that the justification of such criticism of this genre of painting must therefore be called into question. Due to the establishment of the internet in the last decades, the number of paintings accessible to the public from galleries, museums, auction houses, art collections and the literature attributed to the Orientalist painting without any colonial scenes is overwhelming. There is nothing to see of the superiority of the Occident over the Orient in these works. A lot of them came from artists of the 19th and 20th Century. They may be less known to the public, but all the more to the experts of the Orientalist painting.
Some of these artists have lived for many years in the Orient, such as Eugène Girardet in Morocco and Tunisia. Others have established themselves there like Etienne Dinet in Algeria or Gustav Bauernfeind in Palestine. Due to the attraction of the oriental culture and its civilization they had turned their backs on Europe. They have captured realistically this other world in impressive paintings, without giving them the slightest colonial touch. It's this other world that is wrongly drawn into the maelstrom of criticism applicable only to a small number of paintings. The far greater part of the Orientalist paintings which gives us a deep insight into the oriental culture with its values and characteristics, remains ignored.
When Said published his theses, most of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East had about 20 years of political independence behind. It became obvious during the 70s that the development of the Orient has taken its own path and the societies distanced themselves more and more from Europe by the increasing Islamization. Since their independence from the colonial status the North African countries and the Middle East had no real chance to get a progressive development of their own culture and society, because of dictatorial regimes governed by despots for decades in an environment of old cliques and corruption. Many of these countries find it hard comingtotermswiththe colonial past, which can be observed by the systematic removal of cultural objects from that period. Until today none of the Magrheb countries has really succeeded an achievement with the colonial past as part of their own history. The Arab Spring and its settlement with the old regimes is a new attempt to get cultural and social liberation in the oriental world, but it is severely disturbed by the influence of Islamist currents. All these developments in the politically independent countries are "home made" and have nothing to do with the feeling of European superiority created by Said. These are stations of the historical development through the Orient which direction lies within its own responsibility.
Even without these problems in the Arab world, there would be questionable whether the Occident and the Orient would ever come closer together. The distinctions between the two cultures postulated by Said, which should be lifted according his ideas, remain a utopia. We have two cultures with different civilizations that nobody can objectively evaluate against each other, not least because of the different religions. Said's critique of Orientalism is therefore rather a subjective opinion, that fits sometimes in the political landscape, but which is inappropriate for an evaluation in the visual arts. By this way art criticism becomes polemic and distorted. Art criticism should be free from political influencing factors or any trends and must orientate itself towards artistic standards, in this case, the painting and the freedom of the artist. By including the Orientalist painting in the general criticism of Orientalism, a whole genre of painting is devalued, that was supposed to bring us closer the values of the Orient, its culture, its religion and the fascinating unknown of this civilization. Thus, the confusion of Said's theses with criticism of Orientalist paintings reinforces exactly what actually he tried to cancel.
Since the 19th Century the Orientalist painting has continued to develop. The importance in the contemporary art scene may not have the value as it was, but it is still present. For many contemporary orientalist artists the Orient, with its special lighting, its landscapes, its architecture, its people, its cultural characteristics and traditions is an inexhaustible source of creativity. With their works and performances of contemporary Orient they make a significant contribution to international understanding, as bringing us closer to the foreign culture, which is still misunderstood by to many European people.
Till Dehrmann, March, 2013