The Orientalists

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia and India by Kristian Davies.

Kristian Davies The Orientalists

In this volume, Davies sets himself the task of rescuing and rehabilitating the genre of academic Orientalism in painting, with its golden age in the second half of the 19th century. He is unequivocal in his opinion that the best works of this sort are rapture-inducing wonders of Western high culture, as well as valuable documentation of lost times and places from beyond the “West.” And he provides the images for the reader to judge.

The pictures really are awesome. There isn’t a single work in the book that doesn’t have a profound beauty to it, and Davies does everything he can to give the best presentation that a printed and bound book can manage. The large quarto-sized pages often feature enlarged details and preliminary studies to complement the full reproductions, and he is skilled at juxtoposing images that inform one another. His stated aim is to inspire the reader through exposure to the paintings in a “picture-driven” format, and in that he certainly succeeds.

(He notes at the foot of the final page, after the book’s end matter, that the visual content of the book is best savored with the audio accompaniment of Peter Gabriel’s album Passion—a recommendation that he might have more generously provided at the outset!)

The text is more of a mixed bag than the pictures. In his desire to defend the Orientalist artists from the ideological fusillade occasioned by Edward Said’s ciriticisms of the scholarly enterprise of Orientalism, Davies makes common cause with Bernard Lewis, both a target and a critic of Said. It seems that he is more reliant on Lewis than he should be for general assessments of Islam (as opposed to Lewis’ specialty of Ottoman history), and when it comes to religion, Davies admits that he is somewhat late to the party (p. 30). Alas, his own remarks on the topic too often alternate between grating platitudes and outright blunders. As an example of the latter, when introducing the metaphor of Noah’s ark, he reflects on the possibility of “irony in using a Judeo-Christian reference to describe a book full of mostly Islamic imagery,” (52) evidently unaware that Noah is considered a prophet by Muslims, and that an entire sura of the Quran is dedicated to his story. His remarks about prayer having been “proven in modern times” to benefit mind and body (265) are unsupported, impertinent and obnoxious. And he is obviously unqualified to argue what he merely asserts: that “all religions have more in common than they have differences and all point to the same spirit.” (266)

He’s not really an ace at natural history either. He points out a “small coyote” in Vedder’s “Egyptian Tomb at Moonlight” (93), but given the continent we should consider it to be a jackal or fox. The book—like most published these days—could have used the attentions of a proofreader. Spelling errors are distressingly common, and they are almost all homophones that spell-checking software could not have caught.

In his chapter on Orientalist representations of women, he does a far-from-airtight job of presenting a position with which I ultimately agree, but he hasn’t quite got the full sense of the feminist criticism on this topic, so he fails to address any of numerous criticisms we might raise. His best work in that chapter is the selection of images, which furnish the open-minded viewer with plenty of evidence that feminists should not prejudge all Orientalist depictions of women, even in the often-cheapened subgenres of harem and slave-market scenes. (He only gives one example of each of those.)

The strongest points of the text are in the biographical studies of the individual artists, and essays on particular masterpieces. A sort of supplementary chapter at the midpoint of the book offers some more material along these lines in the form of the stories of four non-painters who were Orientalized during the era researched by Davies: Jean-Louis Burckhardt, Richard Francis Burton, Jane Digby, and Arthur Rimbaud. This courageous digression actually pays off in pleasurable reading that interacts well with the rest of the book. Despite my occasional frustrations with the writing, I usually enjoyed it, and while the text sometimes failed to enhance the pictures, it never soured them. This book is a wonderful contribution to its topic. [via]