Tag Archives: Individual Artists – General

Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Lynne Thornton.

Thornton Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting

This book is much more like what I had hoped for in my disappointed reading of Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra’s feminist study of representations of women in fin-de-siècle culture. Despite the small page format of this ACR PocheCouleur Orientalists series, the illustrations are in color throughout, and they embrace a terrific range of paintings organized by theme. It appears that Orientalist art expert Lynne Thornton’s text was written with free reference to the whole universe of such works, and she has been to some trouble to acquire rights to very many of them. The optimal reading technique here requires regular reference to the index of illustrations at the back of the book, in order to find works and artists mentioned while reading Thornton’s characterizations of them.

Thornton’s account treats both the realities and the European perceptions of various institutions in the 19th-century Muslim world, including the harem, the hammam (i.e. public bath), and slavery. She often has recourse to the relevant commentary of European women from the period, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Anne Blunt, Lady Duff Gordon, and Mabel Bent.

Although this book is genuinely a work of art history and aesthetic criticism, rather than the polemic of Dijkstra’s book mentioned above, Thornton is culturally astute and incisive. She offers insightful comments regarding the projection of European sensibilities in 19th-century depictions of the Near East and North Africa (the “Orient” in question for these Orientalist painters). For example, “It is, however, extremely rare to find an Orientalist painting in which the woman is sexually satisfied” (122). This remark coordinates with others to demonstrate that despite the sometimes salacious exoticism of the whole Orientalist art project, moral and sexual license were if anything more inhibited than in other subject matter of the period, but similarly circumscribed by masculine appetites.

The art images in the book are very well reproduced on heavy glossy paper, representing a comprehensive survey of the field indicated in the title.

Noa Noa

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin Noa Noa

Although based on his journals, Noa Noa is really a crafted memoir of Gaugin’s time in Tahiti. At the outset, it seems as if it is going to be a tragic tale of the European seeking to escape alienation by immersing himself in a traditional culture of the colonial sphere, only to find that his condition is inescapable, and that he himself perpetuates it no matter where he goes. And that reading could be sustained–but it’s not Gaugin’s assertion. Instead, he claims to have succeeded in “going native” sufficiently to be spiritually rehabilitated and creatively inspired. 

A considerable section toward the end of the book is given over to an attempt to describe indigenous Tahitian religion, with special attention to cosmogonic myths and the rituals involved with the secret society of Areois which is supposed to have ruled the island in the pre-colonial period. Most spectacularly, Gaugin relates his understanding of the Matumua ceremonies transacted with the enthronement of a new king. This rite allegedly culminated in a royal gang-bang: as Gaugin suggests (in more circumspect phrasing), it was a formalized opportunity for the people to screw the king before he’d screw them.

Gaugin’s language emphasizes the sensuous throughout, although he refrains from being too explicit regarding the conspicuous erotic contents of his own experiences. His relationship to his eventual native bride offers the unselfconscious intimation that the way he exploits the island paradise may not be so far removed from the other agents of that prudish and dirty Christian civilization he professes to deplore.