Ludwig Hans Fischer, A Market in Egypt Image Credit: Supplied

La Galerie at Alliance Française is presenting an exhibition, 1900 Orient, featuring Orientalist paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries by well-known European artists. Curated by Monda Gallery, the show includes works by French artist Frederic de Buzon, Georg Macco from Germany, Alois Hans Schram, Max Schoedl, Leopold Carl Mueller and Ludwig Hans Fischer from Austria, and Italian artists Gustavo Simoni, Hermann Corrodi and Rubens Santoro. The artworks include portraits, landscape paintings, scenes of daily life and still life compositions, representing some of the best traditional styles of Orientalist art.

Although figures in Middle Eastern garments can be seen in Renaissance paintings and in works by Rembrandt and French artists, Orientalist themes became popular in Western art after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century. French occupation of Egypt led to many Westerners travelling to the country, and the compilation of official publications illustrating its landscape, architecture and culture, which had a profound impact on French architecture and decorative arts.

Interest in the Orient grew as European influence and colonisation increased in the region, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries European artists travelled across the region, from the Maghreb to the Levant documenting what they saw. They used a traditional and realistic style of genre painting to capture the ambience of these exotic places, remaining unaffected by the modern artistic movements of the time.

In an era of exploration and colonisation, Orientalist paintings nourished dreams of exotic new land discoveries and were in huge demand in Europe and the Western world. Many of the early paintings were designed to support Western Imperialism and perpetuate the notion that Eastern cultures were backward and barbaric and in need of being civilised by Westerners. Artists who had no first-hand experience of the Orient also began painting oriental themes based on travelogues, their own imagination and preconceived notions about an exotic, sensuous, lawless non-Western world.

Most of the artists came from modest backgrounds, so they were overwhelmed by what they saw — from the bright light and impressive architecture to the rich colours.

- Etienne van den Peereboom

However, there were European artists who made many trips to the region, mingled with the people, and tried to accurately portray what they saw and experienced. The paintings in this show include portraits of Bedouins in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, detailed scenes of bustling souks in Turkey and Cairo, landscapes highlighting the distinctive architecture and impressive monuments in the region, and still life compositions featuring Oriental textiles and handicrafts.

"Our aim is to showcase good quality Orientalist paintings that authentically depict the beauty and vitality of the region at the time. We have selected paintings with diverse subjects that highlight different aspects of Eastern cultures and traditions. They are full of life, colour and rich detailing and depict familiar scenes and places that are easily recognisable," Etienne van den Peereboom, founder and CEO of Monda Gallery says.

To complement the show, French art historian Philippine Motais de Narbonne presented a talk titled, An Introduction to European Orientalists, offering insights into the history of Orientalist art and the artworks on display. She shared her research about the paintings in the show with the Weekend Review.

Hermann Corrodi, Sunset by the Nile


What is Orientalist art?

This term is used to describe art by Western artists featuring subjects inspired by the Orient. It refers to art created mainly during the 19th century and up till the First World War. During this period many European artists travelled to Turkey, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa, often on official projects such as accompanying diplomats on visits to the region or travelling with the German archeologists who worked on excavations in Baalbek. They were fascinated with the exotic people and places they encountered on their travels and began to paint these new subjects, which proved to be very popular with buyers in Europe, encouraging more artists to focus on Oriental themes.

What is special about the paintings in this show?

The artists showcased here are important in this genre because they spent time in the region and tried to capture the atmosphere of the place and depict everyday life just as they saw it. Unlike some artists whose works conveyed a negative or condescending view of the Orient, these artists expressed their admiration for the new cultures they encountered. For example, Macco's easily recognisable depiction of the famous Khan Al Khalili market in Cairo conveys the warmth and liveliness of the place, the grace and beauty of the women in traditional dress and the impressive architecture of the mosque. On the other hand, in his landscape paintings of dawn and sunset by the Nile, Corrodi has kept the foreground quite sparse and scaled down the figures to enhance the monumentality of the architecture of the Pyramids and the Karnak Temple in the background.

Mueller also made many trips to Egypt, spending several months in Cairo and Aswan, and getting to know the Nubian people, as can be seen in his portraits of Bedouins. In fact, his Study of an Oriental Head in this show is a self-portrait of the artist dressed in traditional Bedouin clothes. Simoni spent a lot of time with the carpet weavers in Algeria, and his knowledge of traditional weaving patterns is evident in his detailed watercolour painting of a carpet seller in a traditional bazaar.

Why did these oriental themes appeal to the artists and art collectors and why are they still valued?

Most of the artists came from modest backgrounds, so they were overwhelmed by what they saw — from the bright light and impressive architecture to the rich colours, exquisite workmanship and ancient cultures. The buyers, who had never seen such exotic sights were equally enthralled. The paintings also appealed to Westerners because in an age of industrialisation they presented a vision of a tranquil, simple world free from pollution and the complexities of modern life. In the post-colonial era Orientalism was criticised for being patronising and culturally misleading propaganda and demand for this kind of art waned in the 20th century. But today these paintings are appreciated by Westerners as well as people from this region because they tell us about the ancient world and the history of this region. The scarcity of figurative paintings by artists from the region makes these works even more important as documentations of a bygone era and way of life in this region.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

1900 Orient will run at La Galerie, Alliance Française Dubai until February 27.