Monday, July 28, 2008

Ahdaf Soueif on "The Lure of the East" at the Tate Britain

In London, the Tate Britain museum is currently showing the "Lure of the East," an exhibition of academic aka Orientalist paintings, prints, and drawings created by British artists between 1870-1930. This exhibition has sparked interesting discussion on the web and in print regarding identity politics, cultural representation, and questions of aesthetics. The Guardian ran a series of columns by guest writers responding to the exhibit. Among the columns I read, I found Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif's "Visions of the Harem" to be most thought-provoking. Through assessment of the works and the museum's catalog, she compares and details two types of Orientalist artists.

One type, characterized by William Hollman Hunt and Thomas Seddon, used self-proclaimed "accuracy" was instead camouflage for personal ideology. The second type, characterized by John Frederick Lewis, succeeded in a more honest portrayal of similar subject matter because of a conscious reach for personal understanding through his artistic medium: "Lewis entered into a true relationship with Cairo: the city gave him the colours, the light, the architecture - the material he needed to become a great artist. Unlike so many of his colleagues, though, he felt that the city demanded something of him in return. Cairo made Lewis interrogate himself, what he and his compatriots were doing, the artist's relationship to his material, his social and political role, his integrity and, finally, his historic responsibility. It was through this interrogation that he produced his masterpieces."
(Image: John Frederick Lewis, Study for the 'Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch's House in Cairo,' c1864)

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