The Tate’s new exhibition The Lure of the East shows how British painters sought to represent the Near and Middle East from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries.
The territory which today covers Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt was for most of this period under the rule of the Ottoman empire, run from Constantinople (Istanbul).
The end of the First World War saw this empire dismantled and Western imperialist powers re-drawing the borders of the region, establishing direct control over the states they themselves created.
The questions explicitly posed by this exhibition are about the nature of these paintings and the motivations of the artists themselves.
Was their work a faithful representation of the people, cities and landscapes they encountered, or did it reflect, as Edward Said argued in his influential work Orientalism, a quest for Western superiority and control over the East?
There is no doubt that most of the artists displayed here were fascinated by the societies they were painting. This can be seen in the detailed and colourful portrayals of mosques, markets, domestic life, and bustling coffee houses.
But this sense of fascination never seems to translate into a sense of solidarity or sympathy with the people they were representing. So for example Frederic Leighton’s Interior of the Grand Mosque of Damascus (1873-1875) is visually very impressive, but the image feels remote and distant, the people in it presented as mysterious.
It feels almost like an early postcard picture – attractive to look at but unable to give the viewer any kind of insight into the people or the place.
The exhibition shows how allegiance to the British Empire helped to shape this outlook. In James Sant’s Captain Colin Mackenzie (1842-44), the captain, a veteran from the disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan in 1842, is shown posing in full Afghan dress, and is presented as noble, self-assured and defiant.
Artists also expressed the shifting relations that took place between the British and Ottoman empires.
When Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha declared war against Ottoman rule in 1839, the British made common cause with the Ottoman rulers.
The artist David Wilkie was commissioned to do a portrait for Queen Victoria of the Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdul Mejid.
The sultan is presented as a Westernised figure wearing French style military uniform and the fez instead of the traditional turban.
Similarly, Wilkie’s A Tartar Messenger Narrating the News of the Victory of St Jean d’Acre (1840) was a celebration of the allegiance between the British and Ottoman empires against what was seen as the threat of Ali Pasha.
The scene shows figures in a Constantinople coffee house warmly receiving the news of the crushing of Ali Pasha’s forces.
The representation of Palestine around the mid eighteenth century is also of interest.
In the work of people like Thomas Seddon it is possible to see the relationship between Christian missionary ideology and Zionism, which would later become connected with the interests of Western governments.
In Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat (1854-5) Seddon depicts Palestine as a desolate and bleak landscape – a typical portrayal at the time.
This goes against the historical
evidence, but it fitted with the idea that this was a land to be colonised and developed by enlightened people from the West.
The biblical references in the title and in the imagery of the painting expressed the belief that this was the land where the second coming of Christ would happen and the day of judgement would take place.
This belief was used by Christian missionaries to argue that the Jewish people should be gathered together in Palestine in order to be converted, and there redeemed, before the day of judgement.
Only a few years after the painting was completed the first Jewish settlement was built on precisely the plain depicted in the painting.
Towards the end of the exhibition we are presented with two contrasting landscape paintings of Damascus.
The first done in 1861 by Edward Lear presents Damascus as alluring but inaccessible, surrounded by mountains and forests.
The second painting, entitled Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains From 10,000 Feet was done in 1920 by Richard Carline.
It is the view of Damascus from an RAF plane – part of the Western forces that swept into the ex-Ottoman territories after the First World War.
It is a representation of a new form of imperial domination far more technologically advanced than anything that had come before.
It is also the last painting in the exhibition and leaves the viewer to contemplate the consequences of such a new form of power.
The art in this exhibition will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is plenty here to get you thinking.
The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting is at the Tate Britain in London until 31 August, tickets £10 (concessions available), go to » www.tate.org.uk/britain