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The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting

26 September 2008 - 11 January 2009

This exhibition focused on the paintings made by British artists of the ‘Orient’, primarily during the nineteenth century. In this context the term ‘Orient’, to Western Europeans, meant those parts of the eastern Mediterranean world which could be accessed relatively easily such as Egypt, Palestine and Turkey, particularly after the development of steamboat and rail travel in the 1830s. In these places, predominantly Muslim and at least nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire, British artists, such as David Roberts, David Wilkie, William Holman Hunt, John Frederick Lewis and Frederic Leighton, sought to develop imagery which captured what they believed to be characteristic of the people, cities and landscapes of the region.

In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions, serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East. The argument for and against Said’s Orientalism has continued for thirty years. Its resonance for an exhibition such as this one, however, is as strong as ever given that, by the 1920s (the end of the period covered by this exhibition), Britain was in direct control of much of the newly abolished Ottoman Empire, including Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. As Said argued, these images cannot be viewed in isolation from their wider political and cultural context. Keeping the debates around Orientalism in mind, “The Lure of the East” focuses on the range of pictorial options open to British artists, within five major themes: portraits, genre, religious and domestic subjects and landscape. British painters came to the Middle East from a culture steeped in technical and compositional artistic traditions. Such traditions were not easily unlearned, despite the apparent difference of the people and places the artists encountered on their travels. Given this, British Orientalist painters found many challenges in attempting to represent the Middle East, but they also found inspiration and, more importantly, the freedom to rework, reinvent and even discard those conventions that defined picture-making in Britain.

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The Lure of The East

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