22 Feb 2023 – 3 June 2023
The Project Space
This display presents thirteen Orientalist works from The Courtauld’s Drawings collection, including works by Édouard Manet, John Frederick Lewis and the British-Syrian translator and poet Yasmine Seale. Several of these striking works are being displayed for the first time.
For almost three centuries, viewers saw Orientalist paintings and drawings as records of travel in the age of European empires, an interpretation encouraged by the extreme degree of naturalism typically associated with Orientalist art.
This exhibition, curated by Dr Emily Christensen and Dr Ambra D’Antone, two Courtauld PhD recent graduates, invites viewers to consider an alternative reading of these artworks, as conflations of observed details and literary fictions. The interpretive tool for this is the collection of folk tales Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights (ألف ليلة و ليلة), a work that was ubiquitous in 19th century Europe and a common point of reference for artists, and that has continuing cultural familiarity today.
Arabian Nights is a collection of stories passed down and collated in various combinations by different storytellers over the course of hundreds of years. As a product of oral storytelling, there is no single authoritative version, although the earliest extant published text is a selection of the stories in a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript. It first appeared in Europe in 1701, in a French translation from Arabic by Antoine Galland, and was republished multiple times over the next centuries by translators who each brought their own variations to this already protean text. Looking at the works on display through the lens of Arabian Nights reveals the active role that artists played in creating realistic but not necessarily real visual representations of regions and peoples beyond Europe.
Orientalist art occupies a complicated and often contradictory position in twenty-first century art history. Since the 1980s, when the scholar Linda Nochlin applied the tenets of Edward Said’s book Orientalism to paintings, these works have been viewed in much Euro-American academic literature as emblems of imperialism that reveal damaging narratives of racial hierarchies and cultural superiority within an aesthetic often reduced to its picturesque quality. For Said, Orientalism was a way of thinking adopted by Europeans from the beginning of the nineteenth century, in which the Orient was the notional antithesis of Europe: backwards, superstitious, lascivious and barbaric in opposition to Europe’s modernity, rationalism, and moral rectitude.
These debates have remained largely removed from the general public, and exhibitions have often struggled to present the multiple layers of meaning encoded in these complex works. This display provides an opportunity to re-engage with Orientalist art in a way that challenges anew their ambivalent status as material witnesses of a bygone past. The exhibition concludes with a contemporary print by Yasmine Seale, a poet and translator of Arabian Nights, as an acknowledgement of its long history as an unstable text that shaped and continues to shape images.
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