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Orientalist paintings take a tour of modern Middle East

Exhibition of 19th-century visions of the 'exotic' Orient recalls the heavy history of colonialism.

By Iason AthanasiadisContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2008

‘ODALISQUE,’ 1862: British painter Frederick Leighton toured the former Ottoman Empire.

Birim Yöneticisi, Courtesy of Tate/Pera Museum

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Istanbul, Turkey

A GAGGLE OF EMIRATI art curators clad head to toe in black hijab paused in front of "Odalisque," British painter Frederick Leighton's sensuous portrait of a partially exposed Oriental beauty gazing indulgently at a long-beaked swan.

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Kristine Von Oehsen, the British Council exhibition curator guiding the group, tried to persuade the delegation there was little scandal in the discreet nudity, but the all-female group of Emiratis looked unconvinced.

Such cultural dissonance is part of putting on a show on a topic as controversial as Orientalist painting, then taking it on tour to the Muslim world. This effort at cultural diplomacy by the British Council, the British government's cultural arm, will move to Dubai's Emirati neighbor Sharjah after its show in Istanbul ends in January 2009.

"What makes 'The Lure of the East' different is that the subject is politically and culturally charged, certainly more so than the vast majority of exhibitions that we do," says Christine Riding, the exhibition cocurator and a specialist in 19th-century British art. "The idea of cultural diplomacy or dialogue between the tour venues and their audiences is that much more apparent and resonant."

The 100 or so paintings showcase interpretations of the Orient by a school of mostly British painters traveling in the 19th century throughout the former Ottoman Empire. They immersed themselves in an exotic world far different from the industrial West where they grew up sketching portraits, scenes of everyday life, and landscapes. Often, the subject matter was so unique that they had difficulty rendering it on canvas with the techniques they had learned. Jerusalem's Holy City proved a particular stretch, as centuries of change had stripped it of the biblical landscapes that they imagined Jesus had encountered.

Centuries of confrontation between East and West have embedded distrust on both sides, compounded by the modern experience of imperialism and terrorism. British commentator Yasmin Alibhai Brown visited the show at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., its first foreign location. Writing in the British daily The Independent she noted that "these paintings were always more than paintings." Their executors were a breed that "flourished and prospered during that period of Western hubris and Arab resentment, control and subjugation."

The exhibition was introduced to the Muslim world through Istanbul's private Pera Museum in the chic Beyoglu district that has long represented the West's toehold in the Ottoman Empire. Non-Muslim residents, whether Venetian traders, French diplomats, or Greek artisans, inhabited this commercial and entertainment district across the channel from the seat of the empire at the Topkapi Palace. The Ottomans needed trade with the West, but kept foreigners at arm's length.

In 2003, Beyoglu registered on the casualty sheet of the war against terrorism when a suspected Al Qaeda bombing rocked the British Consulate a week after two nearby synagogues were also struck.

Such precedents were dispelled on the crowded opening night of the "Lure of the East" show this past September as art lovers, local high society, foreign residents, and diplomats mingled in the lavishly appointed foyer of the museum.