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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.

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"The light and atmosphere in some paintings are exactly what you find when you visit the Grand Bazaar," says Jessica Hound, the British consul general. "It's probably the best place to show in, you get so much more of the atmosphere when you walk in from an Istanbul street into this."

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Istanbul's skyscraping minarets, palaces, and Orthodox churches conjure up a romantic cosmopolitanism that have made the city an international destination since Byzantium. Today, it is considered one of the coolest cities as it prepares to become a European Capital of Culture in 2010. Hosting an exhibition that inspired British designer Paul Smith's spring/summer 2009 collection slots into the zeitgeist.

The opening of the Suez Canal and the introduction of steamboat and railway travel enabled a generation of artists to visit the Eastern Mediterranean's great cities. In Istanbul, they mingled with a glamorous aristocratic and international set, such as Halicoo Mirza, a Persian prince of the Qajar dynasty exiled to the Ottoman Empire and one of the few non-Westerners whose portrait is on display.

"It's very interesting for us because it's our culture," says Serpil Erolgil, a photographer pacing through a gallery of Orientalists' portraits. "Most [of the paintings] are from Cairo, but they remind us of our country."

Reviewer Andrew Finkel pointed out in the Turkish newspaper Zaman that showing these works amid the architecture that originally inspired them might come across a bit like selling "coals to Newcastle or, as they say in Persian, like cumin to Kermanshah." But the show also shatters some stereotypes, not least in the work of Henriette Browne, the wife of the French ambassador to Istanbul, who was the first Westerner to paint a harem scene in situ. When she exhibited her work in Paris, their tame domesticity exploded the myths that male painters had perpetuated about the purported debauchery of the harems.

Developing organically as it migrated from London to the United States, Istanbul, and then Sharjah, the exhibition has shed and gained paintings. Upon reaching the end of the road in the United Arab Emirates, it will have traveled from the most cosmopolitan city of the Muslim world to a provincial backwater struggling to establish its name on the art map. Local considerations will come into play and the collection's steamier scenes will be removed to bring it into line with Islamic morality in the conservative Gulf emirate.

"In our museum, we have a special policy," says curator Zakryat Matouk. "We have the culture thing, the religious thing. We have to be careful because our museum is for everybody, the entire family."

But at a time when Orientalist art is enjoying a critical reappraisal and breaking auction records, some of the major collectors are Middle Eastern. The subjects of Orientalism have become its self-confessed apostles, as demonstrated by the royal families and private collectors from the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia who contributed important works to the traveling Tate show.

• Iason Athanasiadis is reporting on Turkey through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.