Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe/Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine: A Victorian Photographer Abroad

By Çelik, Zeynep | The Art Bulletin, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe/Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine: A Victorian Photographer Abroad


Çelik, Zeynep, The Art Bulletin


FREDERICK N. BOHRER Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century Europe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 383 pp.; 79 b/w ills. $95.00

DOUGLAS R. NICKEL Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine: A Victorian Photographer Abroad Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 239 pp.; 85 b/w ills. $67.50

The immense impact of Edward Said's Onentalism (1978) and the subsequent development of postcolonial studies continue to shape the academic discourse in full vigor, as exemplified by these two studies. Frederick Bohrer and Douglas Nickel acknowledge their fundamental theoretical debt to Said, as well as to the debates fueled by Orientalism. Not surprisingly, their sympathies lie with Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak's critiques, which seem to have reached a canonical status of their own; Bhabha and Spivak emphasize the dynamism of the relations between the "East" and the "West" and introduce concepts such as "hybridity" and "ambivalence" to help understand the encounters. Bohrer's and Nickel's case studies of, respectively, the representation and reception of Mesopotamia in Europe and Francis Frith's photographs of Egypt and Palestine fill in key gaps in critical studies of nineteenth-century Orientalism.

Bohrer's examination of the circulation and reinvention of the Assyrian image and the artifacts in England, France, and Germany is at the same time an explicit inquiry into both methodology and theory. Interweaving postcolonial criticism with the reception theories of Hans-Robert Jauss and Walter Benjamin, he sees imperialism and the shifting assumptions of power as fundamental to the European understanding of Mesopotamia in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Bohrer's genuine commitment to theoretical analysis and innovation brings with it certain problems, as first becomes apparent in the structure of the book. Chapters 1 and 2, qualified as the "first part," focus on theory and methodology, while the six-chapter "second part" looks at the specificities of the Mesopotamian reception. The rupture thus created between theory and empirical research at the outset is not bridged well in the later parts, unfortunately obscuring Bohrer's important arguments.

In the first two chapters, Bohrer establishes "exoticism" as a system, an "action of encoding" from a center of power. His preference for "exoticism" over "Orientalism" carries a revisionist message, aiming to avoid binary constructions that the latter implies (it is puzzling that although he uses "exoticism" throughout his book, he, or the publisher, opted for "Orientalism" in the title). Capitalizing on the arguments of Jauss and Benjamin, he articulates the complexity of its circulation patterns between viewers and cultures, transformations, forms of resistance, and conflicts. He shows the overlaps between the reception and postcolonial theories and makes a case for Mesopotamia as the site of hybrid and heterogeneous Western representations, while pointing out that the representations consistently focused on the past and erased the area's contemporary identity.

Bohrer painstakingly explores the representation, reception, and assimilation of Mesopotamia in Europe through archaeological excavations, museums, scholarly literature, popular press, paintings, sculpture, panoramas, decorative arts, poetry, theater, and architecture (curiously, not photography). He argues that the Assyrian archaeological findings-discovered, identified, and interpreted by archaeologists-were valorized according to "antiquarian, nationalist, and aesthetic" criteria (p. 72), incorporated into Western knowledge, and put under its control. The French scene, launched by Paul-Émile Botta's archaeological excavations in Khorsabad in 1843, his five-volume Monuments de Ninive (1849-50), and the inauguration of Assyrian artifacts in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, in 1847, was dominated by an aesthetic appreciation. Detecting similarities between Assyrian, Greek, and Etruscan art, the French establishment placed Assyria in the "continuum of artistic progress" (p.

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