Inventing Assyria: Exoticism and Reception in Nineteenth-Century England and France

By Bohrer, Frederick N. | The Art Bulletin, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Inventing Assyria: Exoticism and Reception in Nineteenth-Century England and France


Bohrer, Frederick N., The Art Bulletin


Since the Elgin marbles were brought to England, no similar arrival has occurred so calculated to excite the interests of artists and archaeologists, as these AssyrianBabylonian remains....-Sidney Smirke, 18471 Among the interesting questions which have arisen along with the recently discovered [Assyrian] monuments, it is certainly quite surprising to find those concerning art for its own sake....-Musee de Ninive, L'Illustration, 18472

The sudden archaeological discovery, starting in 1843, of a wealth of artifacts from the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire brought to the attention of Europeans a form of artistic production that was unique and unexpectedly striking to many contemporary eyes. Roughly comparable arrays of ancient Assyrian artifacts found by both French and English excavators were put on display almost simultaneously in the Louvre and British Museum, starting in 1847. Yet, even as Assyrian art received a (literal) place in the ranks of ancient art, it was problematic and difficult to assimilate into established artistic and cultural discourse. As we shall see, Assyria presented an unsettling addition to a history of ancient art and cultures whose primary touchstones had been objects from ancient Egypt and the Greco-Roman world.

The interplay of Assyrian archaeology with nineteenthcentury Western art and visual culture has never been fully assessed. The study of the Western reception of Assyrian art has focused largely on two portions of the phenomenon: a largely positivist narrative of archaeological progress and a narrowly defined "influence" on aspects of European art.3

My goal here will be, to adopt a term of Walter Benjamin, to brush these histories of continual progress, discovery, and innovation "against the grain."4 As we shall see, the varied and contradictory associations impressed on Assyria not only predate the archaeological discoveries themselves but also were decisively shaped by the particular institutional, ideological, aesthetic, and national arenas within which they circulated. Indeed, tracking the different significations of Assyria provides almost a snapshot of structures of power and knowledge active at the time, as well as some of the conflicts and contradictions involved in Western cross-cultural representation. This is a case study, then, in a given cultural moment, of the principle stated by Johannes Fabian that ". . . our ways of making the Other are ways of making ourselves." Further, as it represents an overlap between the concerns of art history and postcolonial studies, I will draw on the resources of both fields.5

My primary focus, then, is not ancient Assyria itself or its excavation, but rather what was made of it within nineteenthcentury Europe. I thus approach nineteenth-century Assyrian exoticism as a phenomenon of reception.6 I am concerned not with distinguishing "authentic" versus "inauthentic" representations of Assyrian culture or its artifacts but rather with articulating the (Western) processes through which all such representations take place, from Gustave Courbet's fanciful "Assyrian" beard to Ford Madox Brown's more painstaking re-creation of the interior of an Assyrian palace.

Parallel to the dynamic of imperialist power involved in Mesopotamian archaeology itself, the European reception of Assyria presents a series of conflictual power relations. As we shall see, the establishment of Assyria in the cultural and artistic discourse of the West illuminated, often precisely as it challenged, established norms of cultural discourse. To be more specific, I want to show here how the Assyrian discoveries were involved in a consistent process of identification by means of binarism and bifurcation. The most obvious binary pairing is that in which the West defined itself against its nebulous "Other." At the same time, juxtaposing different works of art and moments of reception ultimately undermines the binary logic that underwrites the Western construct of a timeless "exotic" East. …

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