Orientalist Art

Article excerpt

In February 1990 an Orientalist painting by Jean-Leon Gerome depicting Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite, fetched $2m at a Sotheby's auction in New York. This was a record price that was not to be equalled for nine years; the early 1990s being the' zenith for staggering price's paid for all types of art, the climax of an international movement which had gathered momentum during the 1980s. That gravy train came to a shuddering bah just about that time, and only began to gather speed again at the end of the decade. In 1999, again in New York, this time at Christie's, Gerome's "View of the Wailing Wall" reached $2,312,500. This world record price was achieved for a type of art of which is so little known and appreciated that its very name, Orientalism, is confused with Oriental art.

Then came 9/11, and for the US at least, everything 'Arabian' became deeply unfashionable. A disastrously ill-timed sale of Orientalist art in New York just afterwards saw only four paintings sell out of 20. But at last the tide seems to be turning, and at Sotheby's London in June of last year, "Interieur Grec", once again by one of the masters of the genre, Gerome, realised $1,842,226, close to the world record.

So what is this niche corner of the art world, and is it just globetrotting Arabs nostalgic for a vanished past who are paying such jaw-dropping prices? The term 'Orientalist Art' originated from the 'Salon des Orientalistes' held in Paris in 1899, exhibiting work by western, primarily European artists of their fantasies of Arabia--paintings of the Middle East and North Africa, more or less exotic, more or less accurate. Many of these 19th century artists developed a genuine respect and affection for the regions in which they travelled--for their people and culture, architecture and oasis life. Some, notably the Italians, were true studio travellers, working from photographs, escaping the poverty arid squalor their more adventurous and peripatetic fellow artists so studiously avoided painting.

In its own time, the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an extremely bullish market for Orientalism, which stimulated excess production and some second-class work. The inevitable reaction saw to it that Orientalism, became so unfashionable and ignored, that many museums and private owners sold their collections and prices plummeted. In the last two decades or so, a re-evaluation has taken place and interest in the genre has been rekindled.

"The majority of my sales are still to Arab clients," said Brian Macdermott, of the Mathaf Gallery in London. "Last year the Arab market started off very firm," be noted, "Then it calmed down with the Iraq War; now it's picking up again. It's a very seasonal affair, with Arab buyers coming into England for the summer" a fact corroborated by Mark Poltimore, Senior Director at Sotheby's, London, and a specialist in Orientalism. "Arabs feel very comfortable about coming to London, and often have agents and homes here. London is a better sales arena than anywhere else for this kind of art--there's an old alliance between the UK and the Middle East. Saudi Arabian clients are still buying, though less since the war in Kuwait and usually through an agent, but Qatar and the Emirates are a much bigger market."

During the 1970s and 1980s, a series of international exhibitions in which Orientalism was reassessed in wider historical and cultural contexts, ensured its critical re-appraisal and brought it back to public notice.

"It's not just an Arab oriented field any longer," said Macdermott. "In value, rather than numbers, the widening of business to the American and European markets in the last 10 years has rivalled that from the Arab world. Rather surprisingly, we've seen some American buying during the war in Iraq. In fact I would say that it really didn't have much effect on our business, nor has there been any discernable resentment in our trade on the part of Arabs against Britons and Americans. …