Orientalism as a Veil for Promiscuity in Art History

Orientalism is the theory coined by Edward Said which shines a light upon West’s modern conception of the East. Siad claims with the West’s increased interest in eastern culture (particularly ancient eastern culture) came the rise of a distorted perception of eastern customs and lifestyle. The scientistic, sociologists and archeologist perpetuated narratives about middle eastern and northern African culture that cast them mystical and mysterious in an archaic, patronizing manner. This narrative served the imperialist agenda; branding these foreign cultures as otherworldly and and antiquated justified European colonialism as a means of “civilizing.”

Orientalism modern application are far reaching and fascinating, but what interests me most is the prominence of this theory applications in art history. Recently in my art history class, we looked at a piece by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres entitled La Grand Odalisque (Odalisque refers to female member of a concubine).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 63″ (91 x 162 cm), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

In the painting, done by a French artist, a women sits nude with her back to the audience. She is surrounded by relics from the East; a hookah pipe, bangle bracelets, a head scarf. Although the women does not appear to be from the East herself, her environment suggests that she belongs to the western conception of the orient.

This painting was likely created for several reasons. For on, Europe’s newfound exploration into the middle east and northern Africa sparked an interest in these cultures that were seen as new and “exotic.” But the arguably more prevalent reason why this piece was created, or rather how is was created, was because orientalism served as an excuse for sexual themes in art.

For hundreds of years in European art history, various excuses had been made for including suggestive female nudes in master art works. Most commonly, people referred to the nude figures in their paintings as “Venuses.” This titled referred back to the greek goddess of love and beauty. So while is was frowned upon to have images of naked women for the sake of having images of naked women, if theme images were put in the context of ancient greece, they were no longer promiscuous, rather they were academic. The sexual nature of the piece could be cast off by the pagan environment it was set in. In fact, the piece that most heavily influence La Grande Odalisque was in fact Venus of Urbino which depicted one of these venus figures.

La Grande Odalisque has a similar idea only instead of using greek mythology to cloak sexual content, orientalism was the cloak. At the time of the paintings creation, France had just exited their revolution and while social change was stirring, people remained highly conservative in their beliefs. In order to get away with a painting of a nude female, Inges cast the figure as a part of an Eastern harem, or, Odalisque. It was a widely held notion to westerns at the time that people in the East often engaged in immodest sexual practices and multiple marriages. As such, setting this peice in the environment of the oriental allowed the artist and the patron to conceal the sexual themes as an interest in the eastern world and its culture (that is, its percieved culture).

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