Thursday, 18 March 2010

Medievalism, Orientalism, and a view of reality

Pre-raphaelites, the faux medieavalism of William Morris, the Orientalism of Rosetti have two things in common. Colour and exoticism. Things solely lacking in mid Victorian England.

And as such they had a tremendous influence on Victorian England, letting colour back into a very staid, monochrome, hide bound society. They also perpetrated a view of medieval history and of the Orient that was colourful and exotic. No open drains, flies, or disfiguring diseases, as that spoils the aesthetic power of the image. All elegant and colourfully robed people, plus, and only where appropriate of course, a bit of female nudity.

You can see the same at work in the classical paintings of Alma-Tadema, which despite their claims for historical accuracy could be construed as essentially a means to legitimize looking at paintings of naked late Victorian middle class women- his tepidarium painting being a particularly blatant example.

Nor was France immune from the charms of Orientalism and the resultant image of Algeria as a rose tainted place of exotic carpet dealers and odalisques. (They also went to work on Indochina, and even today in Vientiane you can buy postcards of exotic half naked hilltribes women - sex and exoticism - a powerful combination)

Now all of this wouldn't matter a damn if it wasn't for the very powerful hold Orientalism has taken on our collective imagination. As far as medieval and classical history is concerned it's probably been fairly harmless, and turned as many people on to history as it has annoyed.

But as regards the Orient, or more particularly what the preRapahelites would have known as the Levant and points east and we call the Middle East it has been a disaster, obscuring our understanding of these cultures and societies, with people falling back to 100 year old stereotypes.

And to be fair, the middle east has played along - look at any carpet shop in Turkey catering to western tourists - making and selling souvenirs that speak of exoticism, no matter that off duty the salesmen wear hoodies and jeans, and drive Toyota pickups.

However this failure has crippled us, blinding us to reality while we go blindly on, pretending to be Lord Curzon, enthralled by the remnants of a vanished world ...

1 comment:

dgm said...

litmuse's photostream on flickr contains fine set of orientalist and faux medieval art among other images