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Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Historical Middle East, one: Orientalist art

This is the first in a new (third) series of blogposts based on the ME trip I completed in May and early June. 

It seems a bit strange to be still writing about the trip so far down the track but it was a big event for me, I learned a terrific amount in a short space of time. To recap the itinerary (I did a longer post at the beginning of June with more details for the journey): we flew from Sydney to Abu Dhabi and then flew from there to Amman in Jordan. After a week in that country we drove in a taxi to the Israeli border and crossed the river on the Allenby Bridge by bus, then got a cab to Jerusalem. After a week in that city we flew to Istanbul and stayed a week there then flew back to Abu Dhabi, before returning to Australia.

Now, Westerners looking to the Middle East to find out about themselves and the origins of civilisation have since the middle of the 19th century been in plentiful supply. The person I went with is Chinese and so I had a slightly different perspective from most, but I was quite typical of what has been a steady procession of adventurers of European ancestry who optimistically put on a keffiyeh (a headscarf) and go native, stars set resolutely in their eyes. A lot of Europeans visit the region these days, unquestionably (from direct observation) many more Europeans than Americans, and the lure of the exotic is as strong now as it was, in the first half of the 19th century, when Scotsman David Roberts went to Petra and made the sketches that made him famous.

You can buy a book of Roberts’ lithographs in the lobby of the Petra Palace Hotel where there is a gift shop catering to tourists. Roberts’ achievement is equally prized today by Jordanians because he shows them aspects of themselves that they would otherwise have long since forgotten, and this is true of Istanbul as well. Orientalist paintings constitute a major feature of the Dolmabahce Palace, the massive, comical, expensive, Italianate dwelling of the last dozen or so sultans who ruled in the Ottoman Empire.

On day five in the city we entered the painting museum there at 3.40pm and we left it at 4.20pm. It cost 20 Turkish lira (A$5) each and you’re not allowed to take any photos but I noted down some of the names of painters whose works hang on the walls. Here they are:

Victor Pierre Huguet (1835-1902), Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913), Sandor Alexander Swoboda (1826-1896), Pierre Desire Guillemet (1827-1878), Alberto Pasini (1826-1899), Francois Dubois (1790-1871), Pavlo Verona (not identified on Google; I might have made a mistake typing his name but I tried "Pablo" as well and this also turned up nothing), Fabius Germain Brest (1823-1900), Tristam James Ellis (1844-1922), Salvatore Valeri (1856-1946), Jean-Baptiste-Etienne Deforcade (couldn’t find this guy on Google either), Adolf Kaufman (1846-1916), Joseph Manas (no trace on Google), Max Friedrich Rabes (1868-1944), Max Schmidt (1818-1901), Gustave Boulanget (1824-1888), Joseph Pierre Oliver Coomans (1816-1889), Ivan Konstantinovic Ayvazovski (1817-1900), Georges Washington (the pseudonym of a painter named Besse, 1827-1901), Stanislaw Chlebowski (1835-1921), Rudolf Theodore Rocholl (1854-1933, a German), and Adolphe Schreyer (1828-1899).

If you put most of these names in Google you can see the kinds of work that they made during their sojourns in Turkey. I recommend it, if only to experience the complete, vicarious thrill of seeing the products of a group of well-paid Victorian gentleman unleashed, with their paintboxes and easels, on an unsuspecting Orient. It appears from a cursory series of searches that all of these men are known particularly for their orientalist paintings. Some of them, like Washington, specialised in military scenes. (The sultan’s personal quarters in the palace have a lot of these on the walls, no doubt to prime him mentally for all the battles he or his successors were going to lose in WWI.)

What's also striking is how Europeans adopted different personas when they chose to live in Istanbul during this period. The number of artists who evidently used pseudonyms (as evidenced by the number whose names didn't pop up on Google searches), and the paintings (below) that show Europeans in local costume, indicate a willingness, indeed an urge, to adopt a pose and to "go native". This is because of the alienness of the culture they found in the Middle East. They were drawn to this type of behaviour because they saw and heard so much that was different from what they had grown up with back home.

It’s a shame that you can’t take photos in the painting museum in the Dolmabahce Palace and I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind this policy as it certainly limits the amount of exposure the collection gets. There are not many books on sale in the bookshop in the complex and among the ones that are there are none that feature paintings on display in the gallery, so tourists taking photos wouldn’t hurt the bottom line.

The Pera Museum (also north of the Golden Horn), where we arrived at 5.25pm on day four in the city, allows you to take photos but their collection is nowhere near as extensive as the one in the palace. We paid the entry fee (20 Turkish lira, or A$5, each) and walked up the stairs to the second floor, which is where the main permanent exhibit is on display. Here they have a lot of 18th and 19th century European style paintings, some by locals who had studied in Europe and others by Europeans who had travelled to Turkey to make their art.  In this museum they normally sell a book of reproductions that you can buy if you want to take home a memento of your visit but when we were there it was out of stock. We left the building at 6.25pm after buying two postcards for 10 Turkish Lira (A$2.50).

After this we walked for a few minutes and had a look in a print shop where one of the people on duty spoke good English. In this shop you can buy reproductions of paintings like the ones in the Pera Museum, as well as original etchings and other kinds of prints dating from earlier generations. There is furthermore a bookshop on Istiklal Street, not far from this shop, where you can also buy old prints and reproductions of orientalist art. Tourists gravitate to this kind of cultural product in Istanbul.

As a final note, we found the Dolmabahce Palace and the Pera Museum in ‘Museums of Istanbul’ which is published by Uranus Photography Agency & Publishing Co. I picked up this English-language guidebook (66 Turkish lira, or A$16.70, and 286 pages) in the gift shop in the Topkapi Palace but I’m sure that you can find the same item in other places around the city. It is very good and has the addresses of the museums printed in it, which can be very useful when trying to communicate with taxi drivers.


Above: This painting in the Pera Museum in Istanbul is by Osman Hamdi Bey, a local painter who had been taught in the European tradition. This is titled 'Two Musician Girls' and it's dated 1880. 


Above: 'Woman Smoking a Tombac' by Emile Bernard, 1900. The label says Bernard was born in Cairo. This painting is in the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.


Above: A detail of a painting in the Pera Museum, in Istanbul, showing the city the way it was in the old days when the Ottoman Empire was still in existence. That looks like Ayasofya there on the opposite shore. In the foreground are people in a garden.


Above: Another detail from the same painting.


Above: Europeans who came as ambassadors to the court of the sultan were sometimes painted in local dress, like this man.


Above: In the Pera Museum, this painting of Karl Fredrik von Breda by Yusuf Agah Efendi, oil on canvas, 1794-1796.


Above: A girl, a European, being carried in a palanquin in Istanbul.


Above: The French palace (embassy) in Tarabya.

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