A mercury vision captured on a copper plate, the iridescent figure of Ayoucha, the earliest known photographic depiction of a veiled woman from the Islamic world, flickers between being and nothingness, between a positive and a negative image, as light reflects off the silvered surface of the 170-year-old daguerreotype.
One of the most arresting exhibits in Birth of a Museum, the latest insight into the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection, Ayoucha will also feature in Looking East from West: Orientalist art and photography, the forthcoming panel discussion in the museum’s recurring Talking Art series.
Looking East from West will discuss the impact of travel, interaction between cultures, the Orient, and Orientalism on works from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection.
These include images such as Ayoucha by the pioneering French daguerreotypist Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, studio photographs by the renowned 19th century English photographer Roger Fenton, and Oriental Bliss, a late painting by the 20th century modernist master and Bauhaus tutor Paul Klee.
In its very narrowest sense, Orientalism can be defined as a 19th century European fascination with the objects, peoples and cultures of the newly encountered North Africa and the Middle East. Born of increased European colonialism, trade, travel and the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, Orientalism exerted its powerful allure on the western imagination and expressed itself in everything from fashion, music and literature to architecture, aesthetics, and art.
Orientalism remained little more than a matter of style, iconography and genre, of interest mainly to historians of culture and the arts until the 1970s, when the Palestinian-American academic Edward W Said wrote Orientalism, an intellectual history and blistering exposé of the cultural assumptions that Said believed informed western representations of the east.
Where academics had previously seen literature and paintings, Said found widespread evidence of a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture” and an insidious system of cultural hegemony that provided justification for Western imperial ambitions throughout the East. It was a position Said defended until his death.
Laurence des Cars is the curatorial director of Agence France-Museums, the body charged with overseeing the curatorial development of the new Louvre. She believes that such narrow definitions of Orientalism are unhelpful and prefers to adopt an approach that places it within its broadest possible context.
“The problem with Orientalism is that it has become a political statement and a lot of criticism is now attached to the word. We needed to move beyond that. We don’t want to be trapped in a movement’s approach to the history of art with all of the ‘isms’ that have been attached to the art in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We take a broader perspective because we have a very wide collection spanning from pre-history to contemporary art.”
The discussion promised by Looking East from West comes at an interesting moment. A decade after Said’s death, many of the issues he raised are still unavoidable. However, debates around Orientalism have also moved on and the genre has become popular in the Arab world. The irony is not lost on des Cars.
“Now, a part of the Arab world is eager to collect images that tell of a certain moment in its history. It’s very interesting how something that was born out of the western gaze, at the height of colonialism and empire in the 19th century, is now seen from the Arab world. This allows us to go beyond clichés and to tackle issues about the construction of images and identities.”
The authors of the catalogue accompanying the Birth of a Museum exhibition are particularly keen to ascribe a catalytic quality to Orientalism that “enabled 19th century artists and designers to renew their technical, decorative and ornamental repertoire, and to reformulate the questions of colour and light.”
The impact of travel, the East, and “the Other” on many of the influential early Modernists has been well documented. These factors coalesce with particular force in Paul Klee’s 1938 painting Oriental Bliss as Laurence des Cars describes.
“We wanted to be able to draw links between abstraction and ornament and the way some western artists tried to find inspiration and a new grammar in forms they were not familiar with and Klee touches on this. It is a perfect moment and expression of this long-running tradition of cross-cultural influences and exchange.”
Despite its rather understated title, Looking East from West promises to be one of the quiet intellectual highlights of Abu Dhabi’s cultural year, not least because the works under discussion are widely recognised as some of the rarest masterpieces in the wider context of the history of art.
Girault de Prangey’s Near Eastern daguerreotypes were relatively unknown in the world of art photography until the beginning of this century. Never exhibited during the photographer’s lifetime, they sat overlooked in a storeroom for more than 30 years after the artist’s death. Girault de Prangey took hundreds of pictures of the topography, architecture and archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean between 1842 and 1844, including the oldest surviving photographs of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. His daguerreotypes are now so highly prized that when part of the artist’s collection appeared at auction in 2003, a single 7 x 9 inch image of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens sold for £565,250 (Dh3.1 million).
Despite being exhibited alongside important works by Picasso, Gauguin, Mondrian and Magritte in Birth of a Museum, the tiny quarter plate daguerreotype portrait of Ayoucha – no larger than a postcard – exerts a fascination all of its own. “It is an image that will become one of the icons of 19th century photography,” explains des Cars. “You are dealing with a very rare and fine example of a new technique in 19th century art.”
Ayoucha, one of five portraits of the young Cairene made by Girault de Prangey, could not be more different from Roger Fenton’s studio-based tableaux vivants of 1858, which display another set of concerns and relationships between the artist and the Orient.
Fenton never travelled farther than the Crimea, where he took pictures of the war in 1855, and had no direct contact with the Orient. He relied instead on his knowledge of the work of contemporary Orientalist artists such as Eugene Delacroix and John Frederick Lewis and the experience of one his photographic models, the English landscape artist Frank Dillon. Recently identified as the Pasha figure seated in the centre of Fenton’s picture, Dillon spent a winter in Egypt sketching and painting in along the Nile.
For des Cars, images such as these provide an insight into the different varieties of Orientalism that other media do not.
“If you approach Orientalism through photographs, it gives you a better sense of the diversity of the 19th century Western gaze. It’s not just the usual cliché, saying that these works are pure fascination or pure fantasy, it’s a much more complex question that deals with the nature of reality, with politics, with the impact of travel on the artist, archaeology, and the knowledge of the past.”
Looking East from West: Orientalist Art and Photography will take place at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday, May 29 from 6.45pm.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi