Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2001
Holly Edwards, ed. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America Princeton University Press in association with Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000. 242 pp.; many color ills.; some b/w ills. Paper $65.00 (069105004X)
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, June 11-September 4, 2000; The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD, October 1-December 10, 2000; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC, February 3-April 22, 2001.
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Prepared for an exhibition that originated at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, this catalogue richly illustrates and analyzes the multivalent visual culture of American Orientalism from the post-Civil War Holy Land paintings of Frederic Church to the Hollywood movie celebrity Rudolph Valentino, who starred in The Sheik (1921). The catalogue comprises five interpretive essays by scholars from different disciplines as well as contextually detailed catalogue entries for a diverse array of art objects and artifacts, including paintings and the decorative arts, advertising, photography, film, fashions, and documentary ephemera.

Curator and catalogue editor Holly Edwards writes in the preface that she sought to organize an exhibition of material culture that would blur the boundaries of academic disciplines and discrete methodologies. In defining the parameters of the term “Orientalism,” she credits the literary and cultural criticism of Edward Said, whose seminal 1978 book Orientalism established the analytical paradigm for explaining how the West constructed demeaning cultural stereotypes for an imperialist ideology that justified European conquest and domination of Islamic North Africa and the Middle East. Edwards, a historian of Islamic art, claims that during the late nineteenth century, Westerners most often conceived the Orient in terms of the geographically accessible—but still exotic—regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. She thus decided to exclude representations of Persia, India, and East Asia for reasons of clarity and coherence. Nevertheless, the catalogue documents an exhibition highlight, Persian and other Eastern artifacts from Olana, Church’s Hudson River mansion designed in the Persian style.

In an opening essay, senior Islamic art scholar Oleg Grabar expresses dissatisfaction with the “factually and logically incorrect” (3) restriction of the Orient to the Middle East and North Africa. Nevertheless, both Edwards and Grabar demonstrate that Americans were disposed to creating a primarily Near Eastern Orient. Grabar lists four major impulses that motivated American Orientalism: the Protestant quest to typologically connect the sacred, historical landscape of the Bible to the American Promised Land; the American consumer’s association of the Islamic Orient with luxury goods and European aristocratic taste; freemasonry and other fraternal societies’ identification with the mysteries of the Middle East; and the expansion of tourism and the attraction of the Holy Land for adventurers, cultural critics, and travel writers.

In the longest article in Noble Dreams, Edwards justifies the exhibition’s chronological limitations by arguing that prior to 1870, there was much more literary than visual evidence of American attitudes toward Islamic North Africa and the Middle East. Remarkably, it is not until a much later catalogue entry that she briefly mentions painter Miner Kellogg, the first American to sketch the Orient extensively while touring Egypt, Palestine, and Turkey during the 1840s. Despite their recognized importance for the mid-nineteenth century Oriental travel writer Bayard Taylor, Kellogg’s picturesque views are not mentioned at all in Edwards’s lengthy overview of American Orientalism and its origins. She does discuss earlier American interest in the Islamic world, such as the United States’ naval struggles against the so-called Barbary pirates of North Africa during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She neglects, however, early visual evidence for this interest, including the colonial and revolutionary-era portraits that displayed Turkish-style rugs or showed affluent sitters leisurely dressed in Oriental turbans and banyans. She also ignores Egyptian-revival architecture and decorative arts from the first half of the nineteenth century, and neglects the large body of antebellum Masonic decorative arts and paraphernalia. The colorful display of Shriner fezzes, jewels, and other memorabilia from the early twentieth century, however, is one of the exhibition’s many strengths. Still, Edwards’s essay and catalogue entries could have acknowledged that Freemasonry’s visual symbols and rituals had long excited national fantasies of the Orient as signified most visibly by the Masonic-inspired Egyptian pyramid and all-seeing eye that decorated the Great Seal of the United States.

In a catalogue entry for painter Elihu Vedder, Edwards draws a distinction between Orientalism and Egyptomania, stating that the latter is more “a reverie on the stages of man rather than the powers of nations” (149). Thus, Edwards excluded from the exhibition Vedder’s most famous painting, Questioner of the Sphinx, choosing instead a dreamily evocative view of the Nile inspired by the touring artist’s cruise of the river. On the other hand, the arbitrariness of Edwards’s distinction is apparent given her inclusion of Eric Pape’s 1891 painting, Site of Ancient Memphis, with its original Egyptian-revival frame and haze-enshrouded representation of the ancient pyramids.

One can only sympathize with the curatorial necessity of limiting the scope of such a stimulating and wide-ranging exhibition, but the catalogue’s relative neglect of earlier visual precedents is disappointing. In the catalogue’s third essay, American art historian Brian T. Allen does document some antebellum visual representations of the Holy Land, including popular exhibitions of spectacular panoramas representing Jerusalem and allusions to Jerusalem in the art of Thomas Cole, whose identity as a Freemason is, nevertheless, ignored.

As installed at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the exhibition began with a room devoted to the French Orientalist painter Jean Léon Gérôme and his American disciples, such as Frederick Arthur Bridgman, who studied in Paris following the Civil War. Both Edwards and Allen differentiate American Orientalism from its generally more negative, denigrating expression in paintings by Europeans, who were motivated much more by an aggressive imperialist agenda. Allen even argues that some American painters could represent Oriental scenes in a virtually nonideological, objectively realistic manner. More convincingly, Edwards insists that all American Orientalist pictures are “partial and contrived; none is ‘true’ or ‘accurate.’ Instead, they must be recognized as time-bound constructs used to give shape to disorderly aspirations and cross-cultural perceptions” (14). She demonstrates that American artists, working primarily for the northeastern white male elite, produced Orientalist images that affirmed that group’s racial, sexual, religious, and intellectual-technological superiority. At the same time, these representations indulged viewers’ imaginations with sensual pleasures and a nostalgic yearning for the primitive adventures and ambiance of the mythic Orient. Edwards’s inclusion of works by John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and other modernists proves that Orientalism was not, however, invariably tied to conservative academic styles, but could serve differing aesthetic purposes.

Zeynep Çelik, an architectural historian, authored the fourth essay, which usefully demonstrates how Turkish writers and artists attempted to counter the West’s objectifying discourse. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the government of the Ottoman Empire attempted to challenge the Orientalist stereotypes—replete with belly dancing, Arab horsemen, and other exotic attractions—promoted by the Chicago fair’s “Turkish Village” (78). A number of Istanbul photographers were encouraged to document the modernizing, westernizing reality of contemporary Turkey in a large collection of more than fifty photographic albums. As Çelik observes, this effort, among others, did little to persuade fairgoers and the American public at large to abandon the popular stereotypes of a backward, primitive Orient. Following the turn of the century, as Orientalism declined in painting and the fine arts, it expanded toward a far wider audience via department store displays and the new, expanding media of cinema and mass advertising. This popularization of Orientalism variously expressed the new cultural and socioeconomic energies of an urban, industrial nation experiencing tensions over issues of race, immigration, women’s rights, and changing gender roles.

In the fifth essay, anthropologist Steven C. Caton examines cultural constructions of race and gender in the 1920s through close analysis of the popular figure of the Arab sheik. He first examines American news commentator Lowell Thomas’s travelogue film exhibition “With Lawrence in Arabia,” a work that romanticized the wartime exploits of Colonel T.E. Lawrence as a heroic, racially superior “white sheik” (104) responsible for driving the Ottoman Turks from Arabia. He then compares and contrasts the narrative structures of Edith Hull’s romance novel The Sheik (1919), a British and American bestseller, with its wildly successful Hollywood adaptation in 1921. Caton persuasively demonstrates how the American public’s varied response to the novel and to Valentino’s androgynous and ethnically mixed film persona expressed cultural tensions over the blurring of gender identities and white anxieties about miscegenation and the immigration of swarthy immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The concluding catalogue entries, written in the form of short, thematic essays, focus more thoroughly upon the exhibition’s specific objects. Densely packed with information and careful analysis, they vividly bring the images and their layered meanings to life. While one can quibble with curatorial and authorial omissions, Edwards and her colleagues have successfully produced an intellectually stimulating, much-needed catalogue for an important exhibition of American material culture.

David Bjelajac
Professor of Art and American Studies, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.