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The Ghosts of Edward Saïd

A provocative Paris show of Orientalist art charts the European encounter with Sephardic Jewry

Vladislav Davidzon
July 02, 2012

Walking through the astounding new show “Les Juifs dans l’orientalisme”—“The Jews in Orientalism”—in Paris, it is impossible to avoid the ghostly accompanying presence of the late Edward Saïd, who turned the term “Orientalism” into a curse against the West and a political weapon in the service of his people. Hung in the elegant halls of the three-and-a-half-century-old Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, home of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (which by common acclaim has the most interesting programming of any Jewish museum in Europe), the show charts the European encounter with the Sephardic Jewish communities of Northern Africa and the Mediterranean rim at the beginning of the 19th century. Would Saïd, the great scourge of Western cultural condensation and appropriation, have taken the art that resulted from that encounter to be prime evidence in his case against the Occident? Or would he have dismissed it as a high-class form of Zionist-colonialist propaganda?

The lush and often fantastical “Orientalization” of the Jews of Northern Africa was an intrinsic part of the way the West came to understand and appreciate the East. The European fascination with the Orient began soon after first contact had been established by buccaneering 18th-century adventurers and continued as the French and British empires expanded into North Africa and the Middle East with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. One need not go any further than Chateaubriand or Flaubert’s travelogues to get a feel for the brooding romanticism of the adventurers who made Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt into standard stops on the grand tour route taken by ne’er-do-well aristocrats slumming their way toward Constantinople and Jerusalem.

The exhibition proffers a large number of Delacroix’s sketch notebooks and watercolors from Morocco. (The exhibit’s one glaring lacuna is the absence of Delacroix’s Jewish Wedding in Morocco, on loan in Spain from the Louvre.) Delacroix’s preparatory sketches, seldom seen separately from their Arab counterparts in his famous 1837-41 trip folios, are striking and ennobling, while Theodore Chasseriau’s diminutive and delicate ink portraits of the Jews of Algeria are empathetic and well wrought. Many of the other paintings and drawings are merely anthropological: Neoclassical depictions of gluttonous feasts; hermetic, almost Dutch synagogue interiors; and fresco group studies of old Jewish men lounging lazily on the Sabbath in front of Moorish scenes or in cozy souk alleyways.

Yet touchy questions of physiological categorization and the complexity of racial relations arise inexorably in others. Intimate portraits of Jewish matrons posing in their salons include African servant girls hovering in the background. Many of the paintings depict the Sephardic Jews as white-skinned, possessing European features, fostering a sense of the painter’s identification with them as fellow colonials—while other pictures depict Jews as very swarthy. In a few cases they are dark enough to give rise to suspicions of brown-face caricature. Dehodencq’s L’execution de la Juive, a thoroughly Orientalist historico-dramatic panorama of a stoic Jewish girl being led to slaughter for her apostasy in refusing to convert to Islam, is exactly the sort of thing that would have made Saïd throw a fit.

The Sephardic communities’ trade, religious and familial links with their European brethren, as well as their knowledge of languages and cultural practices, conferred on them a privileged status as gatekeepers and interpreters between Europeans and local Arab populations; without them there may not have been an encounter. There is also an undeniable division between the sensibilities of the Christian and Jewish European traveler-painters. The latter, especially the French neo-classicists Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Charles Landelle, and Henri-Léopold Lévy, were able to distinguish between “universal” Jewish traits and flamboyant local phenomena—and far less apt to portray North African Jewry through the warping lens of “barbaric splendor.”

What begins ostensibly as the story of the representation of the Jews of the Orient in 19th-century European art morphs into a survey of the cultural place of the Jewish patrimony and of the Jew as an amalgamating, border-crossing force, the middleman between cultures, epochs, and artistic movements. The show is also compelling in its portrayal of the multiplicity and variety of Jewish modernisms, as the latter half of the 19th century saw a boom in the production of Holy Land painting and lithography for the consumption of tourists and pilgrims. The lush topography of Thomas Seddon’s and Gustav Bauernfeind’s landscapes and the spare tranquility of David Robert’s Old City lithographs will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited antique shops in Jerusalem. The inclusion of the more obscure paintings of Louis de Fobin and the Russian World of Art star Vasily Vereshchagin—his oil of the Western Wall painted in the 1880s is particularly lovely—is a testament to the depth and intelligence of the curatorial framing of the show.

A related trend during the period was the thunderous popularity of mass-produced and lavishly illustrated high-end Bibles among the English middle classes. A number of artists made several multiyear trips to the Holy Land to gather material for those illustrations, among them well-known figures such as James Tissot. These illustrations are a bridge between the classicizing and figurative representation of actual Jewish life in the Middle East and thematic appropriation by weavers of mythological tapestries for mass European consumption. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s magnificent Joseph in the guise of an Egyptian Pharaoh, Moreau’s symbolist Salomé, and Horace Vernet’s painting of a Bedouin Jesus stand out here among recurring examples of the Orientalist fascination with kinky Jewish femme fatales.

The third section of the exhibit shows how the influence of the Orientalists looped back around to Polish artists living in the Pale of Settlement, Europe’s own Far East. It ends with the expansion of Orientalist motifs into the fledgling modernist experiments of the so-called New Hebrews—the Krakow- and Prague-trained artists such as Boris Schatz, Abel Pann, Ze’ev Raban, and Ephraim Moses Lilien, who opened the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1906, bringing European sensibilities in experimentation and a modern teaching craft to Israel. This is a rarely told story, and the selection of paintings runs from the inspired to the bizarrely inspirational. But after the majesty of the preceding parts of this show, the finale feels shallow and undercooked. This is the only part of the exhibition that felt like the curators were grasping for an antecedent historical dialectic, which feels tacked-on.

Another consequence of the Franco-centric nature of the curatorial narrative here is the show’s underplaying of the English contingent of Orientalist artists. Though the smattering of English paintings is well chosen, the show offers a mere work or two each by such eminent orientalists as William Wyld, John Evan Hodgson, and Wil Boyl. There is, however, a wonderful William Hollman Hunt painting of a blue-eyed and red-haired pre-Raphaelite 12-year-old Jesus arguing in the Temple with aged and Semitic-looking priests. In its claiming of Jesus as a Christian European child engaged in oppositional dialogue with his aged ancestors, the painter quite clearly establishes what Saïd could never admit: that the specific 19th-century European fascination with the Orient was in some large part the manifestation of a much older cultural anxiety about the debt that Christian Europe owed to the pre-Islamic East.


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Vladislav Davidzon, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, is a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.