x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Orient express

European depictions of the Middle East - and ample doses of post-colonial angst - fill the Tate Britain's latest exhibition. Kanishk Tharoor wishes the museum had let the paintings speak for themselves.

In April 1717, after bumping through the craggy woodlands and valleys of the Balkans, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came to the ancient town of Adrianople. The city guarded the plains of Thrace and, further to the southeast, the approach to imperial Istanbul. That still distant metropolis was her destination; she was the wife of Edward Montagu, the new British ambassador to the court of the Ottoman sultan. But upon reaching Adrianople, Mary Wortley had, in a way, already arrived. It was here that she realised how far she had journeyed. "I am now into a new world," she wrote to a friend, "where everything I see appears to me a change of scene."

Her slow, cross-continent trip had already taken her past many strange and wondrous places - the primordial murk of the Black Forest, the shadowy secrets of the Carpathians - that would have seemed quite alien to any of the aristocratic dames of drizzling England. But it was only now, in Adrianople, in land firmly under the grip of the Ottoman Turks and the sway of Islam, that she found herself beyond the pale.

Mary Wortley's arrival in Adrianople marked her entry into an alternate universe, the "Orient". Such a powerful sense of foreignness, of breathing different air, was shared by many of the growing number of Europeans who poured into the Middle East through the 18th and 19th centuries. Geography, for such travellers, melted into a foggy map of civilisations. Like Mary Wortley, they seemed to cross an invisible line, from a culture they believed to know into a culture alternately baffling, alluring and repellent. The European imagination was bedevilled by this "other", the teeming bazaars of Cairo, the tapering spires of Istanbul, the veils and shutters of the harem, the steamy baths and gleaming scimitars of a world half-real and half-conjured.

Never far from that churning imagination were ever-active European brushes and pens. How European, particularly British, artists viewed the Middle East is the subject of The Lure of the East, an ambitious new exhibition at the Tate Britain in London. A portrait of Mary Wortley in "Eastern garb" stands amid a motley crew of oils and watercolours. The show revisits over200 years of Orientalist painting, with a heavy focus on the 19th century, when the region - diplomatically dubbed "the eastern Mediterranean" by the curators - was awash with European adventurers, businessmen, missionaries and that quieter species of tourist: painters.

It is hardly a coincidence that the same period witnessed the creeping growth of European political control in the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, which for centuries had ruled the Levant, Arabia and stretches of the Maghreb, gradually succumbed to the advances of its neighbours and the retractions of its constituent parts. In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt in the first comprehensive European military foray into the Middle East since the crusades. By the end of the First World War, all the territory between modern day Egypt and Iraq lay in British and French hands. As European painters sketched the contours of the Orient, European politicians and soldiers redrew its cartography.

There is no easy allegiance between art and power, nor necesarrily any obvious connection. Yet ever since the 1978 publication of Edward Said's much-lauded and much-maligned Orientalism, European representations of the Middle East from the era of high imperialism have fallen under deep suspicion. Said argued that in describing and illustrating the Orient, western scholars, writers and artists systematised a welter of negative understandings of the region (its despotism, its stagnant timelessness, its decadence, and so forth) that facilitated and encouraged its political conquest by Europe. Napoleon's army, after all, arrived in Egypt armed to the teeth with artists and antiquarians. Knowledge was bound to force from the off.

Said spawned a ceaseless and emotional debate that provides the not-so-subtle subtext of the Tate's exhibition. These portraits and landscapes, watercolours and sketches are contested ground in battles that continue to shake venues like the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books and the halls of academia. As American and British troops patrol the streets of Baghdad and Kandahar, the eastern visions of their predecessors return as a reminder of the abiding complexity of the west's involvement in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the curators chose not to confine the struggles of critics and academics to the whispered background. The controversy around Orientalism is instead loudly drawn out, lurking noisily about the paintings as if art were only politics by other means. One cannot pass from one room to the next or from one painting to another without the intrusion of hammy interpretive commentary, both in caption and audio. These additions - the contributions of a slew of well-meaning scholars - are too short to offer much insight, but long enough (and frequent enough) to annoy. They add a dreary weight to a series of paintings that, in its glowing diversity, invites much lighter appreciation and comparison. One reaches a more honest sense of the conflicted nature of the Orientalist gaze by ignoring the hackery and focusing within the frame.

The mission of any visitor to the exhibition is inevitably to distil the image from the word, the painting from the fluff of forced analysis. It doesn't require the assistance of extra captions to spot the obvious derogatory stereotypes in many of the paintings. William Allen's Slave Market in Constantinople (1838), with its chaotic depiction of swarthy, mustachioed Turks leering over wailing pale-skinned women and children, appeals to the crudest bigotry and macho conviction in the vulnerability of women. So too does David Roberts' sweeping oil of The Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec (1861) open a chasm between "east" and "west". In the painting - composed twenty-two years after Roberts actually visited the Roman ruins of Heliopolis (in what is now Lebanon) - garishly robed and turbaned Arabs swarm clumsily over the crumbling and fallen columns of a once grand Roman city. Classical antiquity is the Arabs' false inheritance; it is up to the intrepid western observer to redeem civilisation.

Such expected rude simplicities fail to appear elsewhere in the exhibition. The "seraglio," or harem, was long the object of European male fantasy and lust. Yet the British artists featured here paint the harem in chaste, almost virtuous colours. Henry Pickersgill's women have little of the licentiousness that one imagines to have lit the western eye, but instead sit by open windows in indifferent repose. Most striking, of course, is Henriette Browne's The Arrival at the Harem in Constantinople (1861). As a woman, Browne was actually allowed into a harem and used her access to reveal a thoroughly domestic, unexotic world of frumpy women, their bored children and nattering servants. Where some Orientalists drifted into sexual reverie, others remained moored in a fairly pedestrian reality.

A piercing commitment to reality, to the granular and to the quotidian, separates the most masterful Orientalist artist in the exhibition from his contemporaries. John Frederick Lewis lived in Cairo for a decade in the 1840s. His paintings of the city, its architecture and people never succumb to that inclination so evident in the works of Orientalists like William James Müller, a Bristol-born painter who passed briefly through Cairo in 1844. Müller's watercolour of a market scene in The Opium Seller melds light and dark, placing blurred figures in the midst of shadowy uncertainty. Similarly, his Carpet Bazaar of flowing fabrics and colourful people makes humans indistinguishable from extravagant decor. Both paintings evoke a mood, not a moment. Lewis' paintings, on the contrary, maintain a fine distinction between place and person. His many depictions of Cairene public life, especially of the great bazaar of Khan al Khalili and the mournful street of the Ghouriyyah, are works of careful sensitivity, at once majestic in their scope and delicate in their detail. While his images, likened at the time to daguerreotypes, ask to be looked at on their own terms, Müller's draw their power from insinuation and assumption.

It is in the latter's impulse to fictionalise that "Orientalism" begins to take dark shape. And it is in the fruition of the narrative-driven visions of David Roberts and William Allen, as well as a few other artists in the exhibition like Thomas Seddon and William Holman Hunt, that it gains even darker relevance and meaning. The uncertainty underpinning the ongoing debate over "Orientalism" is whether it is at all possible for westerners to regard and study the "East" in total innocence. Must every brushstroke be inscribed with power? In indirect fashion, and totally despite its cringeworthy insistence on pseudo-academic punditry, the exhibition finds ways of addressing the question. The clarity of John Frederick Lewis is one answer. Lewis settles upon a humanist calm, nowhere more evident than in his study of a Commentator on the Quran (1869), in which an old, rheumy-eyed scholar takes notes as he reads the holy book in the last light of the day.

Another possibility - and my favourite - lies in Edward Lear's magical Constantinople from Eyüp (1858). Elsewhere in the gallery, one can easily spot Lear's massive landscapes of Damascus and Jerusalem made to look puny amid the domination of nature. Constantinople from Eyüp is a very different painting, so small it is easy to miss among its more expansive neighbours. A hillside cemetery stands in the foreground, cypress trees rising high from in between its ancient, tilting tombstones. In the distance and on the fringes of the canvas, the domes and spires of Istanbul twinkle white and blue, tiny and indistinct. Were it not for Lear's incredibly light touch, the painting could have sinister overtones. Instead, it is bright and almost reverential, but it does not give in to the kind of overstatement that monumental cities like Istanbul inspire. It is humble and demands humility. Peering down upon the splendid imperial city through the tombstones, Lear unearths the modesty we should expect of ourselves. and of others.

Kanishk Tharoor is Associate Editor at openDemocracy.net, a London-based online magazine of global politics and culture