x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Orientalist visions: illuminating the fantasy of the Middle East

Visual arts Horses, deserts and exotic lands - what more could an explorer need? A new Tate ­Britain exhibition illuminates the madness and fantasy of the Middle East.

Thought to be an amalgamation of Richard Dadd's travels in the Middle East in the 1840s, Flight out of Egypt (1849-50) features all the makings of an oriental fantasy
Thought to be an amalgamation of Richard Dadd's travels in the Middle East in the 1840s, Flight out of Egypt (1849-50) features all the makings of an oriental fantasy

"Orientalism," wrote Edward Said, "takes up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considers alien to its own." This was certainly the case for ­Richard Dadd: after six months of gruelling travel in the Middle East, the English Victorian artist ­murdered his father in a schizophrenic rage and spent the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum. In July 1842, Sir Thomas Phillips, the former mayor of Newport, ­invited Dadd to accompany him as a draughtsman on an expedition through Europe to Greece, Turkey and Palestine. He passed from­ ­Jerusalem to Jordan before returning across the Engeddi wilderness to Egypt where, after sailing down the Nile, he succumbed to the ­belief that he was under the influence of the Egyptian God Osiris.

After returning home to the village of Cobham, Kent, Dadd became convinced that his father was the devil and stabbed him to death. He fled to France, where, en route to Paris, he attempted to murder another tourist with a razor, but was overpowered and arrested by the police. He was ­imprisoned in London's Bethlem psychiatric hospital, also known as Bedlam, before being transferred 20 years later to a new mental hospital at Broadmoor. He continued to paint throughout, producing, among others, his best known painting, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (1855-64), and 33 drawings, including Sketches to ­Illustrate the Passions. These featured grief or sorrow, love, jealousy, agony, ­raving madness and murder.

"It's so outlandish a story it's ­almost funny," said Nicholas ­Tromans, a senior lecturer in art at London's Kingston University. ­Tromans is also the curator of a new exhibition called The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, which opened last week at the Tate Britain gallery. "Dadd really was up there with the top four promising artists of his generation, yet hardly anyone has heard of him. He was brilliant, fun, clever and very good looking - but this trip triggered a complete mental breakdown and he spent the rest of his life locked up."

The Lure of the East features 110 works dating from 1780 to 1930. Highlights include Gavin Hamilton's huge 1758 canvas, James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra (from the National Gallery of Scotland), portraits of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips in 1814, Lawrence of Arabia by Augustus John from 1819, and David Robert's panoramic view of the ancient city of Baalbec in 1861, on loan from the Sharjah Art Museum. Several of ­Richard Dadd's works are on display, including Flight Out of Egypt and Artist's Halt in the Desert, which is on loan from the British Museum.

Flight Out of Egypt, an oil painting done in 1849, is to modern ­audiences a Monty ­Pythonesque ­ensemble of caricature-like images of bearded Arabs on horseback, palm trees, goats and jolly black servants. Critics differ as to its symbolism: some see figures in the lower right corner as the Holy Family, but Dadd did not name the picture and Tate Britain's notes suggest it may merely be a scene based on an encampment he saw near ­Damascus, where Muslim pilgrims were setting off for Mecca.

"There's only ever been one ­exhibition on Richard Dadd before, which is a shame, because he's a person who people really respond to," Tromans added. "I am particularly interested in the way in which, for so many of these artists, it was their interest in every day life in Britain which perversely led them to the Middle East. These artists were, in general, very ordinary people." The Lure of the East is the first exhibition to survey the entire history of British painters' representations of the Middle East, and it comes at a time in which the different styles of "Orientalist" art are enjoying a critical reappraisal. "It was an exhibition waiting to happen," Tromans said. "Stephen Duker, the director of Tate Britain, is very interested in the Middle East and takes his family there on holiday regularly. I also feel that the whole academic ­debate about Orientalism is heating up again. I feel that for a long time Edward Said's work was embedded quite comfortably within academia. It had become such an established way of thinking and the debate had become a bit lazy, but now we have seen a very aggressive critique from cultural conservatives. It's not to say either is correct, but it's a very ­exciting moment."

Tromans also conceded that, since the British and US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subject of the West's attitude to the Middle East is more pertinent than ever. ­"Politically, since 2003, the whole history and question of our attitude to the Middle East is ­absolutely at the centre of the agenda." The Tate Britain exhibition is ­accompanied by a series of talks, lectures and runs in London until August 31. It will then travel to the Pera museum in Istanbul; in January next year, it will arrive at the Sharjah Art Museum, where the British Council is organising a series of events. A book accompanying the exhibition, edited by Tromans, is also available. It includes essays by Arab and western writers, including Rana Kabbani, Fatema ­Mernissi, Christine Riding and Emily M Weeks. The exhibition follows very popular sales of ­"Orientalist" art in London and New York.

The works on show feature landscapes, bazaars, public baths, domestic interiors, harems and religious sites. The exhibit also looks at the long tradition of British sitters ­being portrayed in different varieties of Oriental dress - a trend which detracts from Said's theory of the Oriental other as "subject". A spokeswoman for Tate Britain, said the heyday of British ­Orientalist art was the 19th century, when steam engines first made it possible for artists to cross the distance to the Middle East by boat or train relatively easily. They often reached their destination by way of Spain and Morocco or Greece and the Balkans.

She said simplistic characterisations of "Orientalist" art were impossible. "Just to underline this, we asked 30 people, including scholars and reporters, to respond to the works on show. Their responses form part of the exhibition itself, so we hope to generate a debate." rbehan@thenational.ae