- Orientalism through the Balkan Lens of Paja Jovanović
The term “Orientalism” is typically applied to European art referencing the cultures of the Near East, Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans.1 While interest in these exotic areas made its early appearance in medieval art and continued as a point of interest in Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo art, its full flowering was in the nineteenth century, from the first to the last decade. Within these geographic parameters the primary object of fascination was the exotic Islamic world, whether prompted through eight centuries of Moorish presence in Spain or general contact with Arab and Turkic peoples by means of trade and travel, or more dramatically via the Crusades. Defenders of the faith, diplomats, merchants, or simply curious travelers brought back a treasure trove of commodities, collectibles, and curiosities. For painters the latter were exotic enhancements for their creations. By the fifteenth century and into the seventeenth century, a number of Italian, Dutch, and French artists traveled to the East, particularly to Istanbul (Constantinople). Contacts on various levels—commercial, diplomatic, and personal—continued and expanded throughout the eighteenth century and in the process increased European exposure to the Orient through travel accounts, letters, and merchandise, from clothing to utilitarian and decorative objects. Informed and inspired by personal accounts, illustrated travel books, translation of tales such as A Thousand and One Nights,2 and direct experience with Islamic life via excavations of ancient sites on Ottoman-controlled lands, European writers, playwrights, [End Page 273] and painters found a wealth of material for their interpretations of the remote and exotic “Other.” The resultant expansion of the world of the Europeans was both an anticipation of and preparation for the overwhelming outpouring of interest which found remarkable expression in nineteenth-century art as well as public engagement. France took the lead and throughout much of the century dominated Orientalism in art.3
Nineteenth-Century Orientalism: French Inception and Centrality
An initial catalyst in the emergence of Orientalism may have been Napoleon’s military campaigns in the East, specifically the invasion of Egypt in 1798. Descriptions of the battles, the people, lifestyle, and terrain were transmitted to a public eager to hear of French victories as they both bolstered patriotism and provided an escape from the challenges of their contemporary reality, while often reinforcing an appealing fantasy of the East. Publications by participants in the campaigns, such as Vivant Denon’s 1802 Voyage dans la Basse et la haute-Egypte pendant les campaigns du General Bonaparte, provided extensive information and insight into a remote world.4 Throughout these campaigns, artists, many of whom were employed by the state to travel with the armies, provided site drawings and, most importantly, paintings of major Napoleonic battles and events. Publically exhibited and replicated, they were easily accessible.
In addition, and ultimately of greater significance than opportunities for the aggrandizing of Napoleon and his military prowess, the Egyptian campaigns opened the doors for real and multifaceted scrutiny of a geographically expansive Orient. During the post-Napoleonic period of the Bourbon monarchies of Louis XVIII and Charles X, the journeys that followed increasingly included artists, whether as members of official delegations, as artist recorders, or as independent travelers. By the second decade they were making their way to Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine.5 [End Page 274]
Many of those who remained in France also addressed Orientalist subjects. Their works were informed by the words and images of direct observers as well as the exotic “collectibles” amassed in their studios.6
French Orientalism assumed two main approaches—Romantic and Realist, each with its own variants. Throughout the century in France these directions were sustained, and replicated, modified, and altered in other Western European countries. That the Oriental world held special appeal to the first generation of Romantics is undeniable and understandable. They were the inheritors of the events and aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic wars, and these mysterious lands represented a new and different antiquity, an escape, a refuge from the challenges and complexities of a modernizing world in constant flux. The sights and sounds of this newly discovered...