Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Lure of the East

Went to the Tate Britain the other day, possibly for the first time since it became the Tate Britain rather than simply the Tate - very remiss, I know. Found the Lure of the East exhibition very beguiling. Like my favourite annual exhibition, the BP Portrait Award, it shares artistic interest with human interest. And, of course, in this case authorial research interest, shedding another kind of light on Cairo for me.

It's fair to say that the pictures are of mixed artistic merit, but most are interesting in one way or another. The galleries are thoughtfully arranged in themes that are not too wearying - opening with portraits in Eastern dress is inspired, though I have to say for me it just showed how wildly incongruous most of those who 'went native' (at least for a portrait) would have looked, particularly those of a celtic complexion who look almost blue in colourful silks that clash with their hair. Apparently, though, it's not unusual for the Afghans to be pale also. Jean-Leon Gerome's small portrait of Napoleon near the Cairo cemeteries was my favourite here - very much in his own dress and looking all the more striking for it.

Room 2 'genre and gender' is really just about the outside - and so male - spaces, with an occasional incursion by women, as slaves or as customers. Some lovely market scenes and a very good commentary on these available on the bench in the centre, but the most unusual room 2 picture for me is the cock fight where the cocks have been blurred into invisibility leaving only the audience.

Room 3 centres on Jerusalem, but also has some lovely paintings of mosques and churches in Cairo and Istanbul - not the most compelling room for me as few of the paintings contain people, and it leads into the really rather dull room 4 which has a rather too small screen of photographs from the three cities, and a rather too large screen with a map showing the movements of some of the painters and patrons, with the occasional scattergun historical event.

Room 5 is devoted to Harem and Home, with a very lovely screen casting evocative shadows all over the walls. Although, as ever, this exhibition fails to reproduce all the most interesting paintings as postcards or prints, they did choose wisely for their poster with a section of Arthur Melville's limpid Arab Interior, definitely my favourite image from an artistic standpoint. Why you can only get a postcard size reproduction of this (or the poster with writing etc) is beyond me - anyone else care to join the campaign to improve gallery shops? Their selection of 'Eastern' paraphernalia is also largely lamentable - yes the turquoise bowls are pretty but one can get them far cheaper elsewhere.

I was flagging by the final room, which contains some fine landscapes though I am dubious about the merits of aerial perspective in painted form. As you might expect, the gender politics of the exhibition are careful - credit to them for including comment from several Egyptians / Africans. It was interesting, and plausible, to learn that English women admitted to the Harem found it much more a family area and sometimes a retreat than male fantasy had created. I do find the arguments about the liberating impact of the veil harder to understand though - certainly there have been times when veiled women have been able to go where those with bare faces could not, but to argue that this is liberation seems disingenuous. A complex subject though, even without recent years history - I also enjoyed a recent BBC show about modern Muslim women which showed how elaborate and beautiful the veils can be, with colours, embroidery and complex knotting at the back.

Off for a week where I may or may not have internet access - more thereafter.

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