18 May 2020
Works of art with oriental motifs enjoyed great popularity in the 19th century. Today, however, pictorial themes such as that of the odalisque must be critically examined.
With her head propped up and her eyes lowered, a young woman sits thoughtfully on a low-set divan, her legs loosely crossed. She is wearing yellow harem pants, white stockings underneath, and the delicate slippers on her feet are ending in a tip that is bent upwards. The wrapped blouse with a low neckline reveals a slightly dressed breast and is draped in such a way that its sumptuous ends of precious fabric fall elegantly over her lap. On her head she wears a turban made of wrapped cloths. The divan stands on a knotted carpet in the open air, but the view of it is protected by a screen. At the feet of the figure there is a hookah, behind it we have a view into nature.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot presents us with a wealth of exotic motifs that help us locate the scene in the Orient, and the picture's title Odalisque provides us with information about the role of the young woman as a concubine in the Sultan's harem. As one of many other oriental pictorial themes, the concubine enjoys great popularity in 19th century European art. Her depiction opens up a whole world of transfigured, romanticizing ideas to the viewer, it serves as a projection screen for erotic fantasies, although the actual realities of a life in the harem may have been quite different. Here Corot follows a typical fashion of his time.
At the latest since Edward Said's criticism of the Western view of Eastern cultures published in 1978, a differentiated approach to representations of this kind has been established. Said's theory of Orientalism states that the West assumes a superiority over the Orient. In this concept, Europe is the yardstick for civilization, the 'enlightened' world, and in contrast to this, it constructs an image of the Orient as backward, foreign and mysterious. Connected with this are ideas of warlike barbarism on the one hand, and of excessive, unbridled sensuality on the other, in the context of which we also find the pictorial theme of the odalisque and have to question it critically.
But well before the 19th century art was concerned with the foreign cultures of the Orient. If we look back in art history, we find a fiery preference for oriental motifs in the Netherlands of the 17th century. This was due to new trade routes to the Middle East, through which stories and cultural objects found their way to Europe.
In Rembrandt's case, this interest is particularly striking. In the Basel painting David hands over Goliath's head to King Saul he dresses the figures in precious exotic garments and magnificent turbans. He places the biblical story in an oriental context and thus places it geographically in the region of its actual occurrence, although Rembrandt's depiction of the turbans and robes reflects his idea of a contemporary fashion rather than a historical one.
The Kunstmuseum Basel will focus on Rembrandt's relationship to the Orient in the major special exhibition Rembrandts Orient this autumn.
Written by: Seraina Werthemann, Art Historian and Art Mediator