Friday, January 4, 2013

A Lesson in Exoticism: Jean-Léon Gérôme

Jean-Léon Gérôme is a beautiful, beautiful French artist who specialized in exotic, romanticized pictures of the Middle East. The last photo is my favourite in its juxtaposition and use of sparse, vast landscape. It is titled Bonaparte Meets the Sphinx and is of course Napoleon Bonaparte. You just get this David & Goliath feel. No, not quite that, but something akin to two great powers being seen side by side. There is something thrilling about great rivalries or partnerships. Like when you see a picture of Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton taking a selfie, or Dumbledore and Voldemort, or God and Satan, except I don't mean to imply that one of either Bonaparte or the Sphinx is BAD while the other is GOOD. The best example I can think of is the rivalry of Secretariat and Sham during the '70s, culminating in the 1973 Triple Crown, but I feel like no one will understand that reference... 

Anyway, these paintings are magical in the exotic, sensual feel of the Orient. I love the majestic use of animals, the revelry, the respect in how he portrays the lions and tigers are beings of greatness, noble, strong. These paintings and others like it influenced European sentiment towards the Middle East, then more commonly referred to as the Orient, as travel was of course far slower and more restrictive. The Orient was dangerous in its difference, sexualized and foreign to Europeans. This is not necessarily a good thing, as Edward Said covers extensively in a brilliant little book appropriately titled Orientalism. You guys can tackle that one on your own (long but rewarding) but I just want to point out how much cultural representations of the Middle East has changed. While the Middle East is certainly portrayed as highly different in all manners of culture - dress, religion, city structure, food, sex, politics - in Gerome's paintings, and thus may still be implicitly threatening to the French, British, Portuguese and German citizens who viewed them, I still think there's an appreciation there. The East is not necessarily depicted as scary or intimidating. In fact, I'd argue that Gerome takes measures not to do so. 

But whatever. The view of Cairo at the end is breathtaking. Travel list.

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