Edward Said’s orientalist dream – or nightmare?

Joseph in the gardens of the Pharoah by Laurence Alma-Tadema (1874)

Were Jews of the Middle East and north Africa white colonials or examples of ‘splendidly barbaric’ Orientalism? Had he seen the latest exhibition of 19th century paintings on Jewish themes at the Jewish Museum in Paris, the chances are that Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual proponent of Orientalism, would have been throughly confused. The Tablet reports: (With thanks: Eliyahu)

Walking through the astounding new show “Les Juifs dans l’orientalisme”—“The Jews in Orientalism”—in Paris, it is impossible to avoid the ghostly accompanying presence of the late Edward Saïd, who turned the term “Orientalism” into a curse against the West and a political weapon in the service of his people. Hung in the elegant halls of the three-and-a-half-century-old Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, home of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (which by common acclaim has the most interesting programming of any Jewish museum in Europe), the show charts the European encounter with the Sephardic Jewish communities of Northern Africa and the Mediterranean rim at the beginning of the 19th century. Would Saïd, the great scourge of Western cultural condensation and appropriation, have taken the art that resulted from that encounter to be prime evidence in his case against the Occident? Or would he have dismissed it as a high-class form of Zionist-colonialist propaganda?

The lush and often fantastical “Orientalization” of the Jews of Northern Africa was an intrinsic part of the way the West came to understand and appreciate the East. The European fascination with the Orient began soon after first contact had been established by buccaneering 18th-century adventurers and continued as the French and British empires expanded into North Africa and the Middle East with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. One need not go any further than Chateaubriand or Flaubert’s travelogues to get a feel for the brooding romanticism of the adventurers who made Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt into standard stops on the grand tour route taken by ne’er-do-well aristocrats slumming their way toward Constantinople and Jerusalem.

The exhibition proffers a large number of Delacroix’s sketch notebooks and watercolors from Morocco. (The exhibit’s one glaring lacuna is the absence of Delacroix’s Jewish Wedding in Morocco, on loan in Spain from the Louvre.) Delacroix’s preparatory sketches, seldom seen separately from their Arab counterparts in his famous 1837-41 trip folios, are striking and ennobling, while Theodore Chasseriau’s diminutive and delicate ink portraits of the Jews of Algeria are empathetic and well wrought. Many of the other paintings and drawings are merely anthropological: Neoclassical depictions of gluttonous feasts; hermetic, almost Dutch synagogue interiors; and fresco group studies of old Jewish men lounging lazily on the Sabbath in front of Moorish scenes or in cozy souk alleyways.

Yet touchy questions of physiological categorization and the complexity of racial relations arise inexorably in others. Intimate portraits of Jewish matrons posing in their salons include African servant girls hovering in the background. Many of the paintings depict the Sephardic Jews as white-skinned, possessing European features, fostering a sense of the painter’s identification with them as fellow colonials—while other pictures depict Jews as very swarthy. In a few cases they are dark enough to give rise to suspicions of brown-face caricature. Dehodencq’s L’execution de la Juive, a thoroughly Orientalist historico-dramatic panorama of a stoic Jewish girl being led to slaughter for her apostasy in refusing to convert to Islam, is exactly the sort of thing that would have made Saïd throw a fit.

The Sephardic communities’ trade, religious and familial links with their European brethren, as well as their knowledge of languages and cultural practices, conferred on them a privileged status as gatekeepers and interpreters between Europeans and local Arab populations; without them there may not have been an encounter. There is also an undeniable division between the sensibilities of the Christian and Jewish European traveler-painters. The latter, especially the French neo-classicists Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Charles Landelle, and Henri-Léopold Lévy, were able to distinguish between “universal” Jewish traits and flamboyant local phenomena—and far less apt to portray North African Jewry through the warping lens of “barbaric splendor.”

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