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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Exotic Orient

1799, Palermo, Sicily
We all dream of one day traveling to exotic locations on the globe, savoring the strange romanticism of unfamiliar landmarks, climate, food, language, music, and art, then bringing it all back in pictures, souvenirs and memories. And no area on earth is more exotic for Westerners than the orient.  Except for Marco Polo, there was little contact between Europe and the orient until the dawn of the nineteenth century. Europeans were too wrapped up in themselves and travel too long, hard, and dangerous for them to give in to wanderlust on any grand scale. But a number of military-political events (Napoleon, for instance) in the first half of the century moved to change all that. And with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1863, the East suddenly drew ten-thousand miles closer. Europeans began to invade the Orient and Oriental culture began to invade Europe. Of course our the definition of "Orient" has changed somewhat since then. In the early 1800s, the Orient was anything east of Turkey and south of Sicily. In fact it was there that the first Chinese palace in Europe was built (above left). The godawful mixture of orient and Occident made for one of the strangest (and ugliest) pieces of architecture on earth, resembling nothing from either culture.

The Turkish Bath, 1862, Jean Auguste Ingres
European painters of the time, flush with the warm glow of the Romantic era, were quickly draw to the exotic, sometimes even erotic nature of the "Orient." Sometimes they actually traveled to the strange lands they painted, like Antoine-Jean Gros, or Eugene Delacroix, or sometimes they simply imagined it all as did Ingres in his 1863 round painting Turkish Bath (right), depicting a whole room literally filled with rolling, round mounds of naked female flesh. They painted their visions of grand historic events, biblical figures, female nudes, and sometimes all three rolled into one, such as Theodore Chasseriau's 1841 semi-nude portrayal of The Bath of Esther (as a blond, no less, below left) or Francesco Hayez's bare-chested Ruth (below right), painted with all the photographic realism of a Vargas centerfold.

The Bath of Esther, 1841,
Theodore Chasseriau
But the effect was not all one-sided. In India for instance, Dutch missionaries influence customs of dress, art, architecture, music and literature. There is an Italian influence in the Taj Mahal. Even today English culture and customs still hold sway in many areas of the subcontinent. In England's Kew Gardens stands a ten-story Chinese pagoda. In Shanghai China, whole neighborhoods near the harbor look like they were transplanted stone for stone from France or England. It was in these port cities that western suits and ties first invaded upper classes of Chinese society. England especially left its mark all over the East, removing themselves from Hong Kong only since 2000.  Even the U.S. was not immune. Chinese-Chippendale style furniture was immensely popular in the newly united states during the early part of the 1800s, coming almost three-quarters of the way around the world, imported from England, from whence the designs, and often the actual pieces, were imported from China itself. Moreover, the world hasn't stopped shrinking since.
Ruth, 1835, Francesco Hayez

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