By Adania Shibli

A haunted view composed of contemporary images hovering over paintings mainly from the 19th century, this is what Andréas Lang reveals in his work Re-Visiting Orientalism. The images and paintings in the work call each other, subsequently obscuring the view. This is a call that troubles every scene, excavating eerie connections between what can be seen today and unsettling depictions from yesterday. Those scenes are not merely of images from the present superimposed on paintings from the past, rather they disclose what the past has carried forward into the present. What journeys did these paintings and their makers take to arrive here and now? And what images are awaiting them and why? Some journeys may have taken place for real, while others only in the imagination; but real or imaginative, these journeys have resulted in constantly shifting views of what may be seen. 


In 1587, an unknown Flemish master completed a painting entitled The Tower of Babel. During that period, several Flemish painters, including Pieter Bruegel, Jan Bruegel and Lucas van Valckenborch, made numerous paintings and sketches envisioning the Tower of Babel. Throughout, they mainly relied on the Bible and other ancient scripts as their sources.1 This apparent preoccupation with the theme of the “Tower of Babel” by several painters at the time is said to convey anxiety about Antwerp’s trade and burgeoning urban wealth under the royal rule of the Spanish Habsburgs.2 Antwerp indeed witnessed unprecedented economic growth during the 16th century, connected to its port seeing the arrival of Portuguese and Spanish ships carrying goods from Asia and from the other side of the Atlantic. The transport of merchandise, in this case, was directly linked to the “Age of Exploration” that marked the rise and spread of colonialism.3


In 1837, Léon Cogniet finished the painting Bataille d’Héliopolis (Battle of Heliopolis), reimagining—from his studio in Paris—the battle of Heliopolis that erupted in March 1800 during Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt. Under the command of General Kléber, who led the battle, the “armée d’Orient” achieved victory with few casualties against the Ottoman army.4 The painting itself was part of a series of paintings commissioned by Versailles on the topic of Napoleon’s imperial campaign in Egypt. The first amongst these was produced two years earlier, in 1835, when Cogniet painted his L’Expédition d’Egypte sous les ordres de Bonaparte, 1798 (Bonaparte’s 1798 Egyptian Expedition) on a ceiling in the Louvre Palace. The painting was perceived as a visual explanation for the presence of many Egyptian artefacts in Paris.5 In Cogniet’s series of paintings, an essentialized imbalance of power between the French and the Egyptians and also the Ottomans, is laid out in a style that would be identified soon after as Orientalist art. Orientalist art is one of many movements that fell under the category of Academic art, a reference to painting styles influenced by studying at European academies of art, most notably the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.


In 1859, the town of Barcelona sent the painter Marià Fortuny to Morocco to depict the battles of the Spanish army against the Moroccans.6 Fortuny stayed several months in Morocco before he returned to Spain. In 1861 while in Barcelona, he painted The Odalisque. The passively nude, oriental female body, extended before a Spaniard gaze, ready to be conquered, was considered acceptable after the Spanish conquest of Morocco, in an otherwise conservative context.7


In 1867, Gustave Guillaumet completed his painting Le Sahara (The Sahara). He had travelled to Algeria ten times over the preceding five years, moving around the region that had been under French colonial rule since 1830. Seeing the painting within the context in which it was produced, several people argue that it reveals “the destructiveness of the nomads, seen in [the painting] leaving an overgrazed area, desertified by centuries of abuse”.8 With the dead camel in the foreground and the sun setting, it further suggests that this abuse must end. Colonialists, it is noted, sought in such paintings ideological support for their quest to end the wandering nomad way of life in Algeria and to gain colonial legislative and political power there.9 Many of the paintings that Guillaumet produced in the 1860s thus “were positively received by the state as illustrative of its Algerian policies”.10


In 1856, Jean-Léon Gérôme, a very active painter at the time, presented his painting Promenade du Harem (Excursion of the Harem) in the Paris Salon, which depicts human figures on a boat, with men directing it and women seated in the interior.11 Gérôme completed this painting after a couple of visits to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine in 1856, followed by another visit in 1862 for an additional few months. Gérôme would normally carry memorabilia and objects from the regions he visited, as well as sketches of architectural elements, back with him to Paris. Once in his studio in Paris, he would map out his paintings, fusing some of the objects and sketches he brought back with his fantastical visions. His Orientalist paintings were generally well received in France and earned him the state-given title of Officer in the Légion d’honneur in 1867. In 1869, Gérôme was even invited along with French dignitaries to the opening of the Suez Canal, which had a major role in later colonial expansions. However, Gérôme didn’t do any paintings or sketches of this event, nor was he inspired by it. Being an act of modernity, the opening of the Suez Canal was seen as lacking in Oriental character and therefore “insufficiently picturesque”.12


In 1886, William Simpson produced the drawing The Baku Petroleum Fields. Simpson was a war artist who followed the British troops in their colonial conquests and colonial rule of certain parts of Asia. He mainly travelled to places where battles had erupted, sketching them for the Illustrated London News. The drawings subsequently gained Simpson admiration within British and other European elite political circles. Upon his return from his trip to parts of Afghanistan and to Baku in 1886, he was invited by the court in Berlin to submit his drawings for the inspection of the princess imperial of Germany and Prussia. In Britain, he was received with equal royal attention; he was invited to visit the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales.13


After reaching a climax in the 19th century, Orientalist painting had gone into oblivion by the beginning of the 20th century. Painters had turned to different styles by the end of the 19th century, such as Impressionism, leaving behind Academic art, a style on which the Orientalist movement relied. Then, later in the 20th century, thinker Edward Said presented his book Orientalism (1978), offering the first major critique of Orientalism as a European method for representing and accumulating knowledge about the Arab world and Islam. Inspired by Said’s critique of Orientalism, leading art historian Linda Nochlin then went on to examine Orientalist paintings, as presented in her seminal paper “The Imaginary Orient” (1983). Nochlin’s work shed further light on the power structures and the specific conditions in which Orientalist paintings were produced. Critique of Orientalism has since gained ground, becoming widespread in art, and not only in academic circles. Another sharp shift, however, occurred towards the end of the 20th century.


In 1998, Christie’s auction house announced its first Orientalist art sale. “For much of the 20th century, there wasn’t huge demand”, Arne Everwijn, Director of 19th-Century European Art at Christie’s, confirms, before adding, “but now it’s strong”. He continues to note, though, that “In recent times, it has been collectors from the Middle East who have been buying these paintings—as quasi-historical documents. They are interested in acquiring a piece of their homeland’s past.”14

Sotheby’s, another major auction house, goes even further in its claims about these paintings, establishing them as historical rather than quasi-historical documents. Referring to the biggest collection of Orientalist paintings, the Najd Collection, Sotheby’s thus claims that visitors (potential buyers) would “experience every facet of daily life in the Arab, Ottoman, and Islamic worlds through the paintings of the […] Collection”.15 It additionally states: “The legacy of [Orientalist painters’] work has provided an invaluable documentary narrative of regions that have since been transformed by modernisation and, in some cases, conflict.”16 This last statement echoes some of the intentions of the Orientalist painters, like Gérôme, who refrained from depicting elements of modernity in their 19th-century paintings, since they were “insufficiently picturesque” or, one may add, were not “stereotypically ‘Oriental’”. 

The rising defence of Orientalist paintings thus also followed their rebirth as historical documents, now with new, added inaccuracies, like the claim: “These were artists who travelled to the east and preserved a record of the pre-modern era in their work.”17 Claims such as these subsequently slammed any attempts to connect Orientalist art with colonial expansion and conquest. 


The history of each of the paintings shared here partially reveals how Orientalist paintings were borne out of the context of 19th-century imperial wars and colonialism, often enabled by state support in the form of travelling scholarships for artists and by a yearning for “cultural tourism”.18 Men praying, dwelling in a market or in the desert, and passive women in the Harem are some of the key tropes in such paintings that remain on view today. Exotic, voluptuous, passive, primitive, barbaric or violent are some of the forms in which the “Oriental” figure was depicted, based on the fantasies of painters working in their studios, some of whom may have never travelled to the depicted places. The detailed and naturalistic style which the Orientalist movement followed, on the other hand, has contributed to the claim that such paintings can be seen as historical documents or as “an authentic glimpse of a past”. 

Following in the same spirit, the extreme right-wing German party Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”) used Gérôme’s 1866 painting The Slave Market in one of their campaign posters for the 2019 European Parliament election. The party used it to portray Muslim migrants in an attempt to spread fear of the political émigrés and asylum seekers who have arrived in Germany in recent years.19 Closer to the truth is that markets in the Arab region and in Turkey are dotted with souvenir shops that offer tourists Orientalist memorabilia, like a cushion on which is printed an “Oriental” scene—an object that in fact started Andréas Lang’s entire present project.

The current classification these paintings have come to claim as documents is, however, not left unquestioned here. Lang’s work discloses the fallacy of using these paintings as objects of “truth” by repositioning his camera towards what appears to be a visual echo of some of the scenes depicted in a selection of 19th-century Orientalist paintings. Such a visual echo then disperses other echoes, which resonate on the economic, political, social and ecological spectrum. The Tower of Babel, drawn in the 16th century as a critique of the rise of capitalism, is brought to mind when looking at the Burj Khalifa (The Tower of Khalifa), a structure that attests to the vicious rise of neoliberalism in the Gulf States. The US campaigns in the Gulf over the past few decades, and the arms race they triggered there—as well as the justifications for this that were offered to the public—may not be very different from Napoleon’s imperial campaign in Egypt and the justifications offered for it then. Then the fantasy of an Oriental female body, sketched in Barcelona by Fortuny, finally shows itself for what it is: a sex club called Baghdad, also in Barcelona. A desert that has turned into a film-set futuristic cinematic fantasy, where those inhabiting the place remain marginal characters in it. And the fire and smoke in Simpson’s drawing continue still today, in the same city of Baku, carrying with them the smell of ecological disasters and the political and economic corruption ignited at the dawn of colonialism.

The work, with its long contemplative sequences, essentially offers the viewer a critique of both the past and the present, and not only what they reveal and how. In doing so, the work calls for allowing a new imagination of the future. And all this is done whilst relying on visual art itself as a method of critique: Each one of the sequences that form the work interrogates art history and art practices from the past while relying on artistic tools and practices from the present. In this way, Lang reasserts the capacity of art to engage in outlining visions for a less-troubling future.

1 Mario Liverani, Imagining Babylon: The Modern Story of an Ancient City. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016.

2 Larry Silver, “Pieter Bruegel’s Symbolic Highlands in the Lowlands”, Midwestern Arcadia: Essays in Honor of Alison Kettering, 2016, online accessed 24 July 2020.

3 Luc-Normand Tellier, Urban World History: An Economic and Geographical Perspective. Quebec: Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2009.

4 Richard Reid, A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009/2012.

5 Ibid.

6 James Thompson and David Scott, The East, Imagined, Experienced, Remembered: Orientalist Nineteenth Century Painting. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1988.

7 Susan Martin-Márquez, Disorientations: Spanish Colonialism in Africa and the Performance of Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

8 Ibid. 

9 Ibid. 

10 Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007, p. 69. 

11 Dianne W. Pitman, Bazille: Purity, Pose, and Painting in the 1860s. State College, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998.

12 Alan C. Braddock, Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009, p. 62.

13 Neil K. Moran, Kipling and Afghanistan: A Study of the Young Author as Journalist Writing on the Afghan Border Crisis of 1884–1885. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005.

14 “Collecting guide: Orientalist Art”, (2019), online accessed 8 July 2020.

15 “One of the Greatest Collections of Orientalist Paintings Ever Assembled”, (2019), online accessed 8 July 2020.

16 Ibid.

17 Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, “Western Painters of the Orient, Orientalists in the East”, Qantara (27 May 2008), online accessed 9 July 2020.

18 Nehebat Avcioglu, “Roger Benjamin’s Study into the Colonial Relationship between Modernism and Orientalism”, The Art Newspaper (1 July 2003), online accessed 9 July 2020.

19 Kirsten Grieshaber, “US museum condemns use of its art by German far-right party”, AP News (30 April 2019), online accessed 21 July 2020.