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Beyond the surfaces of a glittering imperialist

Jean-Léon Gérôme's lush paintings are widely pooh-poohed for their colonialist slant. An exhibition at the Getty looks a little deeper.

June 13, 2010|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

But the new Gérôme scholarship also addresses the Orientalist attacks more directly, arguing that his paintings are more, in the words of independent curator Peter Benson Miller, than "agents in a vast European conspiracy to enslave, stereotype and exploit the Orient."

Several essays emphasize the breadth and depth of Gérôme's travels, reminding us that his images are never pure fantasy. No armchair voyeur, he visited Egypt at least six times between 1856 and 1880, spending eight months there on his first trip.

Miller's essay on "ethnographic realism" in "Reconsidering Gérôme" also attempts to show that Gérôme's images were more than outdated "escapist fantasies." Yes, Miller acknowledged when reached by phone, the artist embodied some common prejudices of his own place and time.

"But he was also really interested in the places where he travelled," Miller says. "And his pencil studies done in Egypt in the mid 1850s are some of the most sensitive portraits we have by French painters in the Orient."

In her essay in the same book, Sydney-based art historian Mary Roberts focuses on the artist's 1875 journey to Istanbul and his connection to the Ottoman sultan's art collection. Through archival research, Roberts ascertained that that Gérôme played a role in placing 29 paintings from his French art dealer (and father-in-law) Adolphe Goupil in the Ottoman palace's art collection, including at least two of his own works.

Today this sort of boomerang collecting continues, as museums in Turkey and some Persian Gulf countries are building their own Orientalist collections, and auctions of Orientalist pictures are now taking places in Dubai, not just the traditional market centers of Paris and London. (Most recently, on May 13, Bonhams sold some $1.6 million worth of Orientalist material at the Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai.)

Such a byzantine history of collecting, Roberts says, makes the "West versus East divide seem too simple," raising "many complicated and nuanced questions about cultural exchange."

It also raises another, perhaps cruder, question: Can a painting still be considered racist if members of the race depicted apparently take pride in it?

The Getty curators hope that exhibition visitors are willing to entertain these kinds of questions: questions about the biases of artist and viewer both.

"The art's that most worth looking at can accommodate radically different perspectives," says Allan. "To have the debate and discussion is more important than reaching conclusions."

Take for example an image in the show: the 1862 "A Turkish Butcher Boy." The painting shows a young man leaning against a wall, with a long pipe in one hand and a knife tucked into his waistband. The severed heads of goats and sheep are scattered at his feet.

Some of Gérôme's earliest critics saw the boy as a study in the savage decadence of the East, with Earl Shinn pointing out "the drop of blood in the foreground dwelt on by Gérôme as if a jewel."

The way Morton sees it, "this little, pristinely gorgeous painting is not about the boy being barbaric--he's just leaning up against the wall looking sort of stoned," she says. "The idea that he's barbaric is people projecting their own responses."

Morton left the Getty recently to become curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, where she is preparing a big Gauguin show, and says she finds "striking similarities" between these two artist-voyagers. "They are both obsessed with exotic cultures," although, she says, she finds Gérôme "much less exploitative."

Allan describes the artist's work as something of a spectrum. On the one end are images—like his studies of mosques—that seem perfectly respectful. On the other end the there are racially charged, sexually questionable hot-button paintings like the 1871 "For Sale (The Slave Market)."

The painting shows six women sitting or standing along a shopkeeper's wall, lined up like so many house wares for sale. The women, who range in skin color from very pale to very dark, share the same blank expression and lax or slumped posture.

Allan calls the painting "a spectacle of degradation and titillation—a hard image to take but good to show for that reason."

Still, he cautions against assuming that Gérôme would condone this scene. "When Gérôme shows a row of semi-clad slave girls up for sale, is he perpetuating racist imagery?" asks Allan. "Or could he be condemning the scene as barbaric? Some commentators at the time read it that way."

What makes these questions even more vexing, Allan says, is the sheer visual power of the painting. "The subject matter is quite disturbing, but as a painting it's one of his most beautiful, extraordinary works."

"There's an attraction-repulsion that happens with a lot of these paintings, and it's hard to get a grip on," Allan adds. "We're not trying to communicate a single message with this show."

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