Orientalist art, which has long been avoided because of its colonial view of the East, is experiencing a comeback – from the most unlikely place

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It may be a relatively small category dwarfed by the record contemporary art sales that dominate the headlines, but Orientalist art has made a quiet comeback in recent years. The market is becoming more and more competitive, with bidders from the wider Islamic world reaching as far as Southeast Asia.

Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams – the three auction houses that offer oriental art as a separate category in London – said they were seeing renewed interest in this category. And the surge in demand combined with the lack of supply points to a booming future for this genre in terms of prices.

“We expect continued strong interest and participation from both private and institutional buyers from across the Islamic world, from Morocco in the west to Southeast Asia in the east,” said Claude Piening, director of 19th century European paintings at Sotheby’s in London Artnet news. In an earlier sale in October, Asian buyers contributed 30 percent of total spend, Sotheby’s said.

Horsemen through the desert (1870). Courtesy of Sotheby’s. “Width =” 1024 “height =” 734 “srcset =” https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/12/Jean-Léon-Gérôme-Riders-Crossing- the-Desert-oil-on-canvas-1870-est.- £ 3000000-5000000-1024×734.jpg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/12/Jean-Léon-Gérôme -Riders-Crossing-the-Desert-oil-on-canvas-1870-est.- £ 3000000-5000000-300×215.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/12/ Jean-Léon-Gérôme-Riders-Crossing-the-Desert-oil-on-canvas-1870-est.- £ 3000000-5000000-50×36.jpg 50w “sizes =” (max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px “/ >

Jean-Léon Gerôme, Horsemen crossing the desert (1870). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Orientalist art refers (mostly) to paintings depicting areas such as the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, and the Gulf, and it has long been an important subsector of the 19th century European painting market. The works are mostly figurative, detailed, colorful paintings depicting regional landscapes and people’s everyday life. The extent to which these portraits are historically truthful is controversial, however, as many artists belonging to this category are known as “armchair orientalists” and paint pictures from their imaginations or are based on romanticized reports of the area.

In fact, the term “orientalist” wearer had a bad rap for many years and was considered politically incorrect in the post-colonial era based on critical analysis by Edward Said. “The Orient was almost a European invention,” Said wrote in his seminal book Orientalism, first published in 1978, “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”. Orientalism “connotes the high-handed attitude of the executive branch of 19th and early 20th century European colonialism,” added Said.

Perhaps because of this, in the 1970s commentators thought that [Orientalist] Works were out of date, colonial and condescending, ”said Charles O’Brien, Bonhams’ director of 19th century paintings.

But such a view has gradually changed, noted O’Brien. “Orientalist art is now considered a festival of Middle Eastern culture … As a genre, many of these detailed and beautifully painted works give an incomparable visual insight into the culture.”


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