Imagining the Orient

A new exhibition explores the potent mystique of the Near East and its sway on American Art and Culture

Orientalism — an artistic style that mixed imagery of the Islamic East with, in many cases, a large dose of imagination — was hugely fashionable in the 1870s and 1880s art world. The Orient in those days meant Egypt and North Africa, Turkey, and the Holy Land. In America, the Orientalist vogue in art had its heyday in the late 19th century and spread to popular culture — the carnival, the parlor, the cabaret and the movie theater — in the first decade of the 20th.

A major exhibition exploring the still-potent mystique of Orientalism will be at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery from October 3 to December 10, 2000. "Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in American Culture, 1870-1930" was organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it is on view until September 4. The show brings together a wide array of paintings, furniture, ceramics, decorative arts, photographs and silent-film clips. It travels to the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, from February 3 to April 22, 2001.

The objects on display, many of them exquisitely made, helped to romanticize, eroticize and sometimes demonize the Near East. Portraying Islamic culture accurately was often beside the point. Accounts of Oriental baths and harem girls, hashish and strong coffee promoted the Orient as a place of luxury and ease. Department stores and other mass-merchandisers marketed Oriental lamps, jewelry, candy, and cigarettes made from Turkish tobacco. Louis Comfort Tiffany, Lowell Thomas, Rudolph Valentino and Florenz Ziegfeld all took advantage of Orientalism's popularity, and today the fascination with an Orient that never was continues. Last spring a pop-musical Aida opened on Broadway, and ABC TV devoted two nights to a lavish new Arabian Nights.

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