Art, race and changing tastes -- the Gérôme show at the Getty
Jean-Léon Gérôme is by all accounts the poster boy of Orientalism.
During the second half of the 19th century, the French painter found critical and commercial success with his meticulously detailed, exquisitely decorated scenes of the Near East, notably Turkey and Egypt. He appealed to the popular hunger for what was then typically called “ethnographic” images: scientific-seeming studies of a foreign culture’s lifestyle, costumes and more.
His works were not just exhibited widely but reproduced shamelessly, in the form of collectible etchings, lithographs and photographs. And he shared his techniques with students. A longtime professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Gérôme paved the way for dozens of lesser-known “Orientalist” painters to follow. So when the field of Orientalism came under attack, Gérôme was directly in the line of fire. The poster boy became the whipping boy.This happened in art history circles most dramatically with the triumph of the first wave of Impressionists, who in their quest for formal innovation rejected Gérôme as academic, reactionary and hopelessly passé.
His posthumous reputation sank even further in 1978, when Edward Said published the enormously influential book “Orientalism.” The book makes a compelling case that Western representations of the East (so often cast as exotic, erotic and uncivilized) are complicit in a larger effort at political domination. In short, Said wrote, these images are a form of imperialism.
Even though the late scholar did not discuss Gérôme in the book, he used the artist’s painting “The Snake Charmer” on its cover. And where Said left off, in 1983 art historian Linda Nochlin picked up, showing in brilliant detail how “The Snake Charmer” functions, in her words, as “a visual document of 19th-century colonialist ideology.” This approach has been so powerful and pervasive — required reading for so many college and graduate students — that it’s been difficult to see Gérôme through any other lens.
This makes the fact that the Getty is mounting a major survey of the artist, “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme,” opening Tuesday, that much more remarkable. The Getty is the first stop for the show, co-organized with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. After Paris, it goes to the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
Scott Allan and Mary Morton, who curated the Getty’s version of the show, call it the first major survey of Gérôme’s work in more than 35 years. Many artists are reevaluated over time, but Gérôme’s reappraisal raises questions of racism as well as art-historical significance. And both curators admit that that their initial conversations about bringing the show to the Getty raised eyebrows of colleagues and superiors.
To read my complete Arts & Books section story, click here.
-- Jori Finkel
Photo: "The Snake Charmer" by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Credit: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute