Monday 25 August 2008
This exhibition of British Orientalist paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries has been on for ages. I only just got there before it closes, and was glad I did. So beautiful. So uneasy about finding it beautiful.
Like most woolly-liberal white European anti-racists, I've more or less internalised the basic thrust of Edward Said's famous book, although I haven't read it. That I'd not wish to be found, in my turn, exotic is absolutely incontrovertible. (Come to think of it, I have been found exotic - in some African countries my extreme whiteness was clearly exotic. It didn't feel good; had so little to do with who I am. And, of course, this wasn't in the context of a power relationship heavily weighted against me).
Mrs Baldwin by Joshua Reynolds, 1782
And yet, and yet, I found many of these paintings beautiful, exciting, strong and innovative. Some of them made my heart sing. Such force, skill, colour, emotion and lyricism. They represent much that I'm uncomfortable with, but also convey the genuine joy and inspiration of repressed, uptight British artists discovering landscapes and cultures more intense and vivid than their own. I identify so much with this. I identify, too, alas, with their narcissistic urge to dally with another culture, dress up, pretend to be part of it. I've known both this joy and this narcissism from the moment I stepped out into foreign travel from a narrow working-class background where no one travelled.
So I left the gallery both pleasured and troubled - which I suppose is what you look for, really, in a worthwhile cultural outing.