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Orientalism Reoriented: New Fine Arts Exhibit




by Brieanah Gouveia

The Fine Arts Department hosted an innovative lecture presented by Allison Leigh, a Russian art historian and professor at Cooper Union in New York. Due to students traveling home early for Easter, an underwhelming audience appeared before the visiting professor in Pickle the night of March 21. However, for those who were able to come out, their expectations were surely exceeded by the challenging themes Dr. Leigh discussed.

Her lecture focused on the creation of Russian identity during the 19th century through artists’ appropriation of the western tradition. Leigh posits that this identity was greatly impacted by the existence of modern Russian painters within two conflicting spheres – geographically located in the East, yet culturally paralleling, at times, the West.

Russian artist Karl Bryullov was the focal point of Leigh’s analysis. His work, Bathsheba c. 1832, encapsulates this appropriation of western styles by an eastern identity, which is then further transformed by that easterners’ interpretation of other eastern bodies through a western guise. To achieve such a degree of separation from one’s own culture presents the hugely complex activity undergone by modern thinkers at this time.

Artists like Bryullov endeavored to create a sense of identity through their art. Bathsheba acts as commentary on Bryullov’s own awareness of his intermediary existence between the East and West. The breathtaking painting exhibits his hybridization of dualities including: Oriental vs. Occidental, real vs. ideal, male vs. female, and so much more.

Orientalism describes the western fascination with eastern or “oriental” cultures, specifically through artistic expression of the exoticism associated with these peoples and regions. Orientalism allowed the West to better define its cultural identity in relation to “the other”. This term would typically be used to characterize processes that Bryullov exercised; however, as Leigh points out, it is a very narrow exclusive term that does not actually apply to anyone outside of the West. This inability for Bryullov to be considered an oriental painter, since he is technically not a western artist, is among one of the reasons why Leigh calls for the revolutionizing of art history.

Leigh argues that the strict “-isms” characterizing progressions within art historical movements and styles do not capture larger themes and complexities. These strict categories completely exclude huge swaths of artists from ever being mentioned in textbooks; thus, ignoring crucial dimensions of history.

Additionally, the surface details in Bathsheba strike different meanings among American viewers today than those themes that Russians and even other Europeans in the 19th century would have pondered. This attests to art as a living organism that continually generates new significance over time. She suggests that this is an example of why art history should not be taught in only a chronological and culturally isolated manner. Leigh hopes that the more students challenge the confines of thought within this field, the discipline will reach higher levels of analysis and understanding.