The Lure of the East

Issue section: 

Tate Britain, London, Until 31 August

British contacts with the Muslim world go back a long way. The first Moroccan ambassador, for example, visited London in 1600 as part of an alliance with England against Spain. While here he had his portrait painted, and the intervening 400 years have seen a complicated network of connections develop between politics and culture.

At the centre was British imperialism, which dominated much of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Lure of the East includes dozens of paintings from this period, none of them great works of art, but fascinating none the less as a document of British attitudes to "the Orient".

Anyone analysing such attitudes has to take account of the Palestinian-US writer Edward Said's book, Orientalism. In the 30 years since it was published, this fascinating but flawed book has become hugely influential.

Said argued that European attitudes to the Muslim world were based on a set of stereotypes. These contaminated not only popular culture, but high culture and the serious academic study of the region - the "orientalism" of his title.

Many of the paintings in the exhibition support Said's argument. For example, John Frederick Lewis's Edfou, Upper Egypt implicitly contrasts the grandeur of ancient Egyptian civilisation with the supposedly inferior Arab culture of the 19th century. The painting shows imposing ruins - but a village of mud-brick houses has been built next to them.

Other exhibits suggest that Said's views are only partly correct, as shown in a selection of paintings of the harem. Harems were conceived as exotically decorated prisons, full of bickering sex slaves subject to unlimited masculine power. This was supposed to show the immorality and sexism of the East - though Victorian gentlemen also clearly enjoyed the idea. The reality was quite different: privileged Egyptian women were expected to lead lives quite similar to those of middle class Victorian women. Both were expected to restrict themselves to the home. British women could not divorce or own property separately from their husbands. Egyptian women were expected to wear a veil if they left the house. Both groups went out mainly to call on other women leading similar lives.

Many paintings here are typical of the orientalist cliché. Lewis's The Hhareem shows a group of doll-like women sitting around their bearded master as he assesses a new female slave for his collection. The room is a sensuous whirl of carpets, fabrics, ceramics and ornate wooden screens. Some images, however, are more truthful. Henriette Brown visited Constantinople in 1860. As a woman, she was actually able to enter a harem - which none of the male painters could do. Her painting, A Visit: Harem Interior, shows women in simple clothes meeting in a plain, largely unfurnished room. Brown resists the racist stereotypes which Said claims were universal.

This is a fascinating exhibition. The more you know about the subject matter, the more you'll get out of it: it's worth reading the exhibition pages on the Tate website before you go.