Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's Likely All Napoleon's Fault

Yesterday, as everyone knows, President Mubarak stepped down after thirty years of dictatorial rule of Egypt. Only events will show what will wind up taking up residence in the vacuum he's left. And it is undeniably disturbing that the country is now in the (supposedly temporary) hands of something called "The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Military Forces". I'm in the midst of indulging a new obsession and reading all about the French Revolution, so political vacuums worry me - but, hopefully, lessons have been learned from our species' history of the tumbrel and the sword and the kalashnikov.

Way back in the Renaissance and beyond, very few Europeans had any interaction with the Middle East or North Africa. Travel was slow, arduous and dangerous and it would take far more money, time and spirit of adventure than most people had. The Venetians had a well traveled trade route to Constantinople, and European leaders had diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire (or, if one was in Eastern Europe, one fought endless, bloody wars with them). But first person reports were still rare.

Then, at the tail end on the 18th century, Napoleon set his far ranging imperialist sights on Egypt and the Middle East and a new age was suddenly upon the West. Concurrent with Napoleon's wars was the rise of the Romantics. In art and poetry both, a fashion for what was then called Orientalism took hold. Young Englishmen like the club-footed poet Lord Byron travelled extensively in places like Turkey and Albania - partly because the traditional Grand Tour of European capitals taken by well-to-do young Englishmen was made impossible by the Napoleonic wars. An aesthetic was subsequently brought back that held sway for the better part of a century.

In the middle of the 19th century, men such as the truly extraordinary Sir Richard Francis Burton spent years traveling throughout the Muslim world, and narrated his adventures to rooms full of excited lecture attendees at the Royal Geographical Society. While Burton spent a great deal of his life in the Middle East, and subsequently converted to Sufism, most Europeans relegated the denizens of North Africa to some exotic other. Delightful to look at and hear about, but one wouldn't want them as friends or neighbors. Oh, colonialism.

The history of the human race is long, problematic and complicated indeed. The objectification and exoticizing of other cultures is now largely (and rightly) frowned upon. But, as with most things, context is all. I don't know what was in the heads of the artists of the 19th century as they painted the mosques and marketplaces of North Africa and Turkey - but in doing some research, the word that comes up again and again is excitement. They, by and large, found it thrilling that there was a whole world of interesting people and sights who looked nothing like home. It's such a fine line, isn't it?

I admittedly don't know much about modern politics, but I do know an awful lot about art and aesthetics. The more influences and visual references one has, the better it is for art. One interesting thing struck me as I contemplated the 19th century English and the influences from the East: facial hair. Facial hair on men hadn't been much in fashion for a few hundred years, but by the middle of the 19th century it was baroque in the extreme. I have a feeling this is but one more instance of the effect of the aesthetics of one culture making inroads on another.

When my grandmother died, we found a shoebox full of old photographs from Albania. There are lots of pictures of men with rifles and gigantic mustaches looking seriously at the camera. They look precisely like the men painted by French and English artists in the 19th century. These sort of paintings have long been out of favor, but I've always liked them. I've written here often about how much I like representational art, and most of all, paintings of people. The history of the world and our representations of it are nearly always loaded in some way or another. And I'm certainly not here to defend colonialism or any such ridiculousness. It's just the art, you know. So interesting and often so illuminating. And maybe now it's okay to say, "How lovely. How exotic." as the world they portray is gone gone gone, not exotic because of where it was painted, but when.

So, I look at the paintings I posted above of The Battle of the Pyramids and of Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, and think "I've been there and it looked nothing like that". The Pyramids of Giza are right on the outskirts of Cairo, within sight of such exoticisms as a Pizza Hut. And modern travelers from everywhere take pictures of each other with cheap cameras and post them on facebook and flickr. No doubt the residents of Cairo roll their eyes at them much as we New Yorkers roll our eyes at the throngs of tourists mobbing the sidewalks of Times Square. Or maybe the residents of Cairo have always had more important things to complain about. Like a terrible and unfair dictatorship.

Now the modern citizens of Egypt are in a place where maybe they will have an opportunity to forge their own destiny (as much as any of us do), and I wonder what will happen. How will they paint themselves?

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