Orientalism

[Chelsea Bracci]

The creation of an “other” sets the boundaries between “us” and “them” and leads to the alienation of a group of people based on characteristics that make them different or unwanted. The “othering” of specific groups of people who are considered different is a mechanism for defining the “self”. One such relationship where “us” and “them” has become a common theme is East and West. During the 19thcentury the West sought to define what it was not by defining what the East was and many times this led to the construction and embrace of stereotypes.

Orientalism was prevalent throughout all of Western Culture. Ingres was known for his use of Orientalism.

This trend of “othering” in Western culture became known as Orientalism. The term Orientalism is used to refer to the fascination with the East by specifically western artists.  This increasing interest with the East and its culture began to surface as the West was exposed to cultures further to the East through the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon, Greek struggles against Turkish bondage, and the French occupation of Morocco. Orientalism became an extension of Romanticism which was characterized by a strong emphasis on emotions and many artists took Oriental themes and applied them to highly emotional narratives. These Oriental themes were taken primarily from countries of the Middle East, Northern Africa, Greece and Moorish Spain. Orientalism has by extension become associated with Western reception of Islamic culture (The National Museum in Warsaw).  The term has also come to describe an ingrained Western tradition of stereotypical and prejudicial interpretations of the East. These attitudes of superiority and the relationship of “us” vs. “them” were used as justification for imperial pursuits throughout the 18th and 19thcenturies (TLS).

Russia is situated between East and West and is simultaneously tied to both regions; and Russia was constantly walking the tightrope between Europe and Asia.  Unsure whether they belonged to East or West, Russians in the 19th century wrote without the secure identity of Westerners. Unlike Europeans for whom “the Orient” was a far-off distant place, Russians looked out at the vast horizons of Asia, the borers between Russia and Asia seemed to be blurred and unfixed (Shaley). This middling region is at once “us” and “them” to both of Asia and Europe and because of this it will never fully belong to either. Where Russia and the rest of Central Europe stood in terms of East and West was in constant flux. During the reign of Peter the Great, Russia began to orient itself through the Western lens and the foundations for a Russian study of orientology were put in place. However the field of study took until the end of the 19th century to become a full-fledged academic discipline (Buchowski).

Feliks Michal Wygrzywalski, 'The Desert Prayer'

Orientalism took on many forms of expression throughout the Russian Empire. Artists, composers, and choreographers all embraced these Orientalist stereotypes. Russian and Central European Orientalist art focused on areas of Central Asia that the Russian empire was conquering during the 19th century. Common themes included history paintings which negatively portrayed the Mongols who overpowered Russia during the Middle Ages, and the Turks who oppressed regions in Central Europe and the Balkans. From bloody battles to sexual violence perpetrated against women, these artists used these emotional scenes to paint these Eastern groups as villains who deserved to be conquered by the Russian Empire (National Museum in Warsaw).

One group of composers known as “The Five” has become an example of the influence Orientalist themes have had on Russian music.  The Five consisted of five composers who met in Saint Petersburg Russia in 1870. Mily BalakirevCésar CuiModest MussorgskyNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin wanted to create specifically ‘Russian-sounding’ music rather than music that imitated the older European sound. Orientalism became a profound characteristic of this new Russian sound. Balakirev’s Islamey and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade incorporated Eastern themes and harmonies to set their “Russian” music apart from – and in a sense ‘above’ – Western-oriented compositions.  Cui wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1863, that “It is really Russian. Only a Russian could have composed it, because it lacks the slightest trace of any stagnant Germanness.” [Wikipedia]. However authenticity was not of concern as was true for most Orientalist works. It was more about a style and feel rather than creating an honest interpretation of the Eastern cultures being cited (Wikipedia).

Two of the most popular works produced by this group of composers were Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Antar and Balakirev’s symphonic poem Tamara. Antar is set in Arabia and utilizes two distinct styles of music, Russian and Arabian. The Russian music is very masculine in sound and is much more stereotypically Western sounding in character. The second style, Arabian, is feminine and contains the trademarks of Orientalism and is melodic. The queen Gul Nazar leads the Russian western Antar to his demise through her female sensuality and kills Antar with a final embrace. Tamarais about a beautiful woman who lived in a tower and lured travelers to their death with her sensual appeal. Balakirev used note repetition and climatic effects such as accelerated tempo to invoke the feeling of obsession and intoxication and utilized unpredictable rhythms along with long passages with irregular phrasing to depict sensuality and longing. All of these techniques led to a Russian sounding style which was distinctly not Western but at the same time not Eastern either.   Rather, the Five created a blend of sound that incorporated characteristics from both regions and created a musical tradition that spread throughout the regions that came under the control of the Russian Empire (Wikipedia).

 

Michel Fokine and Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, ca. 1910.

Another art form which embraced Orientalism was the theatre, specifically the Ballet. Story ballets, particularly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, are replete with Orientalist movement and images of the East that are not based on ethnographic knowledge of their dance vocabulary, but rather on Western imagination and stereotyping. One such choreographer who embraced fantasy over reality was Michel Fokine. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1880 and was a graduate of the Imperial Ballet and was trained in the tradition of the first widely renowned choreographer who embraced Orientalism, Petipa. Fokine softened the hard geometric lines of Petipa as seen in Swan Lake and embraced softer more expressive curved body lines.  Fokine became famous across Russia, Europe, and The United States and is most well-known for his works Petrushka [The Firebird], and Le Spectre de la Rose. His pieces most strongly influenced by Orientalism are Cleopatre, Les Orientales, Scheherazade, and Thamar, which all had in common an infamous temptress of the East because desire and sensuality became permissible for the stage when the Orientalist theme was applied (West).

Fokine was inspired by the Rimsky-Korsakov score Scheherazade and choreographed sensual and expressive movement to accompany it. The ballet was full of blood and emotional scenes all set on a lavish and colorful stage filled with opulent fabrics, costumes, and cushions. It was seductive to audiences and further inspired French and British appreciation of Oriental culture. One audience member in London wrote: “Scheherazade inspired the ‘Arabian Nights Ball’ that crowned with ‘Oriental splendor’ the end of Diaghilev’s autumn 1911 season [in London] and enjoyed the blessing of four of the troop’s most prominent supporters” (West). In Scheherezade, while the shah is off on a hunting trip, his  brother, who has observed the chief wife’s affection for the golden slave, creates a set up for the Shah to return at the height of the party between the Harem and male slaves.  The shah orders the revelers — favorite wife and favorite slave included — killed. This was an extremely negative characterization of the East through an Orientalist lens. From the evil actions of the brothers to the sexual weakness of the harem women, the ballet characterized the East as having no morals (West).

Zobeide in Michel Fokine’s ballet Schéhérazade

At the very essence of Orientalism is the division between “us” and “them” which led to the creation of the “Other”.  From pointe shoes to sheet music; these artistic expressions serve as reminders of the pervasive stereotypes that penetrated all aspects of European culture.  Orientalism became the artistic mechanism used to characterize the essential difference between east and west, and is still an aspect of popular culture.  Through music, art, and stage, the Western fantasies about the East have been preserved and have become an accepted part of culture.

 

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