The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism
Reviewed by Caroline Williams

The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism, edited by Zeynep Inankur, Reina Lewis and Mary Roberts.
Istanbul, Pera Museum Publication, 2011. 279 pp, 96 illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-295-99110-8.

This book’s subtitle best describes its contents. For the last three months of 2008, The Lure of the East, an exhibition of primarily British Orientalist paintings (1840–1920), was shown in Istanbul. This venue was part of an international tour that also included New Haven, London and Sharjah; a multi-nation showing that was both an occasion to
re-assess Orientalism 30 years after Edward Said coined the term, and to re-evaluate the Ottoman capital as a venue for the Other. The 18 essays in this book, part of a symposium, present the reader with multiple Orientalisms. These crosscultural and trans-national interpretations in multi-directional patterns replace earlier, simpler East–West binary views (Mary Roberts, pp. 127–42) and raise new queries: how does one define the uneasy relationship between Orientalist painting and photography, and/or deal with the challenges to normative Western masculine presumptions by feminist and post-colonial agents?

The first group of essays cluster around the nature, purposes and timing of the exhibit as conceived by London’s Tate Gallery as well as the questions whom does art portray, and to whom do the results belong? Since this was the first survey of British Orientalism after the terrorist attacks in New York of 11 September 2001 and London of 7 July 2005, Christine Riding of the Tate looks openly at ‘the tangled political, social, cultural landscape in which the exhibition developed’ (pp. 33–46). Collecting has also changed. Rodney Searight, the pioneering Orientalist collector in the 1960s to 1980s, sought images made for 19th-century European consumption, which captured the new and unfolding experiences of trade, diplomacy, antiquarianism and tourism (Sarah Searight, pp. 77–88). The present patrons of Orientalist art, however, are the rulers and
businessmen of the Middle East and the Gulf who buy these paintings ‘as acts of repossession’ and as ‘authentic’ documents of a ‘lost’ cultural, architectural landscape (Nicholas Tromans, pp. 65–74). Reina Lewis discusses the impact of Orientalism on popular, material and consumer cultures. Pera, where the Western and Ottoman Orientalist artists once had studios, and which hosts exhibitions such as The Lure and newly formed collections of Orientalist art, has been revivified by emphasizing a local past that appeals to the new, primarily young, and often female patrons of contemporary consumer culture (pp. 49–63).

In 1839 the Tanzimat reforms set the Ottoman Empire on a new course of modernization and Westernization. In the pictorial arts one of the results was the creation in imperial portraiture of a ‘new Sultanic and dynastic image in the contemporary European manner’ (Günsel Renda, pp. 221–32). The role of the dragoman as cultural mediator was eliminated as diplomats and chancellery took on the role of a professional foreign service (Aykut Gürçaglar, pp. 211–20). Other essays stress the nostalgia for the past created by these new changes. For example, Thomas Allom, a British artist, ‘mourns modernization’ in his views of Constantinople (Wendy Shaw, pp. 115–26). So does Mary Adelaide Walker, a pioneer, though little-known female traveler-illustrator who lived in Istanbul and traveled throughout the Empire during the last half of the 19th century. The world she presents is vastly different from the harem image that male Orientalists imagined (Zeynep Inankur, pp. 199–210) These are simple, direct reactions. More complicated were the negative British attitudes towards veiling and the harem, which Teresa Hefferman (pp. 157–68) argues was a reaction against the cosmopolitanism of an Ottoman Empire that challenged British sensibilities.

1839 was also the year in which the daguerreotype introduced photography, and made it another aspect of the Orientalist portrayal. Semra Germaner (pp. 233–42) points out that in 1850, when Ottoman painters first began to depict Istanbul landscapes and buildings, they learnt perspective not from real life but by copying photographs, and Nancy Micklewright (pp. 99–114) writes of photographs collected in personal albums, which reflect individual encounters with the area that are quite different
from the more familiar eroticized canon of Orientalist images.

The Poetics and Politics of Place The most important British and Ottoman Orientalist artists are John Frederick Lewis and Osman Hamdi Bey, each the subject of several articles. John Frederick Lewis began his stay in the Ottoman Empire in 1840: one year in Istanbul and 10 years in Cairo; the Frencheducated Osman Hamdi Bey spent nine years in Paris studying Orientalist art. Both artists had complicated relationships with their own nationalities and with Orientalism. Lewis’s Arab figures represent disguised, retrospective portrayals of himself, revealing his own sympathies with an adopted culture and a desire to dissolve distinctions between East and West
(Briony Llewellyn, pp. 167–82). Osman Hamdi Bey, as one of the earliest non-Western artists to define his creative work in an engagement with European Orientalist tradition, shows that Orientalism is not a monolithic, univocal creation of Europeans. The Tanzimat period brought a profound sense of rupture from Ottoman history, and Ahmet Ersoy points to Hamdi Bey’s persistent use of embedded self-portraiture as part of his ‘romantic sense of the past’ (pp. 145–56). Edhem Eldem argues that Hamdi Bey’s own culturally complex journey in search of Self, from Istanbul to the Empire’s Arab periphery, turns him from an Ottoman Orientalist into a ‘Real’ Orientalist (pp. 183–98).These papers by scholars and specialists cast new lights on Orientalist art as a continuing and expanding field of study, and offer new ways to think about it. ‘In Orientalist painting a clear distinction between the real and the imaginary, between scientific observation and artistic interpretation is increasingly chimerical.’ (Tim Barringer, p. 243).

Caroline Williams