Enter the harem
Just ask Tracy Kamerer, whose digging has brought forth revelations about Flagler’s collecting taste and led to a gorgeous William Bouguereau exhibition two years ago. Her curatorial instinct now has put scandalous renditions of the Muslim harem on display.
But just whose depravity they expose? It’s hard to say.
On view through April 16, “Harem: Unveiling the Mystery of Orientalist Art” presents about 50 works — sculptures, letters, postcards, paintings and drawings — that shed a light on the realities and fallacies surrounding this sacred space.
Depending on whom we choose to believe, the harem was either a part of the house where Muslim wives and mothers carried on domestic tasks, or a luxurious prison holding lounging concubines and sexual slaves ready to satisfy the sultan.
Because foreigners were never allowed access to these quarters, nobody knows for sure. That did not stop Orientalist artists and collectors of the 19th century from producing and acquiring twisted depictions of the highly popular subject. Flagler himself bought at least six of these paintings.
“Through the exhibit you see the women missing one or two shoes,” said Ms. Kamerer, chief curator at the Flagler Museum. “We don’t think anything of it, but in a time when women didn’t show any ankle or leg, that would have been considered highly improper.”
It was a necessary misconception serving a dual purpose: stimulating the art market and shielding Western women from depravity.
It is safe to assume that market’s annoyance at the increasing European influence that was threatening to ruin the picturesque Middle Eastern fantasy, which insisted on depicting these women as trapped wild animals. Hence the curious presence of furs, exotic species and caged birds in paintings like Théodore Chassériau’s “Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle” and Juan Giménez Martín’s “In the Harem.” It also explains why many female figures are shown resting on the floor.
The abundance of fair-skinned odalisques, noticeable in nearly all the works, is another example of the liberties taken by artists set on engaging their audience. Although Georgians, Armenians and Circassians exhibited this physical characteristic, such women were rarely found in harems. Their inclusion, however, ensured western eyes could relate and gave a familiar face to the indecent behavior that was not to be copied. Vincent G. Stiepevich’s oil painting “Harem Minstrel” is among those Flagler displayed them at his Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine and one of many to intentionally associate harem servants with a darker skin.
Western curiosity is comically captured with “The Peeping Roofers and the Woman’s Bath,” an 1880 watercolor commissioned by William H. Vanderbilt that hangs in the first gallery. Three laborers appear highly amused by the bathing ritual down below. They are in no rush to get to the roof tiles they have been charged with fixing, especially when the hole is giving them privileged access.
The painting, by French artist Jehan Georges Vibert, combines Asian and Western cultural elements such as silk kimonos and classical columns. The Vanderbilts’ New York residence featured a similar eclectic style.
Among the few who generated less manipulative interpretations of the harem is William Henry Bartlett. His engraving titled “A Turkish Apartment in the Fanar” (circa 1839) makes no judgments and instead focuses on the architectural details and imperial decadence. Bartlett’s picture was published in Julia Pardoe’s book “The Beauties of the Bosphorus.” Pardoe shared Bartlett’s sentiment of portraying a positive image of the Turks. Her voice is one of several important written accounts included in the show that help counter inaccuracies.
Her book, displayed in the center of the first gallery, reads: “It is an amusing fact, that an idea of impropriety is attached by Europeans who have never visited the East, to the very name of a harem.”
If these women were victims, why the smile and the seductive gaze in Juan Giménez Martín’s “The Sultan’s Favorite”? The 1886 oil painting surrounds the female protagonist in extravagance and surrounded by such traditional items as a hookah and an incense burner. She is not crying or wearing chains. The woman poses confidently, sure of her erotic powers. We hardly notice the lord of the house entering the scene.
“If you were in a gallery and you were going to buy a painting and you were a white male in the 19th century,” said Ms. Kamerer, “would you have picked a painting of a sexy woman who looks unhappy? Or a painting of a sexy woman who looks alluring and pleased?”
It seems inconceivable throughout “Unveiling the Myth” to fall for such a heavily promoted campaign.
Aside from the display of flesh and suspiciously European features, many of the works clash with the intended message. Far from being pictures of struggle and despair, they depict boredom in lieu of enjoyment. It is still worth seeing firsthand what an Eastern mystery trapped inside the Western mindset looks like. ¦