“…One of the defining features of Orientalist painting is its dependence for its very existence on a presence that is always an absence: the Western colonial or touristic presence.”
In her essay “The Imaginary Orient,” Linda Nochlin certainly discusses the omnipresent absence of Westerners in the works of two painters in particular, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Nochlin seems to focus on how Delacroix, the unapologetic romantic, and Gérôme, known as a “realist” painter, created a vision of “the Orient” (actually the near Middle East) that elevated the omniscient Western observer to superior connoisseur while relegating Turks and Arabs to the roles of sexual and social degenerates dwelling in decrepitude who can only benefit from colonial oversight. However the feminist art scholar who asked “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” eventually reveals her true interest in Orientalism, that of revealing these French painters as renderers of women as possessions and completely powerless victims.
Nochlin does make a photographic aside to Morocco with respect to fanciful and fantastic constructions of the East, using the Bab Mansour El Alj gate as an example. A sort of “promotional” photo of the gate shows an out-of-time, or timeless, image of the gate untouched by the modern world, remote and classical without quite being pristine. In fact, as Nochlin demonstrates with a more “real” photo, the gate is often the site of various types of contemporary clutter from haphazardly parked automobiles to unwieldy groups of people in “modern,” even Western, dress.
Basically, though, Nochlin wants to point out that French Orientalist paintings from the Nineteenth Century have an agenda. Gérôme’s careful attention to details such as the textures of tiles and faint traces of Arabic script suggest the painted scene is a recreation, when in fact this is not the case. Arabic men are shown as depraved and predatory, architecture is crumbling, and people are generally lounging about and not working. So, typically, the Western controls, and is invited to control, this unruly civilization by observing it.
Nochlin further suggests that the ultimate point of such French genre paintings was to portray all women, including European women, as the possessions of men. The women being terrorized or waiting passively in depictions of the harem often appear to be pale Europeans themselves. Nochlin also believes that the overt images of possession and passivity suggest an ultimate expression of power – the men own the women, thus, actually, they could kill the women – and that these canvasses function as painted snuff films.