Another look at Orientalism in German painting
Orientalism is an academic, literary and artistic movement born in Western Europe in the 18th century. Motivated by the search for the elsewhere, the exotic, the different, the movement fascinated scientists, artists and writers. It was initiated by the powerful impression made by the Ottoman Empire, followed by Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt and continued by European colonisation throughout the 19th century. Mainly inspired by the aesthetics of the Maghreb and the Middle East, it nourished the fantasies of many disciplines. It was mainly explored in architecture, literature, painting, music and poetry. The Orientalism artistic production was often associated with the artistic currents in vogue, with realist, romantic or impressionist painters producing numerous works depicting a fantasized Orient. This contributed to the creation of works where clichés accumulate, creating a visual universe where civilizations and eras merged, which can be found until today in world productions.
Academic Orientalism in Germany
In Germany, orientalism as an academic discipline followed the evolution of France. Many german students came to Paris to follow Silvestre de Sacy’s Arabic studies. Later, most German universities of the 19th century had a teaching on Orientalism. Initially based on a study of text close to theology, it sometimes evolved into philosophical or even social science courses. Germany has no physical presence in the Middle East, so the teaching is distinct from that given in France or England. This imported science will be at the origin of many university exchanges with France. However, German Orientalism in universities evolved differently from the academic Orientalism in France. Sometimes influenced by German Romanticism, it started in a quest for the origins of the German people, through philology. This being the origin of identity and nationalist drifts, the linguistic interest being transformed into academic ethnological considerations.
A different vision of the Orient
In its painting production, German Orientalism did not escape the European trend and its accumulation of clichés. In spite of the many journeys undertaken by the painters, the depicted scenes are often a mixture of images and civilizations without much logical connection. However, some artists were able to propose paintings representing an orient without fantasized exoticism, without gratuitous nudity exposed, without artificial scenes, without attributes and clothes unrelated. These few artists have represented landscapes, architectures, atmospheres that were far from the normative and cultural framework in which the Orient has been enclosed by Western thought.