Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Snake Charmer (1880)

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer

Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting The Snake Charmer is a sleazy imperialist vision of "the east". In front of glittering Islamic tiles that make the painting shimmer with blue and silver, a group of men sit on the ground watching a nude snake charmer, draped with a slithering phallic python.

This is one of the French paintings lent by the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to the Royal Academy for its exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism. Yet Gérôme is no impressionist. Painted in about 1879, this is a glitteringly cinematic slice of orientalist fantasy. Gérôme was the kind of painter the impressionists were rebelling against – a pristine purveyor of high-gloss dreams.

Yet his pictures are weirdly compelling: a pupil of the historical painter Paul Delaroche, whose Execution of Lady Jane Grey hangs in London's National Gallery, he painted detailed, brilliantly lit spectacles such as gladiators fighting in the ancient Roman arena. Gérôme's Roman empire fantasies had a direct influence on early Hollywood and still echo in modern blockbusters like Gladiator.
However, the painting by him I know best is The Snake Charmer, because it is on the cover of an old paperback copy of Edward Said's famous book, Orientalism, which I bought ages ago as a student and happened to be looking at the other day. The Snake Charmer is such an obviously pernicious and exploitative western fantasy of "the Orient" that it makes Said's case for him. Gérôme is, you might say, orientalism's poster boy. In this influential work, Said analyses how Middle Eastern societies were described by European "experts" in the 19th century in ways that delighted the western imagination while reducing the humanity of those whom that imagination fed on. In The Snake Charmer, voyeurism is titillated, and yet the blame for this is shifted on to the slumped audience in the painting. Meanwhile, the beautiful tiles behind them are seen as a survival of older and finer cultures which – according to Edward Said – western orientalists claimed to know and love better than the decadent locals did. [The Guardian]

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