Sunday, 6 May 2018

A Eunuch's Dream

The name most synonymous with the sensual values of what has come to be known as orientalist art, which is to say the portrayal of the East (and especially the Mahomatan East) as both beautiful and sensual - this defying all the conventions of the hostile estimations of former times whereby that world was regarded as irredeemably cruel and misguided and monstrous - is Jean Leon Gerome, and by extension his many students and imitators. Foremost among them in terms of skill and breadth, surely, is Jean Lecomte Du Nouy. Perhaps only second to his teacher, Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy shaped the repertoire of orientalist imagery - in French art, certainly - and brought the techniques of Academic figure painting to orientalist subjects. He was resolute in this. Born in 1842 he lived until 1923 and witnessed all the intrusions of modernism into French painting; despite distinctly modern interests he stayed faithful to XIXth century classical values and formal style even as Academic painting went into decline. He was not tempted by the new waves sweeping through French art. 

The overlap between these different paradigms in the early XXth century is remarkable. When we look at a Picasso, or some other work of modernism now, we have little sense of how artists such as Lecomte Du Nouy were still working concurrently, valiant against the in-coming tide. The Academic masters have been eclipsed. This is especially true of the orientalists. Not only have their realist values and methods been eclipsed by the degradations of modernist abstraction (which are actually psuedo-primitivist and quasi-African in most cases) but their choice of subject matter has been disparaged by resentment fueled post-colonial and Marxist ideologies such that their entire enterprise has been delegitimised. Many pages of this current blog are devoted to this issue. Our purpose, in part, is to re-evaluate and rescue orientalist painting from this tawdry fate if only by celebrating its best representatives and their most notable works. 

Surely the most outstanding and startling painting in the oeuvre of Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy is now to be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art and is known as The Eunuch's Dream. The scene is old Cairo. A eunuch reclines on a rooftop smoking an opium (or hashish?) pipe and, languishing, has an erotic vision, although it is ruptured by a child wielding a knife, an emblem of castration. 

It is an arresting picture, capturing the tortured eroticism of the very oriental institution of the eunuch. The artist accompanied Monsieur Felix Clement to Egypt in 1865, then barely twenty-three years old. After the journey he set about depicting the opulence and customs of the Egyptians. He painted The Eunuch's Dream in 1874, a mature reflection of his Egyptian sojourn. In many ways it is his preeminent Egyptian work. 

Here are some details:

The eunuch languishing. He is not a black eunuch such as often appears in orientalist paintings - an entirely accurate historical matter since the Arabs routinely used negroid Africans as eunuchs. The ethnicity of this eunuch is hard to determine, except that he is not caucasian. It is little known that the Coptic Christians were the main suppliers of eunuchs to the Arab rulers in Egypt up until the early XXth century. The Copts were in the business of capturing, castrating and training young boys to be sold to wealthy Arab households. The boys were usually castrated around the age of seven or eight - certainly young enough as to mutate the hormonal changes of puberty. Yet a eunuch was never entirely sexless, just incapacitated. This is the theme of this painting. As beautiful and as alluring as the female apparition may be, an ethereal fantasy, the castrating angel is close behind. 

The erotic vision, a transformation of the vapors of the drug. The drug is the vehicle of the vision. This is one of the most interesting devices in the painting; the smoke from the pipe takes shape as the phantasy. The connection between such substances and voluptuous visions is a point of fascination for orientalist painters, as much as for writers and adventurers. This is an era prior to puritanical crusades against drugs. The criminalisation of opiates and narcotics in the West coincided with the close of the orientalist era. Here, in this painting, there is not a hint of that squeamishness.

The knife-wielding cherub, with the tip of his blade illumined by one of the brighter stars in the sky. 

In the background, the stork, its stance on one leg emblematic of castration and incapacity (just as is lameness in other contexts.) 

The artist's signature and handprint. 

The massive form of the Sultan Hasan mosque in the background, and in the far distance, the pyramids of Cheops. The mosque is merely an architectural signature that places the image at a certain location in old Cairo - it is likely that the artist was quite exact about this and had a very particular rooftop in mind - yet perhaps the truncated form of the mosque, which is peculiar in only hosting two minarets rather than the standard four, is another undertone of castration and inadequacy. Certainly, the painting is carefully constructed as a commentary of emblems and symbols on this theme. 

Somewhat later, Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy returned to this picture and painted a companion, this time a simple dream - necessarily erotic since an "oriental" dream (the title of the painting) is by definition voluptuous. Once again we find the agency of drugs - the hookah - but now the device of the smoke rising up as a phantasy has been muted. Instead, the apparition is projected as a celestial visitation to the dreamer in his reverie. The image is not nearly so striking as that of the eunuch, to be sure, but once again it is remarkable in his entirely positive depiction of oriental sensuality. The Mahometans are not debased brutes or monsters, and there is no hint of any sense in which their sensuality is a threat to Christian or European values. This is, once again, a wholly sympathetic and benign view of the oriental world. This is typical of the orientalists. The erotic visitant is no succubus. The artist is far removed from such medieval categories. Sexual phantasy is not being presented as a moral danger. The artist is properly fascinated by the deliciousness of oriental sexuality and its inner world. 


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment