Orientalist Paintings and the People Who Hate Them, with Robert Irwin

This lecture continues Robert's argument with the hostile academic and populist diatribes against 'Orientalism'


The Ebenezer is delighted to present Robert Irwin. Regular Ebenezers may remember his extraordinary lecture two seasons ago on his experiences of Sufism in Algeria in the 60s.

His work is distinguished by a combination of formidable scholarship and narrative vision. His writing is humane, witty and profound and is a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape of our times.

This lecture continues Robert's argument with the hostile academic and populist diatribes against 'Orientalism'. His meticulously argued book, For Lust of Knowing ~ The Orientalists and their Enemies_ was a formidable recapitulation of the history of Western scholarship about the 'Orient', and more specifically, a thunderously joyful demolition of Edward Said's book, Orientalism (see cover below).

In this, Said asserted that all Western Orientalist scholarship was in the service of a malign colonialist agenda and served to underline Western European attitudes of superiority and disdain, in particular towards the Arab & Islamic worlds of the Middle East.

Irwin characterised Said's book as, 'a work of malignant charlatanry, in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations.' Said's book has had a profound influence on attitudes, particulary in some academic circles, ever since it was published in 1978.

Said's idea was that it was quite impossible for honest scholarship to be just that, for intellectual curiousity and cultural enthusiasm to be disinterested and unprejudiced - that it was always yoked to a colonialist agenda. Irwin thoroughly and precisely refuted this contention. However, Orientalist painting, as a result of Said and his ilk, has come under the same suspicion.

Can we enjoy these paintings, or must we read a perverse purpose into all such works? Were they irremediably tainted by the depiction of an exotic, sensual, barborous 'other' that contrasted with the 'rational' civilization of the West?

Were Orientalist painters like David Roberts, John Frederick Lewis, Edward Lear, Delacroix, Jean Léon Gérôme, Rudolf Ernst Edwin Lord Weeks and others the worst and the wickedest painters in the history of western art?

‘The interventions by Britain and America in the Middle East that we are currently witnessing have made it increasingly difficult for me to look at these pictures with anything like an indulgent eye. . . . Delicately if disingenuously, nineteenth-century British Orientalist painting papered over its connection to the rough designs of Empire. It depicted a world unnaturally emptied of politics, airily overlooking the highly charged events of the period—the strikes, riots, repressions and blockades; the impoverishment and famine; the communal punishments, hanging and massacres—that were the marks of Britain’s colonial “moment” in the Middle East.’ Rana Kabbani.

‘If for painters like Gérôme the Near East existed as an actual place to be mystified with effects of realness, for other artists it existed as a project of the imagination, a fantasy space or screen onto which strong desires—erotic, sadistic, or both—could be projected with impunity.’ Linda Nochlin.

‘The genre as a whole is repetitive and dull . . .’ Richard Dorment.

What had the painters done to deserve all this? And what have we done to deserve such relentlessly hostile and prejudiced critics? In the course of this lavishly illustrated talk you will be shown scores of allegedly imperialist, sadomasochistic or dull paintings which some of us might actually like very much.

This is a wonderful opportunity for all our regular and irregular Ebenezers to see and hear Robert in deepest Somerset, far from his more regular haunts on the BBC or Al Jazeera.


Robert Irwin

Robert has written numerous specialised studies of Middle Eastern politics, art and mysticism.

Robert's acclaimed novels include Exquisite Corpse, a tale of love, mystery and surrealism, and the modern classic, An Arabian Nightmare which has been translated into 20 languages.

Robert has taught Arabic and Middle Eastern history at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London. He is currently a research associate at SOAS and is the Middle East editor of The Times Literary Supplement.

Robert Irwin has written so much and his work is so wide-ranging that it is impossible to do it justice here. He is also the head of Dedalus Books, a keen pataphysician, and an evolved roller-blader.


For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies** ('Nine parts erudite, civil charm to one part blazing napalm.' - Kevin Jackson - Sunday Times

The Alhambra: 'For those who know his work, it will confirm his genius and to others it will act as an excellent introduction to his strange and magnificent oeuvre.' Martin Bright - Observer]

Camel - "Robert Irwin's erudite, droll and utterly delightful book about the life and lore of the dromedary (one hump) and Bactrian (two) abounds with details that reflect glory on a much-misunderstood animal." Boyd Tonkin - Independent().

2012Martin Keeley