Everyone relates to the human body, especially artists. Artists have used the form as a source of inspiration since the beginning of time. Willendorf ‘s Venus was carved out of limestone 25,000 years ago, an indication that early artists were just as fascinated with the nude as their successors. Indeed, masters of western art such as Titian, Goya, and Ruben have canonized the nude’s status in modern culture. The reach of the nude, however, extends beyond painting. The Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, designs structures that are inspired by the grace and beauty of the human body. His skyscraper in Malmo, Sweden, The Turning Torso, endowed with human kinetics, seems to twist as if to look across the harbor. Furthermore, many product designers borrow organic forms that aspire to attract buyers. Indeed, to the careful observer, the nude is ubiquitous.
A recent trip to America’s art capital, New York City, confirmed that the nude, and admittedly all manner of figurative works, were thriving. It was during to this trip, where I toured galleries and attended the world’s largest art fair, Art Expo, that I felt inspired to pursue this classical theme.
Returning to Charlotte, I began work on what would, eventually, become the show, Odalisque. Typically, my process of creating art involves investigation and practice, usually in the form of sketches and observation. I worked with live models and internet models. Additionally, my work involves a research component. For example, when producing figure studies, I read how other artists approach the subject and review significant works in the field. This method of approach helps me to determine a sense of direction. In this case, I returned to the works of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, Jean-Léon Gérome, Léon Benouville, and Eugene Delacroix. Yes, clearly I found myself attracted to the work of the Orientalists.
Orientalism is a curious subgenre of the Romantic Movement that spanned the 18th and 19th centuries. It was fueled by French and British perspectives of the Middle East. Evidently, the West had a penchant for all things eastern, which they considered exotic. It’s important to note that when the West referred to the East, they, in fact, could be referring to everything not considered to be England and France. Frequently the term, Orient, was used to describe areas in North Africa and parts of Eastern Europe.
Some artists, like Gérome, traveled to the Orient to paint and gather reference material. However at the time, the subject matter was so popular, that other artists, like Ingres, just invented Middle Eastern scenes in their studios. With such practices widespread, it became difficult to determine what works were authentic representations of the Orient. In fact, authenticity may not have been the objective. Some experts suggest that Orientalism gave the sexually repressed societies of Western Europe an outlet to express their fantasies and that in doing so, they created a fictitious world of violent, dominating men, and seductive, nude women, all cast in a setting of vivid, desert colors.
It’s little surprise then, that the term, Orientalism, has taken a negative connotation. Columbia University professor, Edward Said, criticized the movement in his publication titled, “Orientalism,” suggesting that the period was stereotyping and racist. Yet a recent article published by Forbes.com stated that Oriental themed art was making a strong comeback, ironically in the Middle East. In March, 2009, Sotheby’s conducted their first Orientalist sale in Qatar and Forbes interviewed an Egyptian collector, Shafik Gabr, whose collection is estimated at $40 million. Gabr stated that he was attracted to the photorealism that characterized much of his collection. Clearly, many paintings from the period possess the stunning realism that emanated from the Neoclassical period, but that was not an element that I was interested in emphasizing for my show, Odalisque.
Rather than accent the figure’s relationship to the viewer’s everyday visual experience, I attempted to convey a mood through the use of subtle oils washes applied to toned charcoal drawings. Here, the emphasis is on an atmosphere of lassitude and sensuality. My approach is expressionistic and speculative. Each painting is thin and delicate, imbued with an allusive character and an ephemeral nature. The lounging odalisques and dancing jins are contextualized in a decadent and exotic realm using convenient devices such as hookah pipes, veils, palms, or subtle reference to Ottoman design. All are nude. Most of the titles of the works relate to Orientalism. Some derive from Oriental literature, some are biblical, and others come from parodies or folk tales. All the paintings were created on a luxurious, handmade, paper, imported from India, and are unframed so that you may observe the entire sheet.
The human body, it turns out, is a great vehicle for telling a story and artists have used it for generations. From cave dwellers to the modern masters, many artists have employed the nude to influence our sense of reality. Just as old stories can be made new again by creative perspectives, this show, Odalisque, represents one artist’s spin on a very old tale. Through this experience, the hope is that you will reexamine the art nude and how it can influence your sense of the exotic. The masters of the 19th Century certainly did this. If Orientalism has a lesson, then it is that the realities of exoticism can really only be experienced through an artist. If you search for it elsewhere, then you may find that it never actually existed at all.
W. Hudson Temples
W. Hudson Temples