By the end of the 19th century the allure of the Orient and the “far away” was sweeping over Europe and North America. Following Napoleon’s 1798 – 1801 invasion of Egypt, other expeditions followed, drawn in particular towards the Middle East and North Africa. Scientists traveled alongside artists, in an attempt to decipher the exoticism of these mysterious lands. While some painters showed condescension towards their subjects, the overall feelings they conveyed were of fascination and awe.
And yet, were you to dare utter the word Orientalism, you’d very likely be met with scorn and air quotes. Because in the art world they only speak of “Orientalism”, a mocking reference to 19th century artists’ choice of Eastern subjects, depicted in luxurious settings. Often resorting to clichés and props, these highly saturated, realistic and rather sentimental artworks became an instant commercial hit, being widely reproduced.
With non-Western art often being ignored, the best thing we have is the Orient seen through the lens of the West. You can call it colonialism, imperialism or cultural appropriation … it doesn’t change the fact that it’s all we have in our Western collective conscience and our Eurocentric art books.
American artist Frederick Arthur Bridgman was one of the Orientalists who, after several trips to North Africa during the 1870s and 1880s, completed many paintings revealing the foreign cultures that fascinated him. I was immediately drawn to The Siesta, an oil painting that captures the peaceful slumber of a young woman amidst a luxurious, exotic setting. The soft pillows and bed on which she lies offer her delight and great comfort, as seen from the subtle smile on her face. There is so much pleasure implied, which isn’t surprising considering how relished and much needed a nap is sometimes.
But take a closer look and perhaps you’ll change your mind. There is a small table with tea or coffee next to the bed, against which leans a smoking pipe – perhaps one for opium. The girl’s siesta suddenly doesn’t look so innocent. A small monkey is also perched on the cushions of the bed. Due to monkeys’ resemblance to humans, for the longest time, in art, they symbolized our most primal and sexual urges. In the background, the lush vegetation and the open door to the right suggest that the girl is vulnerable to danger and intrusion.
Unconsciousness and sexuality are interwoven, a motif that was used extensively throughout art history and reinforced by Sigmund Freud’s writings. Flaming June also comes to mind for how a peaceful sleep can be charged with so much desire.
In spite of all these scattered clues, I still prefer to look at this painting as an invitation to a pleasurable, almost decadent siesta. The detail in the furniture, tapestry and tiles is exquisite, as if Bridgman was bringing to life one of our childhood stories. Forget the danger, that’s where I want to rest.