- - Thursday, November 1, 2012

In its sale of European paintings in New York next week, Sotheby’s auction house is offering a painting by the leading Orientalist painter Ludwig Deutsch.

Unusually somber for this usually colorful and flamboyant genre, the work is called “The Scholars” (1901) and shows three Middle Eastern scholars reading manuscripts. The painting, from a private collection in Virginia, is listed in the catalog at $400,000-$600,000, and Polly Sartori, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of its 19th century European art department, expects strong interest from Middle Eastern as well as other international collectors.

It wasn’t always thus. As recently as 20 years ago, Arabs showed little interest in Orientalist works — paintings of Middle Eastern scenes by European artists — which were seen as an exotic distortion of the reality of the Middle East and its people aimed at a Western public. A seminal book by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, published in 1978, excoriated Orientalism as a residue of colonialism and degrading to the Arabs.

Orientalist art and literature “has very little to do with what I know about my own background and life,” Said once observed in a lecture now available on YouTube.

More recently, that negative perception has changed.

The Sultanate of Qatar recently completed a Museum of Orientalist Art, which houses more than 900 Orientalist paintings, watercolors, and works on paper. Works by such leading names as Deutsch, David Roberts, Edward Lear, Jean-Leon Gerome, and the American Edwin Weeks are now on the shopping lists of private and institutional collectors all over the Middle East — with a consequent rise in prices.

Julian Raby, director of Washington’s Asian art museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, says dealers began selling Oriental art to Arabs in the late 1980s. Before, “it had always been treated as a fringe,” says Mr. Raby, “but there’s been an increasing number of exhibitions, and material that had often been dismissed in the 1960s has now become of interest.”

Mr. Raby says this revisionist view has yet to be thoroughly examined. “Is it nostalgia?” he wondered. The Qatar Orientalist Museum’s website defines Orientalism as a “historical and cultural event” that has relevance to Middle Eastern culture as well as Western. Orientalism, the website says, “has generated an exotic image within our consciousness, one that has a right to its own existence.”

In fact, if Arabs are becoming increasingly interested in preserving a visual narrative of their past, there are few sources to turn to other than Western artists. There are few, if any, works by Arab artists depicting 19th century life and society in the Arab world.

But for Egyptian businessman Shafik Gabr, one of the leading collectors in the Arab world, the Orientalists have a deeper meaning.

Mr. Gabr is chairman and managing director of the Artoc Group, an investment and development conglomerate in Cairo, and one of Egypt’s top millionaires. “I’m inspired by what these artists achieved, traveling to strange lands, integrating with the society with no preconceived perception of what was there, sometimes living for years with Arab societies and in some instances settling there, to articulate their message in their paintings,” he said by telephone from London Thursday. “It was a Western optic, but it carried an Eastern message.”

To Mr. Gabr, the Orientalists — the ones who actually lived among the people in the casbahs and villages they painted, and not what he calls the “armchair” artists who stayed at home and produced exotic paintings of harems and dancing girls — were “early globalists who brought the Arab world to the West, and we owe them a great debt.”

The Middle East was always a crossroads, Mr. Gabr says, and the Orientalists are part of “a long and continuing conversation between the West and the Middle East.”

A book on the 140 or so Orientalist paintings in Mr. Gabr’s house in the Cairo hills came out on Thursday. But the launch of “Masterpieces of Orientalist Art in the Shafik Gabr Collection” will also be the occasion for putting some of Mr. Gabr’s beliefs into practice.

He plans a series of panel discussions in Washington (on Nov. 27), London, New York, Istanbul and Cairo, on the key themes of how culture — including the work of the Orientalists — can improve the understanding between people. Called “East-West: The Art of Dialogue,” the conferences will underline the importance of personal communication. Around 30 works from his collection will be on display at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, the conference venue in the District.

“We have emails, Twitter, Facebook, and television, and they are excellent, but the social media have not succeeded in replacing human contact,” Mr. Gabr said.

Next spring, Mr. Gabr’s philanthropic foundation will launch an exchange pilot program that will select a number of artists, scholars, and entrepreneurs from the West and arrange for them to live in Egypt for six weeks, and applicants from similar backgrounds from Egypt to live in Western countries. Participants will then be expected to produce a work or works based on their experience in the medium of their choice.

Mr. Gabr studied the Orientalists before he could afford to buy them, and began acquiring them as soon as he could. “They not only depicted what they saw, but much of it exists today,” he said. “The places exist, the texture exists, the colors exist, and so do many of the social messages.”

His first acquisition was a painting by Deutsch, “Egyptian Priest Entering a Temple” (1892), which he bought in Paris for $3,940. “The way the priest is standing in the doorway,” he said. “You could still see that scene in Egypt today.”

Asked whether he thought the Muslim Brotherhood, now the dominant political force in Egypt, would share his view of the Orientalists or the view of the late Said, Mr. Gabr replied, “The jury is still out on what the future of art and culture will be in post-revolution Egypt. The government has more important things to worry about first.”

For the moment, he said, the government seemed more interested in today’s culture: It was behind a program to collect and preserve posters, graffiti and other artifacts from the recent revolution.