giovedì 2 ottobre 2014

Orientalism in a cup of coffee

Sultana (Mme de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish lady), 1747, Van Loo

Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time before coffee. Native neither to European nor American soil, the coffee plant is originally Ethiopian. By the Renaissance, Sufi mystics were consuming coffee in Yemen, and soon the drink became popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. In the 16th century, Ottoman Turks discovered the beverage when merchants from Aleppo and Damascus founded the first coffeehouses of Istanbul. Gradually, and in a manner that was anything but inevitable, coffeehouses opened in Europe too—first in Oxford, then in London, then on the continent. By the end of the 17th century, Europeans had learned to love this strange new concoction.

The first example that came to my mind was the image of Madame de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish Lady, Sultane, painted by Carle Van Loo for her chateau at Bellevue, along with two other paintings displaying her occupied with pursuits associated with the Turkish harem in the French imagination, Two Odalisques Embroidering and An Odalisque Playing a Stringed Instrument (lost). Even here I have been thinking more along the lines of the use of coffee in exotic constructions of "the other" in European painting.

European artists' fascination with Constantinople and the Orient was an ongoing phenomenon that culminated in Orientalism in art. Canvases of Western artists, depicted their fantasies of throngs of women, lounging about, sometimes naked, waiting for the pleasure of one man.  Those who visited came back with props, sketches and memories of exotic lands and strange people, those who did not, relied on accessories, costume books and travel memoirs. The dainty coffee cup became one of the most iconic props used by Orientalist.

Tchaikovsky - Arabian Dance - Coffee (Danse Arabe) from The Nutcracker Suite

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