Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) is the painting that just keeps on giving to news outlets. The world record sale of this late Picasso daub for £116 million has started a story that just won’t die. The latest twist, at the end of last week, was the buyer’s identity: reportedly, the secret billionaire purchaser was Qatar’s Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani.
That, it seems, was empty speculation. Christie’s has denied the story. The Telegraph has removed its report. What’s fascinating, though, given the apparent lack of a factual basis to the buyer’s unmasking, is how the flaky story was interpreted.
Qatar’s Islamic decency laws, reported the excited western media, meant the painting would have to be locked away and never shown in public. The sheikh would have to keep his treasure a shameful secret.
Fascinating. An image of Islamic intolerance and religious censorship appears to have been created on a totally fictional basis. Don’t let Qatar suppress Picasso’s lust! Save our Cubist boobs from Muslim bigotry!
Even if the story about the painting going to Qatar were true – and this oil-rich, art-loving state must still be a plausible destination for the world’s most expensive painting – you don’t have to be Edward Said to be struck by the fantasy of oriental intolerance that some media outlets have dreamt up. There were no hard facts at all, and certainly nothing to prove the painting would be censored by Qatar.
And yet, there is very solid evidence that it offends the conservative Christian scruples of some in the west. We have no proof that a Middle Eastern billionaire is sitting on this salacious picture, but we do know that the breasts in the painting were blurred out by a Fox news channel. How peculiar, to project this bizarre outbreak of American puritanism on to Qatar. We are modern: they are bigots. So how come “we” are the ones censoring Picasso?
As it happens, Picasso’s painting is itself a fantasy of the orient. Picasso, in his villa in the south of France, created for himself an imaginary harem of buxom babes. Women of Algiers (Version O) is one of his remakes of an 1834 masterpiece by Eugène Delacroix in the Louvre. The original Women of Algiers by Delacroix is a richly coloured, flamboyantly sensual scene of Algerian concubines smoking drugs from a hookah in the seclusion of their harem apartment.
Delacroix, the great Romantic who also painted France’s national icon Liberty Leading the People, travelled extensively in north Africa, so it would not be quite true to call his Women of Algiers an orientalist fantasy. It is, at least, partly rooted in real observations by an artist who genuinely loved the Maghreb, as can be seen from the travel sketches and Moroccan artefacts that fill his preserved studio in Paris.
Above all, the light and colour of north Africa – which were also to inspire Matisse – pervade Delacroix’s Women of Algiers with an intense shadowy heat. But, clearly, it creates an image of harem life for western eyes – an erotic idyll of Arabian Nights decadence. This idea thrilled French artists in the 19th century, and was taken to fleshy heights in The Turkish Bath by the neoclassical painter Ingres. In his versions of Women of Algiers, Picasso revives that orientalist license for lust.
What strikes me here is how the west’s image of Arabia has reversed since the 19th century. Once, the Islamic world was equated with sexual license and harem decadence. Today, Islam is imagined as sexually prudish, although, in fact, it is Christian theology that is darkly preoccupied with sexual sin. The idea of Picasso’s painting being locked away in shame in a sheikh’s cellar appeals to the current image of Islamic intolerance, which Islamic State are doing nothing to discourage. When it comes to images of Arabia, the west goes from fantasy to fear, from idyll to hysteria, without it seems ever waking up to the complexity of a real place where real, individual people live in a messy human way – whether they have a painting by Picasso or not.
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