chapter  8
19 Pages

BABYLONIAN WOMEN IN THE ORIENTALIST IMAGINATION

In London of the 1850s, Austen Henry Layard’s discovery of the amazing remains of the Assyrian past caused something of a sensation in British society. The Illustrated London News and other popular journals reported that the primordial origins of human history had finally been unearthed. Elsewhere in Britain, the finds were described as something of an edge for the British in the race for empire. The arrival of the Assyrian colossal sculptures and palace reliefs at the British Museum also stirred up a great deal of discussion in the area of aesthetics, and in the newly emerging discipline of art history. By that time, the narrative of a progress of culture and civilisation as manifest in aesthetic production was fairly well established. At the British Museum, the foremost question in the minds of scholars was how to fit the newly discovered finds into what was then referred to as the ‘Great Chain of Art’, and numerous, rather comic, debates are recorded in the archives, regarding whether these carvings could indeed be categorised as art, and whether placing them under the same roof as the Elgin marbles would not be an affront to the very concept of civilisation itself (Jenkins 1992; Bohrer 1994). On the more liberal side of the argument, there was a general feeling that Assyrian art could actually be quite useful as a foil for the great Classical ideal, and Assyrian representations were described by museum keepers and scholars of ancient art as an early, failed attempt at Greek naturalism or mimesis. The general public, however, was awe-struck; a mania for things ancient and Oriental ensued, affecting a large part of the visual arts and popular culture of the second half of the nineteenth century in both England and France.