Very few people in the west know this story. Perhaps they have some dim memory of Aladdin’s lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or Sinbad the Sailor. But those are only a few of the tales told over the thousand and one Arabian nights and they are taken out of a very meaningful context. This is the story behind the stories that were told by Scherazade to the Sultan-King Sharyar. It goes like this:
Once upon atime an Arabian Sultan had been deeply hurt by the infidelity of one of the women from his harem, and in that hurt felt betrayed by all of them. From then on, after making love to a woman from his harem, he would have her killed. One after another, the women from the harem were called in to make love to the sultan and none of them ever returned. Then it was the turn of Scherazade . . .
Scherazade told the Sultan a story, a story that went on for almost three years, for a thousand and one Arabian nights. Her story demonstrates the power of the feminine in the midst of a male-dominated society. It offers insight into the wounded heart of a man and how that wound is made livable. It reveals the truth of desire and what the heart is really seeking. Her story looks at the limits of sex and what can be sought and attained in sexuality and what cannot. Scherazade reveals a unique understanding of the play between man and woman.
While the women of the harem sought to please the Sultan's body, mind and senses with their beauty, enthusiasmand charms, Scherazade tried something different. After seeing her sisters attempt to please the Sultan with sensuality and subsequently be killed, Scherazade engaged not just the Sultan's body and senses, but his feeling heart and imagination as well. She told him a story.
The story is told with images taken from the rich trove of Orientalist paintings of the late 1800's. The Orientalists painted at a time when the camera was just beginning to be used. These painters provided the 'photographs' of this exotic world to the West, and their attention to detail is extraordinary. Their painted gifts are filled with the fantasy and romance of the European dream of that Middle Eastern world.
Ever since I was a boy I have been intrigued with the world of the East as shown by the Orientalists – a vision of virile, vital men, slavesand concubines, of life filled with sensuality, eroticism, extraordinary gifts and terrible cruelty. That world represented something I recognized but had no experience of in my own life, growing up in a middle class Jewish household of idealistic humanitarians in the America of the 1950's. The Orientalists showed me a world that, whether true or not, is both foreign and exotic, abhorrent and fascinating. As Carl Jung might have said, they showed me the world of my shadow, and I thrilled to it.
Most of the paintings of the Orientalists come without a story. Usually a picture has a name or a few remarks, as well as the name of the artist who painted it and what year it was painted. For the most part, their art exists only as a collection of images. In this story, I have put together many of the painted pictures from the period and molded them into a coherent whole. In this way I find they give support to the visual narrative of the tale, and in turn the tale gives life to their imagery.