What a difference a century or so makes. For many 19th-century European poets and painters, Asia and Arabia were hotbeds of exotica epitomized by dashing Moorish warriors, hookah-puffing pashas and scantily clad harem girls at a time when Europe was far more restrained. But thanks to al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State, those fabled lands now bristle with militants who carry on like homicidal church ladies trying to stomp dancing, drinking and fun out of existence. The Orientalist fantasies of 19th-century European romantics were just that — European fantasies — but beyond seducing generations with titillating exoticism, they also helped reinforce Europe's colonial assertions of "moral superiority" over those "sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child," as Rudyard Kipling described them in his poem White Man's Burden.
The New Orleans Museum of Art long has had some splendid examples in its collection, but this small exhibit for the first time places these works in a historically realistic context while showcasing their exuberance. Race heightens the tension in Alexandre-Marie Colin's spectacular Othello and Desdemona (pictured) painting of the swarthy Moorish general fleeing his beloved's bed after being tricked into killing her, yet it's clearly high tragedy in the grand manner. The French master of the genre was Jean-Leon Gerome, whose atmospheric paintings of snake charmers and some Turkish Bashi-Bazouk Mercenary Soldiers Playing Chess imbue his subjects with an almost hypnotic aura of intrigue, but the German romantics were no slouches, and Adolf Schreyer's nearby Charge of Arabs painting of Bedouin tribesmen on horseback depicts men and horses in perfect harmony in a classic example of the European notion of "the noble savage." The British are represented by two photographs of sites damaged during the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion in India. Both look surprisingly staid, and though 2,000 rebels were massacred at one site, you have to look twice to notice the skulls and bones the typically tidy Brits left behind as a warning to others.