Broken Borders, Billowing Smoke: Orientalism in Errol Le Cain’s Illustration for Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp
April 16, 2019
An exciting assortment of children’s book illustration is currently on view at the Museum as part of our latest exhibition Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Droller Collection of Picture Book Art. Amongst the Pied Piper, Alice in Wonderland, and other depictions of fantasy worlds is an illustration of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (1981) by Errol Le Cain (1941-1989). The image portrays Aladdin seated in front of a fire while a magician throws enchanted powder upon the flames—causing a billowing smoke. A heavily stylized natural landscape containing plant and animal life surrounds both figures. This scene illustrates the moment just before a hidden cavern opens near Aladdin’s feet. This is where he’ll find the magic lamp.
Le Cain’s image is one several illustrations created to enhance the Aladdin story, which had risen in popularity in western culture over the past two centuries. There are many versions of Aladdin, and Le Cain is illustrating the 1889 rendition by British author Andrew Lang. Lang based his text on the French author, Antoine Galland’s, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (1704-1717). The majority of One Thousand and One Nights was translated from a fourteenth century Arabic manuscript that resides in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Arabe 3609-3611). However, some of the tales of One Thousand and One Nights—such as Aladdin— were added later from an oral account that Galland heard, more information about which can be read here. The 1992 Disney movie version of Aladdin set the story in a fictional city, presumably on the Arabian Peninsula. It will surprise many readers to hear that this original Aladdin story instead takes place somewhere in China.
Just as he did with the illustration for another well-known work, King Arthur’s Sword (1968), Le Cain turned to the past for inspiration in designing Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. This time, he made artistic choices that were characteristic of Persian manuscript illumination, particularly from the 14th-16th centuries in important artistic production centers such as Shiraz (southern Iran) and Tabriz (northwestern Iran).
Persian manuscripts have been collected in the west since the 16th century and large numbers of them entered the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and other European and American collections in the 19th century. By the early to mid-20th century these manuscripts were being catalogued (ie. described) and exhibited, making them more available to the public. Western audiences particularly liked lavishly illustrated manuscripts containing high quality images of representational subjects—people, landscapes, flora, fauna, etc. The most famous of these was the Shahnama, also known as the Persian Book of Kings. The Shahnama’s paintings of Persian heroes triumphing over evil, epic battle scenes, elegant landscapes, and detailed building interiors appealed to a wide range of viewers. (A description and images of a 16th century Shahnama from Tabriz at the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be found here).
In Aladdin Le Cain uses fields of ornamental plant life to create pockets of space in which the main action of the image occurs. The figures of Aladdin and the magician are forced into the central and lower portion of this very symmetrical illustration, making it easy for the viewer to identify these characters as the focus of the image—despite a crowded visual field. Another important aspect of Le Cain’s Aladdin is the use of a decorative border around the image. This border is dramatically “broken” by the smoke from magical fire that billows out into the left-hand margin and off the picture entirely. Bursting of internal visual elements out of the main image and into the margins is another hallmark of Persian illumination. It conveys a sense that the story being depicted is so dramatic and exciting it can’t be contained. (A great example of this border busting can be seen here).
When this rendition of Aladdin was published, new ideas were emerging about depictions of the Far East that complicates Le Cain’s adoption of elements from Persian manuscript illumination. In 1978, literary scholar Edward Said published a landmark study titled Orientalism. Said identified a history of French, English, and American visual imagery in various forms that, he argued, romanticized and fictionalized the Far East. These artistic inventions established the thinking that eastern cultures were static and primitive, and helped to advance Europe and America’s colonial agendas.
As a result of orientalism, there are a number of both beautiful and problematic depictions of the Aladdin story throughout time, which reveal a reliance on exotic visual culture. Artists of the early 20th century such as René Bull, Edmund Dulac, and Thomas Mackenzie gained some knowledge of the middle and Far East through wartime postings and souvenir objects that they combined with popular western artistic styles of the time such as Art Nouveau. The result was the creation of a hodge-podge fantasy cultural aesthetic that “felt eastern” to European and American audiences. The cover of Dulac’s 1907 illustrated Stories from the Arabian Nights seen here uses stylized script that makes the English text appear at first glance as if it were written in Arabic script. The smoking incense burner found on both the cover and spine is a common object used to evoke an eastern setting and Middle Eastern rituals, despite the fact that similar objects have also been used in western Catholic church services for centuries.
Le Cain himself was a product of the colonial system. A British citizen, he was born in Singapore and spent his childhood between that city and Agra, India. His use of botanical decoration in the Aladdin image is an interesting example of eastern cultural remixing. Although it is not an accurate match for any one style, visual comparisons can easily be made between Le Cain’s paintings of plant life and those found on Indian textiles, Turkish pottery, Syrian tilework, and Chinese ceramics. Essentially Le Cain, like his predecessors, was borrowing from many different eastern artistic traditions and inevitably created an inaccurate and romanticized version of “Persia” that charmed his western readers.
At first glance, Le Cain’s illustration for Aladdin may not seem problematic when compared to other examples of orientalism. Several illustrations by American artist Louis Glackens for the 1892 comedy novel The Last Tenet Imposed upon the Khan of Tomathoz by William James Roe are in the Delaware Art Museum’s collection. The first paragraph describes the fictional city of Tomathoz as, “situated somewhere in Asia—sou’-sou’-east by a little sou’ of where the Garden of Eden is popularly supposed to have been.” The title page illustration depicts a man with a prominent nose and large ears adorned with hoop earrings that give him a caricatured, exotic appearance. He is wearing clothing that “feels” Middle Eastern but reflects inaccurate European ideas of what a Middle Eastern man is supposed to look like and, simultaneously, makes fun of him and his culture.
The image from Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp plays into the same orientalist devices. The figures of Aladdin and the magician are both dressed in costumes composed of similarly conflicting and confusing elements such as turbans and loose “harem” style pants. Aladdin, the protagonist, is painted with paler skin and western features whereas the magician, who is the villain, is given dark skin, a prominent nose, and thick, harsh eyebrows. The 1992 Disney movie version of Aladdin made similar choices when designing the heroes and villains of the story. In a video by the Al Jazeera media network AJ+ titled Why Arabs and Muslims Aren’t Exotic, the host Omar Duwaji, describes how Disney gave the protagonists Aladdin and Jasmine paler skin, western features, and American accents. Conversely, the villains and other inhabitants of Agrabah have darker skin, large noses and ears, and fake “Arabian” accents. Even “Agrabah” itself is a fake location. The Aladdin story continues to face controversy, and with a live action retelling of the 1992 film set to release in theaters on May 24th, 2019, it is unlikely these issues will cease to be topics of discussion. Duwaji additionally notes a number of other examples of orientalism in recent pop culture—from the representation of Muslims as terrorists in tv shows like 24 and Homeland to music videos by artists like Cardi B, Katy Perry, and Coldplay using exoticized Middle Eastern imagery. If you are interested in the topic of orientalism within the Aladdin films please watch AJ+’s short video here.
The issue of orientalism, and the colonialism and cultural appropriation it encompasses, did not die out in the late 1970’s with Edward Said’s book. His ideas are now more relevant than ever. Inaccurate artistic depictions of Eastern cultures may have charmed us as children in movies and books; however, it is important to understand the harm they do to the actual people of North Africa, the Middle East, Central, South, and East Asia and their diaspora.
Lang, Andrew. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Illustrated by Errol Le Cain. London: Puffin Books, 1983.
Menges, Jeff A., ed. Arabian Nights: Illustrated Art of Dulac, Folkard, Parrish and Others. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2008.
The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. “The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shnm/hd_shnm.htm
Razzaque, Arafat A. “Who ‘Wrote’ Aladdin? The Forgotten Syrian Storyteller.” Ajam Media Collective. Last Modified September 14, 2017. https://ajammc.com/2017/09/14/who-wrote-aladdin/
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Wright, Elaine J. The Look of the Book: Manuscript Production in Shiraz, 1303-1452. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2013.