Orientalism Astray

Else Lasker-Schüler Redraws the Orientalism of her Time

Lina Barouch

The metaphor and image of the arabesque may best capture Else Lasker-Schüler’s Orientalism, which combines enthusiasm with irony and embodies an ambivalence and a dichotomy that undoes any rigid orders. Lasker-Schüler’s Orientalism was embedded in the contemporary fascination with the Orient in general, and Ancient Egyptian art in particular, while the endurance, constant evolution, and originality of Lasker-Schüler’s work made her Orientalism unique. Orientalist notions helped her define her own mytho-biography, which moved between the imagined figures of Tino and Jussuf, provided her writing with Near-Eastern motifs, landscapes, and coloration, and – in combination with modernist currents in the fine arts, as well as new findings in ethnology and museology – defined the aesthetic development of her drawings, illustrations, and pictograms.

Lasker-Schüler’s Orientalism allowed her not only to negotiate between notions of East and West but also to question her own standing within the German-Jewish community, partly in response to the emergence of cultural Zionism from the turn of the century onwards, and to the Jewish renaissance in the Weimar years. Her at times romantic, at times ironic, approach can be seen in the aesthetic choice to move away from early attempts in the fashion of the Art Nouveau to increasingly individualized silhouettes that oscillate between expressionism and symbolism, as in the numerous pictograms and illustrations which adorn her letters. The Orient was thus perceived in terms of ever-transforming »orientation«: constantly shifting courses between canonical texts (the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and Greek Mythology) and the imagined landscapes of Thebes, Jerusalem, Baghdad, the Ottoman Empire, and Byzantium. This Orient(ation) also underpinned the transgression of gender in her texts and drawings, and the collusion of picture and text in response to her fascination with hieroglyphs.

The figure of »Jussuf of Thebes«, also discussed in other sections on this platform (»Gender and Performance«), is clearly inspired by Jewish, Arabic, and Ancient Egyptian mythology, yet the relentless transgressions and transformability of this figure also display the ways in which Lasker-Schüler uses »Jussuf« as a symbol in order to transcend religions, ethnicities, space, time, and gender.


Ricarda Dick (ed.), Else Lasker-Schüler. Die Bilder (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 2010).

Vivian Liska, Die Dichterin und das schelmische Erhabene. Else Lasker-Schülers »Die Nächte Tino von Bagdads« (Tübingen, 1998).

Astrid Schmetterling, »›Das ist direkt ein Diebstahl an den Kunsthistorikern‹. Else Lasker-Schülers bildnerisches Werk im kunsthistorischen Kontext«, in Else Lasker-Schüler. Die Bilder, edited by Ricarda Dick (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 2010), 159-194.

Orientalism Astray

Else Lasker-Schüler’s unique reception of Orientalism transgressed apparent borders between East and West, between male and female figures, and helped generate a mytho-biography that runs throughout her entire oeuvre.