An exhibition at the British Museum examines the influence of Islamic art on Orientalism.
The term “Orientalism” has become a bit of a curse word—so much so that a current exhibition at the British Museum avoids it entirely, preferring to title itself “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art.” On view through January 26, the show contains important works of Orientalist painting by artists such as John Frederick Lewis, Frederick Bridgman, Ludwig Deutsch, and Eugène Delacroix, alongside decorative art objects made by Westerners in Islamic styles, as well as works of contemporary art that reference the Orientalist era in various ways. Organized in collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, “Inspired by the East” intends to flip the script on the long-standing Orientalism debate by placing the works in a new context.
Chiefly a product of the period spanning roughly 1830–1910, Orientalist art maintained a solid reputation among collectors until the 1940s and then rapidly faded from view. With the rise of post-colonialist studies in academia, it was rediscovered as a cultural punching-bag, and a strongly polemical approach to the movement took hold among art historians. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) significantly dented its reputation among a wider audience; although the book was mainly about literature, its cover featured a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the most famous of the Orientalist painters. Said’s argument was easily extended into the claim that the 19th-century artists who depicted the Islamic world did so in a disrespectful or even deceitful manner, exoticizing and “othering” Middle Eastern peoples. In fact, the works run the gamut from absurd fantasy to faithful documentation.
Ironically, it was in the late 1970s, around the time Orientalism was published, that Orientalist art was rediscovered by collectors, not a few of whom were Middle Eastern themselves. While it’s undeniable that Orientalist art wouldn’t have been possible without colonialism, not all the artists conceived of themselves as apologists for Western depredations, and their works have proved very appealing to the descendants and co-religionists of those depicted. The appeal is partly due to the fact that the paintings now constitute a unique record of life-ways that have passed away (and in this connection the nostalgia factor cannot be discounted) and partly due to their technical excellence. Among the collectors of Orientalist art in the contemporary Islamic world is the Malaysian businessman Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, whose holdings form the core of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, from which many of the works on view in the British Museum’s exhibition were loaned.
As its title indicates, “Inspired by the East” seeks to recast Orientalist art as an example of Islamic influence on Western art rather than as a Western co-optation and distortion of Islamic visual culture. In this version of events, rather than having come, seen, and conquered, European artists were conquered by the world of Islam. While the paintings could be interpreted along these lines, the argument is even more apposite in the case of the decorative objects on view, which evince a wholesale importation of Islamic aesthetics. A late 19th-century black-on-turquoise bottle from France is glazed and lustre-painted in an explicitly Persian style. This may be exoticism, but a 19th-century “Alhambra Vase” from Spain draws on “Oriental” traditions that were actually local, given that the Arab dynasties that reigned in Spain for eight centuries left an indelible artistic imprint on that country. And a gilt and enameled glass mosque lamp, made around 1877 by the French designer Philippe-Joseph Brocard, appears to have been made on commission for export to the Islamic world, in a reverse of the colonialist paradigm. With its elaborate filigreed decoration and bold blue Arabic calligraphy, the piece questions the one-sidedness of the concept of “Orientalism.”
Among the paintings on view, the earliest one long predates the Orientalist era—an oil-on-canvas portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, made by an artist of the school of Veronese around 1580. During the 16th century, the balance of power between “East” and “West” was still fairly even, and a Venetian painter traveling in the realms of the Sultan would not have thought of himself as the emissary of a conqueror. In this painting, the be-turbanned Bayezid peers over his shoulder in an intimate way that is strikingly at variance with the stylized, distant tone of Ottoman court portraiture.
Delacroix, who traveled to North Africa with the French invaders in the 1830s, is generally acknowledged to have been the inaugurator of Orientalist painting. His Algerian Interior, a chalk and watercolor sketch of domestic scene, is almost modernist in its simplified, abstracted style. The Great Umayyad Mosque (1913), by Carl Wuttke, skillfully combines landscape, and architecture with an attention to the minute details of textiles and interior decor that is typical of the Orientalists. Deutsch’s precisely observed In the Madrasa (1890) is almost like photojournalism in oil paint, while Bridgman’s The Prayer (1877) looks at its subject with a sense of awe akin to that which Rembrandt felt toward the rabbis of Amsterdam.
The exhibition closes with a selection of works by contemporary Middle Eastern artists that “speak back to Orientalist representations of the east, subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists,” as the exhibition’s organizers put it. The Moroccan-American photographer Leila Essaydi’s 2005 triptych Les Femmes du Maroc takes the Orientalist gaze and redirects it so that the attention is less on the veiled woman and more on the dense pattern of Arabic script that causes her garments to blend into the backdrop. The Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh’s Who Will Make Me Real (2003), also a photograph, reimagines the odalisque as a self-assured self-portrait.
By John Dorfman