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How the Islamic world influenced Western art: British Museum

At university, I loved medieval art and architecture, but it was 100% Christian in patronage and in iconography. There had to be more! It wasn't until my first trips to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey that I discovered (and collected) Islamic, Jewish and other Oriental art forms. Even better, my sons married women whose parents came from Damascus and Alexandria.

The British Museum’s special exhibition is called In­­s­pired by the East: how the Islamic World Influenced Western Art. Until the end Jan 2020, it is examining how West­ern visual arts have been inspired by the Islamic world for centuries. Known as Or­ientalism, this rep­res­entation of the East in Western art oft­en blurred the line between fantasy and reality. In paint­ing, decorative arts, interior design and arch­it­ecture, the works depicted or referred to subjects and styles from the Orient.

The Orientalist art movement peaked in the C19th and was best known for its production of impressive oil paintings and works on paper. But this movement had started back in the C15th and continued to be referenced in art. It influenced the production of a wide range of works of art inc­lud­ing ceramics, metalwork and photography, and extended more widely to include theatre, architecture and music.

Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s influential text “Orientalism” brought critical attention to the subject in 1978, questioning the ways in which the West saw and misrep­resented the East in culture. In it he criticised the over-romanticised and inaccurate views the West presented of the Orient, particularly through literature. He defined the Orient as being the place of Europe’s greatest, richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilisations and lang­uages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. This exhibition, however, focuses only on the art movement of Orientalism.

The Dice Players. oil, 1859, 
Painted by the Czech artist Rudolf Weisse
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Stanislaus von Chlebowski,
a Polish painter with Russian and Turkish connections.
At Prayer in Hagia Sophia, 1879

Engage with such critiques by recognising misrepres­entations ... while identifying a long, rich his­t­ory of influence and exchange in both directions. Indeed from c1500, as Europeans became both increasingly curious and aggressive in their dealings with outsiders, there was a sust­ained awareness of the empires of the Middle East. These Eastern neighbours were the Safavid Empire (1501–1722), cent­red around modern Iran, and the Ottoman Empire (c1300–1924), which comp­ris­ed modern-day Turkey, most of SE Europe and the Arabic-speaking lands. Likewise, European traders and dipl­om­ats were considered an "exotic other" by people in the Middle East. At a time when relations between Europe and the Middle East were more evenly balanced than in later periods, this was a period marked by exchange and fluidity.

This can be seen in the imitation of certain styles in Iznik plates from the C17th, a centre for high-quality pottery prod­uction for centuries. The distinctive floral designs were also popular on tiles that decorated the inside of buildings during the Ottoman period (14th–C20th) eg see tiles made by English designer William De Morgan in the C19th. He was influenced by Middle Eastern ceramics and designs, creating floral motifs that appeared in fashionable ceramics, stained glass and furnishings. 

Enamelled glass mosque lamp,
inspired by late medieval Mamluk originals
Made in France in 1877 by French glass master Brocard
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Alhambra vase, Spain late 1800s.
Glazed ceramic with lustre decoration
British Museum/Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Bottle in the Persian late Safavid style, glazed and lustre-painted ceramic,
Made in France, late 1800s.

As Europeans increasingly looked out to the Americas, Af­rica and Asia from the 1500s, they developed new ways of id­entifying and disseminating information about the people they met. Costume books became a popular way of classifying diff­er­ent groups according to their dress, from sultans and mystics to dancers. But these portrayals were often based on stereotypes that only helped perpetuate the mistakes in Europe. 

The best-known artistic output of the Orientalist art movement was a huge body of paintings by Western artists. Many of the artists travelled to the places they depicted: Const­ant­inople aka Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cairo or Marrakesh. Others trav­elled no further than Paris or Vienna, but used a mixture of photo­s and imagin­at­ion for inspiration. Recurring im­ag­es incl­uded everything from images of daily life to imagined scenes of the har­em. Int­er­est in Orientalism developed toget­h­er with European col­onial interests in the Middle East, which gave soldiers, trad­ers and artists ready access to the region. 

This exhibition reveals that Orientalism convered many typ­es of visual and decorative arts with origins in Europe, North America, Middle East and North Africa. These arts high­light the old tradition of influence and exchange between West and East, whether gained through diplomatic en­counters, spoils of war, or travel to the Holy Land and beyond.

Although Orientalism remains a highly charged and contested term, with Orientalist arts and crafts rapidly declining in popularity since the 1940s, its visual language remains a pot­ent resource for artists today.


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