Entering the darkened spaces of “Inspired by the East”, an exhibition at the British Museum in London on ways in which the Islamic world has influenced European art and design, many visitors may feel that they are entering a kind of Oriental treasure-house, with glittering spot-lit treasures winking out at them from the surrounding darkness.
The darkness is necessary because of the fragility of some of the items on display, which could be damaged by stronger light. However, this Aladdin’s cave aspect of the show, of opulent treasures heaped up in darkened rooms, perhaps also aptly catches some of its main motifs. The Islamic world is explored here in terms of what European observers from roughly the late 16th to early 20th centuries saw as being its main characteristics of mystery, extreme wealth co-existing with sometimes crushing poverty, and the presence everywhere of the decorative arts in textiles, ceramics, metal and glasswork, and architectural design.
All this and more is present in the British Museum show, which reproduces subjects and styles from the Islamic world as seen by European visitors, their roving, magpie eyes always looking out for fine Oriental pieces to spirit away back home where they could serve as models for European Orientalist art. While the show itself is something of a mixed bag, originating in a joint project between the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia and the British Museum and being an opportunity to show off the Malaysian Museum’s treasures in Europe, it is also a useful reminder of the range of responses materials from the Islamic world could give rise to in Europe and the changing nature of particularly European-Middle Eastern relations.
Perhaps inevitably the work of the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said inflects the show, particularly his 1978 book Orientalism that introduced an entire generation of writers and critics to a more politically conscious way of studying the relationship between Europe and the Arab world, replacing notions of disinterested scholarship with a language of power and domination. However, Said’s categories of self and other and his idea that Europeans writing about or producing images of the Islamic world were consciously or unconsciously reproducing patterns determined by European political and economic colonial control are not uncritically accepted in the exhibition.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, which also serves as a splendid introduction to its wider themes, UK historian John Mackenzie says that “a sense of racial exclusiveness and superiority often lay at the heart of the imperial ideology” of 19th-century Europe and that this could explain some of the recurrent motifs of the European art of the time that drew on Islamic styles or subject-matters. These include the crumbling buildings and immobile figures that fill much European Orientalist pictorial art and that may have acted as a way of justifying, in the artistic field, a political project of forcible modernisation through European imperialism and colonial control.
But the European artists and writers of past centuries were seldom if ever employed by the political authorities of the time any more than they usually are today, and their attitudes to such colonialist ideology were ambiguous. It seems just as likely that there was a range of messages to be found in Orientalist art for those who made it, commissioned it, bought it, or hung it on their walls. This could never have been reduced to simply a desire to enjoy a position of supposed superiority over the societies and individuals that it portrayed, if this message was ever consciously present at all.
Mackenzie puts this nicely when he suggests that while the work of the 19th-century European Orientalist painters was packed with depictions of Islamic tiles, metalwork, fabrics, woodwork, architectural mouldings and inscriptions, jewellery and other objects, often overflowing with the abundance of such things, this may have been not so much in order to tout the superiority of European industrial processes as to “rediscover the craft values that lay behind the Victoria and Albert Museum [founded in London in the 1850s] and the Arts and Crafts Movement” associated with one of the best-known late-Victorian artist-designers William Morris.
Far from proclaiming some imagined European superiority over the Islamic world, as Said has sometimes been taken to suggest, the 19th-century European fashion for Islamic designs and subject-matter may have signalled a search for the renovation of European arts rendered lifeless and mechanical by industrial mass production, as Morris and others claimed.
It may have been more about a desire to tap into alternative artistic traditions and still-living crafts than about an assumption of European power.
Glazed and gilded pottery
GATHERING OF OBJECTS: Perhaps searching too hard for an argument behind the exhibition is the wrong way to go, however, particularly since the curators seem to have envisaged it as being all the stronger for not having some single take-away that the objects on show have been corralled to illustrate.
The purpose of the exhibition, write curators William Greenwood and Lucien de Guise in their introduction to the catalogue, is “to place Orientalism in art and culture into its broad context”, which ranges “from the historical to the political and the technological”. Part of that concern for contextualisation means pushing the exhibition back in time to the 17th and even the late 16th centuries when relations between Europe and the Islamic world were very different from what they were to become during the apogee of European political influence in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Another part means extending the materials on show away from painting and towards the decorative arts, a “broad variety of material”, Greenwood and de Guise say, that includes “ceramics, enamelled glass, music, literature, and architecture” and looks both at what caught the eye of visiting Europeans and the way that this was later incorporated into European art and design.
The show opens with objects mostly lent by the Malaysia Islamic Arts Museum that give historical depth to the relationship between Europe and the Islamic world and illustrate an apparent desire to cooperate, notably through diplomacy and trade, rather than to enter into an unequal relationship of power. Two paintings by French painter Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, resident in Istanbul throughout the first third of the 17th century, show members of the European diplomatic corps seeking an audience with the Ottoman sultan, for example, in which the power and magnificence of the court are emphasised.
Other items, one by the 17th-century English court painter Anthony Van Dyck, show the interchange of occidental and Oriental identities, with English envoy to the Persian court Sir Robert Sherley shown wearing robes gifted to him by the Persian Safavid shah Abbas I. Another set of images, this time watercolours by Ottoman court artist Abdulcelil Levni (died 1732), show “European gentlemen” dressed in the formal dress of perhaps the French court at the time.
A second set of objects, oddly termed “popular culture” for what in fact are objects drawn from the decorative arts, includes Ottoman ceramics and imitation Mameluke glass. Most of the pieces in this part of the exhibition illustrate European responses or imitations of Islamic designs, with pages from the English designer Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1855) showing a variety of traditional Islamic geometrical designs and ceramics by the 19th-century French manufacturer Théodore Deck in imitation of Egyptian Mameluke and later Ottoman designs.
Such objects were often pictured, along with textiles, architectural decoration, and calligraphy, in the work of the European Orientalist painters of the time, sometimes in photographic detail, and they gave rise to a thriving European market in Islamic-style ceramics and other items for domestic use. Persian silks were earlier used to make French handbags, as a collection of early 17th-century French purses reveals, and on a rather grander scale some European enthusiasts, among them the 19th-century English society painter Frederick Leighton, had their whole houses remodelled along Islamic lines.
A high point of the exhibition is an extensive collection of 19th-century European Orientalist paintings covering the usual subject-matters of street markets, buildings, landscapes (usually deserts), human figures, often in cafes or palace guards, and groups of men or individual men engaged in prayer. Drawn from the collection of the Malaysian Islamic Arts Museum, most of these are by central European artists, often German or Austrian, showing how geographically widespread this style had become before it petered out after 1900.
An interesting catalogue contribution by UK art historian Briony Llewellyn reconstructs the career of the British artist John Frederick Lewis, visited in Cairo by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1845 and found to be living “the lifestyle of a wealthy Ottoman merchant” with clothing and other accoutrements to match. Lewis, it turned out, often took himself as a model, trying on various iterations of Middle Eastern costume as if escaping, for a time at least, into some private Orientalist fantasy world.
Lewis appears in Bedouin robes in his painting An Arab of the Desert of Sinai (1858), in the costume of an Ottoman merchant in In the Bezestein El Khan El Khalili (1860), and as a young Mameluke warrior in A Memlook Bey (1868). Perhaps it was a way of escaping the drabness of 19th-century British dress for men, bringing in, like for Leighton in his unlikely London house, elements of colour, romance, and alternative life-options, in fantasy if not in fact.
“By equating himself with each of these characters” in these pictures, Llewellyn comments, Lewis “has, for the moment, elided his own identity with theirs.”
Inspired by the East — How the Islamic World influenced Western Art, British Museum, London, until 26 January.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.