Inspired by the East at the British Museum
‘Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art’ presents a jumble of beautiful artworks which lack the necessary curatorial context
In the 19th-century, Europeans became fascinated with their borders to the east, sparking an artistic movement called “Orientalism.” This intrigue materialized in photographs, paintings, ceramics, and architecture, which depicted ideas of what the world looked like outside of Europe for western consumption. While there was some cultural exchange, as a movement, “Orientalism” frequently presented simplified interpretations and reinforced stereotypes. Often, the imagined “Orient” was a figment of artistic imagination.
The artistic interpretations presented in the British Museum’s Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art focus on the Middle East and North Africa. The art is often beautiful; however, the curatorial context is lacking. The descriptions only hint at the cultural or religious misrepresentations in the artworks but rarely treat it explicitly. By retreating from criticism of the orientalism movement, the exhibition ends up feeling like a jumble of artworks, rather than a cohesive narrative.
However, there are some particularly striking moments where the artworks do show the consequences of a European gaze. For instance, the ceramics show how valued the Islamic techniques and materials were. Displayed side-by-side are two 17th-century plates, one Italian and the other Turkish. Immediately apparent is the Italian artist’s attempt at mimicking the Turkish techniques, particularly the ornate decorations and the vibrant colours of the plate. It’s also apparent how the end result pales in comparison. (It took European artists many more years to learn the techniques behind the art.) There are also multiple examples of studious efforts at copying which lack any real understanding of the subject material. One of the most prominent is a painting frame that is decorated with Arabic script; the script is nonsensical as the artist had no concept of it as writing, treating it solely as artistic decoration.
Continuing along in the exhibition, there are costume books created by Europeans depicting different types of outfits worn in various Islamic countries. However, nearby portraits painted by Ottomans show Europeans with exaggeratedly large ruffs and cuffs, providing a cautionary example for taking these images at face value. The artists didn’t necessarily understand that they were misrepresenting the clothing either. The European artist John Fredrick Lewis (1804-1876) painted a Portrait of a Memlook Bey (1863), depicting himself with a sash on his head. When his wife donated the same sash to the Victoria & Albert Museum after his death, she described it as Middle Eastern and around 1000 years old, despite it being contemporary and Indian.
One of the final walls of paintings all invoke the harem. European artists, often male, were excluded from the domestic spaces of Muslim homes. Frustrated, they were forced to rely on their imaginations, which all seemed to conjure up scenes involving nude women. Denied access to Islamic women, they often painted Jewish models filling the rooms instead.
The final room acts as a foil by only showcasing multimedia artworks by modern Muslim or Arab women artists undermining these erotic and exotic stereotyical images. In a photographic triptych, Lalla Essaydi (b. 1959) subverts the 19th-century harem paintings and the male gaze with fully-clothed women. In a video, İnci Eviner (b. 1956) replaced all the figures from Antoine-Ignace Melling’s 1819 depiction of a harem with active women, reclaiming the space.
Although the final section is the smallest, it is arguably the strongest. Even so, choosing to display the women’s works next to the artworks they were subverting would have challenged the works more directly. While the exhibition does show the fascination of Islam for western audiences, overall the exhibition could have expressed so much more.
Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art is at the British Museum, London, from until 26 January 2020. For more information, visit the website here.