September 29, 2019


The Dice Players, Rudolf Weiss (1869–1930)
The Dice Players, Rudolf Weiss (1869–1930)

In art history, the Orient refers to ‘The East’ — the societies and people who inhabit Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Falling broadly under Academic Art, Orientalist Art covered a range of subjects and genres from grand historical and biblical paintings to nudes and domestic interiors. Art historians tend to identify two broad types of Orientalist artists: the realists who carefully painted what they observed and those who imagined Orientalist scenes without ever leaving the studio. French painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme are regarded as the leading luminaries of the Orientalist movement.

Widely known for its production of impressive oil paintings and works on paper during the 19th century, the Orientalist art movement nonetheless stems from as early as the 15th century. It has influenced the production of a wide range of artworks including ceramics, metalwork and photography and also extends to include theatre, architecture and music.

The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s influential volume, Orientalism, brought critical attention to the subject in 1978. He questioned and criticised the often over-romanticised and inaccurate representations the West has presented of the East, particularly through art, literature and politics. He argued that Western powers and influential individuals such as social scientists and artists othered “the Orient.”

An upcoming exhibition at the British Museum in London re-examines Orientalism for better understanding of the subject

With the growth of modernism, the fall of the European empires and the rise of cultural criticism, the Orientalists were rendered old-fashioned and politically incorrect. But now Orientalist art is making a comeback — at museums and among a new wave of North African and Middle Eastern art.

A major forthcoming exhibition, Inspired By The East — How The Islamic World Influenced Western Art (October 10, 2019 –January 26, 2020) at the British Museum, London, traces the origins of Orientalism to the 1500s. It features the 16th-century Western paintings of Ottoman sultans and important works by some of the leading Orientalist painters of the 19th century, such as Delacroix, John Frederick Lewis and Frederick Arthur Bridgman. At a later stage, the show will include original illustrations by the British artist Edmund Dulac for a 1907 edition of Arabian Nights.

However, it is not just the visual arts that the exhibition curators are promising. They will also exhibit the artworks exploring photography, theatre, glass, jewellery, music, clothing and ceramics. Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, says the artistic relationship over five centuries had “influenced an astonishing diversity of material culture.” This major exhibition will highlight just how extensive and enduring the cultural exchange between the West and Islamic world has been.

Glazed and gilded pottery dish from Iznik, Turkey (1601-1625)
Glazed and gilded pottery dish from Iznik, Turkey (1601-1625)

The imitation of certain styles, for example, the distinctive floral designs on an Iznik plate from a 17th-century centre for high-quality pottery production, and tiles made by English designer William De Morgan in the 19th century show how he was influenced by Middle Eastern ceramics and designs. He created floral motifs that appeared in fashionable ceramics, stained glass and furnishings.

The exhibition concludes with four contemporary reactions to the imagery of Orientalism by Middle Eastern and North African female artists. These works — including Inci Eviner’s 2009 video work, ‘Harem’ and Lalla Essaydi’s ‘Women of Morocco triptych’ — answer Orientalist representations of the East, subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists.

Essaydi’s triptych is from a series of photographs in which she reimagines the harem paintings of 19th century Orientalism. Here, women are active agents rather than passive objects subjected to the voyeuristic imaginings of European artists, such as Delacroix, whose ‘Les Femmes d’Algiers’ is referenced by the series title. Essaydi replaces the bright colours, nudity and luxury of Orientalist paintings with monochrome settings, fully clothed women and strings of Arabic letters, taking back ownership of their representation.

Orientalist artists created and disseminated fantasy portrayals of the exotic ‘East’ for European viewers. Their paintings of exaggerated Arabian Nights characters and the visually attractive and provocative but essentially inaccurate Harem paintings of courtesans and slave girls have made their mark and cannot be erased. But new narratives by Eastern artists contesting the veracity of these works can counter established norms to create new standpoints

Somewhat muted and not scrutinised in greater detail, the influence of Islamic design/pattern and its craft expertise and excellence on Western art/craft deserves wider exposure for the definitive marks it has left on it. This exhibition expands the Orientalist perspective by touching on such neglected or lesser-known aspects.

“Inspired By The East — How The Islamic World Influenced Western Art” will be displayed at the British Museum in London from October 10, 2019 to January 26, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 29th, 2019