Western artistic depictions of the East come freighted with colonial baggage. But they also show a powerful, inquisitive passion for another world as RICHARD HOLLEDGE reports
A group of men are gathered around a coffee shop in the ancient city of Jaffa. They sit, they stand, they gossip. The convivial moment was captured in a watercolour by the artist David Roberts in 1839 and is one of many scenes of everyday – but exotic – life featured in the British Museum’s new exhibition: Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art.
As the title suggests, the exhibition attempts to redress perceptions of the east as represented by 19th century artists like Roberts by demonstrating how design, ceramics and fashion in Europe were, in fact, influenced by eastern craftsmen over 500 years.
It also provokes discussion about the meaning of Orientalism. In 1812 the poet Byron defined an orientalist as someone who was an expert in the languages, history and philosophy of the east. During the 19th century Orientalism had become an art movement with western artists visiting the Middle East and North Africa in great numbers and producing studies of a strangely foreign culture in engaging, figurative works bursting with colour and energy.
This imagery – or the putative meaning behind it – was challenged by the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism in which he argued that such portrayals were symptomatic of a colonial view of the east, a lazy stereotyping of an inferior people with a culture that was backward and dangerous.
He argued that many western governments felt they had the right to decide what happened in the east – as if the entire population could be “shaken up like peanuts in a jar”.
He wrote: “In the process, the uncountable sediments of history, a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences and cultures, are swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sand heap along with the treasures ground into meaningless fragments…”
Of course, that 20th century perspective would have been incomprehensible to Victorians who would indeed have reckoned that not only did Britannia rule the waves and hold sway in the Middle East but had every right to do so.
That attitude of effortless superiority can be summed up with one of the smallest exhibits, that of an 1817 music sheet for a burlesque performance entitled Their Customs are Very Peculiar.
Take the Roberts water colour. The Victorian art lover would have taken the scene on face value, an attractive glimpse of an alien world, but a quote from the text accompanying the work reads: “Wherever there are pipes, coffees and Mussulmans, it is the resort of the idler.”
That would have been accepted with complacent acquiescence by 19th century Europeans but today it would be considered a patronising sneer and one that supports Said’s argument.
Debunking such stereotypes is at the heart of the exhibition, which is a collaboration with the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM).
A map of the Bosphorous Straits which separate Europe from Asia at Istanbul is dated from 1588 and with its references to other states and distant peoples is a reminder that for centuries both the Safavid empire in Iran (1502-1736) and the Ottomans who dominated the region for 600 years until 1922 were at least as powerful as their western counterparts.
Inevitably, examples of sophisticated design and radiant craftsmanship made their way from east to west, such as ceramics from Iznik, in Turkey, which European artisans did their best to emulate. A plate produced in Veneto, Italy, in 1600 pales into lacklustre mediocrity compared with the original from the same period with its a floral pattern ablaze with vivid blues and golds.
The influence of the Ottoman craftsmen was acknowledged by leading French ceramist Théodore Deck who copied a plate from about 1530-40 in ravishing colours and almost matched it for quality. Almost. One can only marvel at the translucent quality of a mosque lamp from the northern Indian Mamluk dynasty with its gilded and enamelled glass, or the deep cerulean of a Safavid vase. No wonder they were in such demand and how eagerly they were imitated.
Wall tiles inspired by Islamic patterns and calligraphy became hugely popular in the Europe and North America of the 19th century. Perhaps the best-known examples of their use can be found in Leighton House, London, where tiles with turquoise flowers and birds etched around with Arabic script line the walls of the Arab Hall. Many were purchased by the House’s owner, the artist Sir Frederic Leighton, during his travels in Cairo and Damascus and the rest were faithfully copied by ceramicist William de Morgan to create a house as “beautiful as a poet’s dream”.
Tiles decorated the smoking rooms and steam baths of the wealthy in Victorian England – later, they were even fitted on the Titanic – and inspired the decor of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was coloured in primary shades of red, yellow and blue in a nod to the Moorish palette displayed in Granada’s Alhambra.
Islamic crafts were all the rage at the Exhibition, with jugs, pots and filigreed jewellery catching the eye and wall hangings which were judged to be in “the gorgeous taste of Persia”. Meanwhile across Europe the demand for Iznik faience ware in plates and vases boomed and the well-to-do lusted after silks from Safavid Persia to use in carpets and clothing.
In 18th century France purses made out of 100-year-old silk were turned into elegant embroidered fashion accessories. No high society lady could be without one.
Fascinating costume books from Turkey by European and local artists not only entranced the fashion conscious west but also revealed a society of some sophistication.
They were often used as aids by the artists who only fleetingly visited the east – if at all. Delacroix, who restricted his visits to Algeria, often relied on them for his sketches and the elegant robes worn by Cesare dell’Acqua’s soulful harem woman (Oriental Woman Burning incense) were most likely copied in the comfort of his Brussels studio.
Most, however, did make the journey and spent time in Egypt, Tangiers and Morocco in order to understand their subject, and the results are works vibrant with colour and detailed observation which conjure up an idealised world where poverty and hardship rarely spoils the view.
Perhaps best known is John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo and adopted the dress and customs of the Egyptians. His friend, the novelist William Thackeray, declared the artist was enjoying a life of “Arabian Nights glamour … a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life”.
His portraits of Arab chiefs, a stoic market stall owner, and A Mamlook Bey, a portrait of a desert warrior, are among the most striking, not least, for their authentic appearance.
But they are not what they seem. The characters in the Lewis painting are, in fact, self portraits. He is the stall holder, the warrior prince. What is one to make of that? Is it an example of western superiority, does he consider himself better suited to the role than an actual Egyptian or, rather, is he eager to prove he embraced both sides of the cultural divide?
Perhaps, more prosaically, he wanted to save on the cost of models.
What he did share with his fellow Orientalists was quite simply the passion to portray this world of endless fascination with as much verve as they could muster.
The British Museum exhibition has devoted one wall to paintings divided into religious works, street scenes and military figures.
The Hajj by Alfred Dehodencq is a tumultuous scene of pilgrims heading for Mecca with drums beating and cymbals clashing as they stumble along the shores of the Red Sea with their camels and horses and flags held high.
Altogether quieter, In The Madrasa by the Austrian Ludwig Deutsch shows children undergoing their religious education while the Swiss Otto Pilny captures the rawness of the desert with tribesmen on their knees in Evening Prayers in the Desert.
Frederick Bridgman, improbably a native of Alabama, USA, movingly captures a private moment in the mosque in The Prayer. The worshipper, hands apart in supplication, eyes raised beseechingly, stands out from the deep shadows in what is an intense expression of faith, painted with respect and emotion.
Bridgman was a stickler for detail. The man has followed the custom by removing his shoes and, as Bridgman wrote, “the soles of which are put together in order that the profane dust of the street shall not contaminate the sacred precincts”.
He disapproved of those who failed to show the same respect. “A French officer in top-boots once showed me a mosque, walking about as if the place belonged to him, and told me to keep on my shoes.”
No hint of patronising imperialism here.
Arab Warriors by the German Christian Schreyer has armed horsemen so vigorous they seem about to stampede off the gallery wall in a flurry of heat and dust while The Guard by the Spaniard Antonio Maria Fabrés y Costa is a tremendous character framed by guns and swords. Not a man to cross.
It is the street scenes of ordinary folk, the world of mosques and markets, that bring the Orient of the 19th century alive. The fine detail of The Pottery Seller by Alphons Mielich illuminates the busyness of market day; The Dice Players by Rudolf Weisse is photographic in its minutiae.
Jean-Léon Gérome’s bucolic scene of husband and wife in Egypt perched comfortably on their cart as the oxen tramp around threshing the corn is highly idealised with bright yellow corn and just a fleck of cloud to disturb the clear skies. It is an idyllic scene free from drudgery, but here’s what a contemporary writer and photographer had to say about scenes like this, quoting an Ottoman official: “The peasant is a bit less than an animal; a bit more than a plant.”
Grist to Edward Said’s mill; as was the portrayal of the harem, catnip to the artist as an excuse to paint women in various states of undress and boost their earnings by producing languorous soft porn for Victorian gentlemen.
The examples on show are all very decorous. The Hhareem by Lewis depicts a new slave from Ethiopia being presented to the pasha in his luxurious dwelling to see if she is a worthy addition to his collection of concubines, but there is nothing more racy than a bare shoulder.
As a corrective to the representation of women which, harem apart, is non-existent in this collection, works by three contemporary female artists round off the exhibition. Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-American artist addresses oppression in her home country in Women of Allah and a photographic triptych by the Moroccan Lalla Essaydi, The Women of Morocco, challenges 19th century perceptions of women such as a Delacroix sketch of a harem, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.
Boldest of all, Raeda Saadeh, challenges the dystopia of Middle East politics head on in Who Will Make Me Real? by wrapping herself in copies of a Palestinian newspaper which carries stories about the region’s endless conflict.
A necessary balance perhaps to answer the perceived institutionalised imperialism of the 19th century artists, but not one that compares like with like, era with era. With hindsight, perhaps the Orientalist painters did stereotype eastern culture but what cannot be taken away from them is not just their virtuosity but their genuine curiosity and passion for a world they captured in all its richness.
Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art runs at the British Museum until January 26