Inspired by the East

how the Islamic world influenced Western art

10 October 2019 - 26 January 2020
The British Museum

Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art

How the West was Won Over

Mutual respect and inspiration are two elements of East-West dialogue that are often overlooked. There has never been a better time to revive what used to be a vigorous cultural exchange. The joint exhibition between the British Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia was living proof of this continuity – conceived and developed by both museums. Two institutions, one in the West and one in the East, transported visitors to somewhere in the middle. The exhibits were the same in both locations, as was the message: “how the Islamic world influenced Western art”. Exhibition Curator Lucien de Guise and Exhibition Manager Rekha Verma looked at the cross-currents of cultural relations.

Delacroix was a pioneer Orientalist painter whose fascination with the Islamic world lasted a lifetime
© The trustees of the British Museum

The two institutions that came together to create this exhibition have different strengths and backgrounds. There was also a paradox: the British Museum, located in the West, has perhaps the greatest collection of Islamic art in the world, while the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia has Western paintings that don’t exist at the British Museum and have not been displayed before. By aligning the two collections, visitors to the exhibition in both locations could view the full picture of what is usually termed ‘Orientalist’ art.

The popularity of these paintings in the past cannot be overstated. Over the last few centuries there have been fads in the West for the art of China, Japan and ancient Egypt. None of these had the power to engage Western audiences for as long as the Islamic world did. Art enthusiasts clamoured for views of deserts and cityscapes of what was then called the ‘Orient'. These not only appealed to their visual senses, they were also fascinated by a culture they wanted to understand. For the past forty years the words of the scholar Edward W. Said have had a powerful effect in persuading people of the opposite. His area of expertise was literature, not visual art, and it shows in his writing. With Inspired by the East we hope to reclaim the ‘Orientalist’ word.

 “Later in the 19th century, in the works of Delacroix and literally dozens of other French and British painters, the Orientalist genre tableau carried representation into visual expression”

This was all that Edward Said had to say on the Orientalist genre of art. His brevity is unfortunate as it makes the significant factual errors more obvious: Orientalist artists comprised far more than French and British painters. Every nationality of the ‘West’ was involved, along with some from the ‘Orient’. In addition, the genre went far beyond painters; every fine and decorative art had a part to play. Where Said got it most wrong was the “literally dozens” statement. Orientalist artists could be numbered in the thousands. Their paintings were popular on a scale that Said could not have imagined. Until art lovers became jaded with the subject in the early 20th century, the output had been phenomenal. The foremost English art critic of the 19th century, John Ruskin, moaned about J.F. Lewis’s work as early as 1859, “…are we never to get out of Egypt any more?”

John Frederick Lewis was so immersed in the Islamic world he chose to live in Cairo for many years and dressed in local style

Inspired by the East took a look at the volume of work produced, as well as the wide range of artists’ nationalities. There were also myths to be busted. The first of these was that harem scenes were the bread and butter of Orientalist artists. The reality was that few artists specialised in these, and those who did paint such subject matter tended to paint unclothed subjects in more Western scenes too. The classical mythology of Europe provided endless opportunities. Just as they had never been into a harem, these artists had never seen the gods frolicking on Mount Olympus. Imagination has always been a hallmark of the artist.

Paul Joanowits was a pioneer artist from Serbia, a country that was on the frontline with the ‘Orient’ in the 19th century

At the opposite extreme is the genuine interest that many Orientalists had in the spirit rather than the flesh. In this exhibition, the focus was more than usual on faith. Early travellers and pilgrims were passionate about Biblical sites. Far from being dismissed by visiting artists, the religions they found in the Orient were treated with curiosity and respect. It would be hard to find any paintings that aim to denigrate Islam. Orientalist painters were not latter-day crusaders armed with canvases. Other religions of the Holy Land, in particular, were depicted, although it was Muslim worship that preoccupied the artists and collectors of the time. Islam was not the enemy of the West that it had been in past centuries or, as some would suggest, in the world today.

Western artists in the Orient tried on numerous occasions to make clear the connection between the worshipper and the Almighty. The accuracy of some artists’ renderings might be questioned; the spirit of their undertaking cannot. Nor can their fascination with putting Islamic artefacts in the picture. Many had extensive collections that served as props in their paintings, none more so than Ludwig Deutsch. The piety of his old man at prayer is not lessened for sharing the scene with an antique Turkish carpet and an Egyptian water jar and stand. The detail is full of admiration, as is the feeling of religious devotion.

Ludwig Deutsch was able to capture the tactile aspects of the Islamic world along with an atmosphere of piety

Where Said got it most wrong was in his view of a clearly defined West and East or ‘other’. These boundaries were so frequently blurred that they have little meaning. The collaboration between our two museums confirmed the continuing spirit. The last word should go to the first artist to get the genre going. Eugene Delacroix is widely believed to be the originator of the entre modern art movement. He was certainly impressed by the Islamic world, in particular North Africa. He would be shocked to hear that he was deriding the ‘other’ when he considered himself to be the ‘other’. Baudelaire often described himself as a Peruvian because of his dark and much-admired looks. The greatest French art critic of the 19th century, Charles Baudelaire, went one step further by likening his appearance to a “Malay”.

Exhibition catalogue

The catalogue that accompanied the exhibition goes even further in reclaiming the true meaning of Orientalism. With essays by leading authorities in different areas of this diverse field, this is the first publication to explore the full breadth of Orientalist art. Scholars such as Briony Llewellyn and John MacKenzie put the relationship between artist and inspiration in a clearer and more balanced light than ever before. This is the big picture of East-West relations as expressed through visual media. Just like the exhibition itself, it is another joint collaboration between the British Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

How did the Islamic world influence Western art?

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