Inspired by the East

A British Museum exhibition of Islamic and European art doesn’t quite achieve its aim, John Westbrooke writes

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These are hard times for Islam in the West, with every Muslim suspected of terrorism, so it’s handy to be reminded that Rudyard Kipling was wrong – East is East and West is West, but the twain have met constantly over the centuries.

Muslim scholars kept alive classical learning during Europe’s Dark Ages, to be rediscovered during the Renaissance. But it wasn’t just science and literature. The new exhibition at the British Museum aims to show the influence of the Islamic world – the Middle East and North Africa – on European art too.

It begins as early as 1486, with what is said to be the world’s first guidebook: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written by Bernhard von Breydenbach and illustrated by Erhard Reeuwich, who had both just been there (a reminder of earlier east-west friction when the Crusades drew Europeans to the region). There’s even a big fold-out page with the first printed map of Jerusalem.

At about the same time, the republic of Venice was making diplomatic contact with the Ottoman empire in Constantinople (Istanbul), then the main Islamic power in the Middle East. They sent Gentile Bellini to do a portrait of Sultan Mehmet II. That’s now in the National Gallery down the road (not currently on display), but the exhibition features a similar 1580 Venetian painting of Sultan Bayezid I.

Like the Jerusalem map, it’s a practical representation, made from life and as accurate as possible. Already, though, part of its appeal must have been its sheer strangeness: a bearded man dressed in gold cloth and a huge turban, looking back over his shoulder at the viewer.

With the Ottoman military threat waning and Europeans starting to investigate the world, “costume books” were appearing showing eastern apparel. Those exhibited here came from Ottoman artists – as do some lightly caricatured drawings, by the Ottoman court painter Abdülcelil Levnî, of Europeans living in Constantinople and wearing what must have seemed, to Turks, equally strange big wigs and tight pants. Curiosity about foreigners and their clothes went both ways.

By the 19th century, though, “Orientalism” had become a genre all of its own. The word, first coined by Byron, comes from the title of a 1978 book by the cultural critic Edward Said, which scrutinised the way westerners perceived and represented an often imaginary Orient, and there’s evidence for this in the exhibition, but also evidence that it wasn’t universal.

Paintings of life in the harem proved a popular, lubricious subject. The best known example is probably Ingres’ “The Turkish Bath”, in which naked women loll around for the viewer’s delight. Sadly, this is here only as a small photo and a Picasso etching it inspired. The lack of examples of this most lurid form of Orientalism is something of a gap in any debate about artistic traffic between east and west. The truth is, artists seldom got into harems, and their paintings tell you only about their imaginations and those of their clients.

Some worked from photos of people or of street life; some bought objects to use as props to make their work look more authentic. John Frederick Lewis actually lived in Cairo for a decade and often painted himself with a Middle Eastern sash he’d acquired. After he died, his widow gave it to the V&A, saying it was thought to be 1,000 years old. It’s on display here – labelled as Indian (it’s Paisley, in fact), from about 1830.

The exhibition itself uses props astutely. A gleaming Ottoman helmet from 1650 on display would do any painting proud. A gilded 17th-century ceramic plate from Iznik sits alongside an imitation from Venice that’s nothing like as good; but some 19th-century lamps look more convincing. “Persianware” ceramics, it turns out, weren’t Persian at all, but Syrian or imitation Syrian. The real Persian ruler Nasir-al Din Shah visited Britain in 1873 and was awarded the Order of the Garter; back home, he created an Order of the Sun, with the sun’s face in place of the St George cross.

But some artists lived among the people they painted and took care to get things right. David Wilkie really did enter a harem, and drew a young Circassian woman there, fully clad: “very long hair and rich dress; she had no expression and was perfectly silent” – as well she might be, confronted with an English painter in her home.

Religious worship was another frequent subject. The now forgotten Frederick Bridgman, not a resident but a frequent visitor, painted “The Prayer,” showing a worshipper in a mosque, with light cape, turban and beard against a dimly lit background, barefoot on a rug, just in front of another bowed figure who may be a mystic. It seems simple and serious: in 1877, with European religious observance declining, even devotion may have looked exotic.

By the 20th century, partly influenced by children’s tales of Aladdin and Sinbad (both frequently filmed), the mysterious east had entered wider European culture. There’s a clip from “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” by the German Lotte Reiniger, the first stop-motion animated film, consisting of elegant cut-outs. Edmund Dulac illustrated the Arabian Nights. We’re in fantasy-Orient territory again, but they’re beautiful works of art, worthy of their source

But the notion of Orientalism is now a generation old and has been dealt with in exhibitions before (there was one at Tate Britain in 2008). The British Museum wants to extend it by showing eastern artists influenced by western ways. This section is fairly scanty, unfortunately: 19th-century Persian-language travel guides (“New York: It is a big new city built on the American continent with great mansions and solid buildings”) are scarcely an equivalent of Breydenbach.

Four modern Middle Eastern artists, all women, give their own take on Orientalism. In “Who will make me real?” Raeda Saadeh dresses herself in a suit of newspapers, parodying the pose of an odalisque lying on a sofa and staring at the viewer – fair enough, considering the vehemence of western attitudes to the burqa. It’s suitably challenging, but really, the exhibition could have included a lot more like it, and fewer ordinary paintings of tourist sites, to make its point about two-way artistic influence.

“Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art” is at the British Museum until 26 January 2020. Tickets £14.