A Look at Orientalism-Style Art Displayed at the British Museum

British Museum Guided Tour
British Museum Exhibits

London’s British Museum is hosting an exhibition titled “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art”. It sheds lights on how Western artists interpreted the Islamic community over the years.

Curators of this exhibition, Olivia Threlkeld and Julia Tugwell say that there is an intertwined and long history of artistic exchange from the eastern to the western parts of the world. They also say that this show is focusing on cultural dealings from the 1400’s to this day.

Objects from North America, North Africa, Europe and the Middle East highlight an ancient tradition of exchange and influence between the East and the West. Ceramics, glass, jewelry, clothing, modern art and photography are part of the diverse object selection, said the curators in a press release.

Olivia Threlkeld states, “Orientalism was one of the defining elements of the 19th and 20th centuries, comparable to other ‘isms’ like surrealism and impressionism. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity in the UK to see these important artworks from South-east Asia’s largest museum, the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, and to think about Orientalism’s impact on the history of art and its legacy.”

It is harder to differentiate reality and fantasy in the way the West regard the Orient. The Orientalism art movement reached its peak in the 1800’s when more and more Western artists started to visit North Africa and the Middle East.

The book “Orientalism” penned by Palestine-born American author namely Edward Said, questioned how the Western parts envisioned and misrepresented Eastern culture. Edward Said criticized the often inaccurate and over-romanticized representations, especially via literature and spreading out into politics.

As per Said, Orient is a combination of the following:

  • The location of Europe’s richest, oldest and greatest colonies;
  • The cultural contestant of it;
  • The source of Europe’s civilization and languages; and,
  • One of Europe’s deepest, most recurring perceptions about the Other.

This British Museum show is split into 5 sections: Popular Culture, Origins of Orientalism, Disorient, Reorientations, and Imagined Orient.

The one centered on Pop Culture reveals how British, French, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian craft workers made their versions of previous Islamic metalwork. Ceramics and glass were usually imitated with varying levels of precision.

That taste was fueled by an artistic and wider curiosity about the Islamic community, which is expressed through the stories of it, particularly “One Thousand and One Nights”. These kinds of representations of both North Africa and the Middle East caused artists to have faith in their imagination.

The British institution displays a copy of a 17th century Iznik plate. Iznik town was a center of quality pottery manufacturing for years. The unique floral designs on tiles, which decorated the interior of properties in the Ottoman era, were popular.

There are exemplary works in watercolor, oil and ink in the section of Imagined Orient. Charles Cordier, the ethnographic sculptor who worked for Paris’s Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, made a marble and silvered bronze statue of a sheikh in 1867. Several artworks have amazing Orientalist frames having patterns that are referenced from both Islamic architecture and art. Other works make use of Arabic script. Engravings from Spain’s Alhambra palace usually inspired Orientalist-style frame designs.

The section, Reorientations shows photos from the first studio of Ottoman Empire taken by Ottoman photographer Pascal Sebah. He produced photos for Constantinople’s tourist market, making money from the requirement for souvenirs from European and North American visitors.

When on a British Museum guided tour, you can also see the album “Traditional Clothing of Turkey”. Created for the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair, its authors planned it to showcase various Ottoman Empire people through their own clothing.

This exhibition ends with Disorient where four modern reactions to Orientalism imagery are presented. These works of art include Lalla Essaydi’s triptych “Women of Morocco”, answering the Orientalists’ representations of the Eastern world, and Inci Eviner’s video “Harem”.

The triptych by Lalla Essaydi comes from a collection of photos, where she re-envisions Orientalism-style harem paintings and substitutes bright colors, luxury and nudity of these paintings for fully clothed people, monochrome settings, and Arabic letters. In these works, ladies are not passive objects, arising from the minds of voyeuristic western artists, but active agents.

“This major exhibition highlights just how extensive and enduring the cultural exchange between the West and the Islamic world has been,” said Hartwig Fischer, the Director of the British Museum. “It is an artistic relationship which has endured for five centuries and has influenced an astonishing diversity of material culture.”

The London museum exhibition has started, and it will run till the end of January 26, 2020. Some expos called touring exhibitions are continued from, or will be continued in, another museum before or after the one here.

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