LONDON — The British Museum’s Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art begins with a lamentation about Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). Despite being “… well-known and highly regarded in his day,” the American painter’s work, like that of “… many other Orientalists of his time, is now largely forgotten.”
This message is the driving force of the exhibition, which seeks to extract Orientalist art from its sinister role in fostering Western perceptions and depictions of the East by highlighting the cross-cultural exchanges over centuries of trade, diplomacy, and conquest that informed them.
This period (euphemistically described in the exhibition’s placards as a time when power between East and West was “more evenly balanced”) saw travelers, such as the German Bernhard von Breydenbach (1440-97) — whose magnificent 1486 travelogue “A Pilgrimage to The Holy Land” is part of the exhibition — write about the Islamic polities they visited for an increasingly curious audience back home, feeding European and, later, American fascination with the exotic lands of the Orient — especially the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires.
Commercial activities with the Ottoman Empire led to Western Europe’s inchoate 15th-century middle classes slowly developing a taste for the ceramics of their exotic neighbors. This spawned an industry of Oriental knock-offs in Italy for a not-so-discerning audience. Later, artists such as the Flemish painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1731) took up diplomatic postings in places like Constantinople to observe and paint their exotic inhabitants.
The work displayed in the exhibition is undeniably beautiful, ranging from paintings and sculptures to ceramics and textiles. Bridgman’s 1877 painting “The Prayer,” for example, depicts an unknown Muslim man in a mosque as a vision of absolute piety; his eyes point to the heavens as a fellow devotee prostrates in the background. The work exemplifies Bridgman’s mastery of oils. The central figure is illuminated by virtue of his faith and the artist’s brushstrokes. But can the story of Orientalism really be so benign?
Should we praise the fact that a minority of early modern European painters and writers depicted their Muslim contemporaries with more individuality than most of their peers? Is this enough to make Orientalist art worth salvaging, despite the prejudices inherent in the generalizations it perpetuated about the multicultural polities it depicted?
While European colonial expansion into the Orient resulted in overtly racist views of Europe’s new subjects, the exhibition suggests that what preceded it was unconnected. This is disingenuous at best; the imagery and tropes produced during this period underpinned what the late intellectual Edward Said called the “repertory of Orientalism”: the foundation for future racist ideology.
Francois Bernier (1620-88), author of the xenophobic Travels in The Mogul Empire and one of the first people to argue for a distinct hierarchical classification of races, is notably absent from the vast cast of itinerant Europeans the curators present as the face of Orientalism. The imagery of his work and that of his peers left an indelible mark on how Europeans would depict the region in the future, from Gerard de Nerval’s 1861 Journey to The Orient to Edward W. Lane’s 1840 translation of A Thousand and One Nights.
The conceit of Orientalism — that the pejorative tropes regurgitated in the art, literature, and history produced by Europeans somehow constitute an unassailably objective body of knowledge — makes the use of “inspired” in the exhibition title rather difficult to accept. Muslims are presented in the artworks as monolithic entities, or “types,” whose values are determined by European viewers. If male, he is passive and only defined by his faith — Bridgman’s “Prayer” follows a long tradition of artists focusing on Islam, the Hajj, or Mecca in their paintings.
The repertory of Orientalism rendered Muslim women passive and sensuous; indeed, European artists were infamous for their lewd fascination with the imperial harem, viewing it as a glorified brothel. Despite their predominance as a genre, the exhibition only presents a few such images, including the German painter Antoine Ignace-Melling’s infamous 1810 engraving “Inside the Harem of the Sultan.” A precise drawing (Ignace-Melling was an architect) of his imagined fantasy, the space is light and airy; the women are indistinct but engaged in familiar poses, like prayer, domestic work, and, of course, attending the lone male figure, the sultan. Rather than a complex site of imperial and domestic power, Ignace-Melling’s male gaze casts the harem as decadent and luxurious, with women revolving around the figure of the sultan.
The most interesting part of the exhibition is a brief presentation on how the subjects of Orientalist artists began depicting themselves. While Ignace-Melling — whom the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk once described as having the “soul of an Istanbullah” but the “eyes of a European” — produced racist pastiches about Constantinople and its inhabitants, Ottomans like Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) learned European artistic techniques and turned their gazes inward, reclaiming their own narratives.
Though influenced by Orientalist aesthetics, Bey’s 1880 painting “Young Woman Reading” portrays an Ottoman woman with agency and grace, rather than inserting her in a harem. Bey’s contemporary, Pascal Selah (1823-86), immersed himself in the study of photography, but instead of documenting Westerners he chose to focus on his beloved Constantinople.
Contemporary artistic responses are equally telling, though they form a frustratingly small slice of the exhibition. The Turkish artist Inci Eviner challenged Ignace-Melling’s lascivious gaze in her monumental 2009 work “Harem,” which cleverly uses the original background of the engraving but with the addition of animated figures of women in the foreground. Clad in prisoner uniforms, they behave disturbingly erratically. One wields a pick-axe, the sound of its repetitive strikes underscoring the strange activities of the other women; some carry inert bodies; one conducts an imaginary orchestra; and others kiss. Instead of pleasurable and decadent, the harem becomes an asylum for the women inside it, who are driven mad by the restrictions placed on them by the original artist. It is a triumphant note to end on.
However, limiting this section to four contemporary artists makes the gesture seem hollow and reinforces stereotypes that the East cannot speak for itself. So too does the disconcerting experience of leaving the exhibition only to find cheap postcards bearing Ignace-Melling’s original image.
But that still leaves us with the question of what to do about Orientalist art?
The narrative that the exhibition’s organizers subtly nudge us toward is important. Orientalism was about more than visceral prejudice, and it is refreshing that an exhibition presents this narrative to a public accustomed to Islamophobic rhetoric in politics across the western world. But to do so as uncritically and casually as the British Museum has borders on dangerous. The curators would have done better to highlight how constructed images of a different culture and people subtly informed the imaginations of European artists depicting the Orient. Instead, the narrative asks its audience to rehabilitate Orientalist art without ever focusing on what made it problematic in the first place.
Perhaps we should lament the gradual disappearance of the work of Bridgman and his fellow Orientalists. The real tragedy, however, is that the malodorous ideas their work promoted continue to shape popular and political perceptions of the Middle East.
Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, UK) through January 26.