The Islamic world or the Middle East has inspired western artists for hundreds of years. The various styles, objects, fashion and so forth of these exotic lands led to the artistic movement known as Orientalism, which introduced Middle Eastern and North African designs to Europe and North America. Until 26th January, the British Museum is studying these outcomes and comparing them with what we know about the Islamic world today.
Orientalism has come to mean the ways in which the “Orient” has been misrepresented in western culture. The eastern world was represented as a land of beauty and fascination, causing the lines between fantasy and reality to be blurred. The exhibition Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art provides a more complex look at the history of the influence and inspiration of the “Orient”. Featuring a range of ceramics, drawings and paintings, music from Piano Concerto No.5, Op.103, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) helps to set the scene as visitors make their way around the exhibition.
The exhibition opens with a painting of The Prayer by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). The artist has imagined a moment of prayer inside a mosque between an elderly but wealthy man and a poorer Muslim mystic. Both figures wear typical eastern garments and the mosque is decorated with a Persian rug. The artist, however, was American and spent most of his life in France. With that in mind, how far can we trust these paintings of the Orient by western artists?
Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1847 and became a draughtsman in his early twenties. In 1886, Bridgman moved to Paris where he joined the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) who was a great inspiration for the oriental themes for which Bridgman became famous. His first trip to North Africa took place between 1872 and 1874 where he produced around 300 sketches in Egypt and Algeria, which became source material for later oil paintings. In the 1870s and 1880s, Bridgman returned to the East, collecting examples of costumes and objets d’art, which he often painted in his artworks. Having such an extensive collection of eastern objects makes Bridgman appear to be a knowledgable man on the subject, however, as the British Museum goes on to prove, this was not necessarily the case.
The western fascination with the Middle East coincided with the growing power of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1924). From around 1500, Europeans became increasingly interested in the Empire, which at its height comprised most of south-eastern Europe, modern-day Turkey and Arabic-speaking countries. At one point, the Ottoman Empire stretched as far west as Vienna, Austria.
Europe began to trade with the Ottoman Empire and their neighbours, the Safavid Empire (1501-1722), bringing fascinating goods to the continent. Interest had originally focused on religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land, for example, the places in Palestine that corresponded with the Bible. Palestine was considered the birthplace of Christianity, and Christian pilgrims and envoys frequently travelled to the East, often bringing foreign gifts home with them. As a result, eastern goods became widely available in Europe, particularly when artisans began replicating the Oriental designs.
The British Museum provides examples of ceramics from the Orient and versions that were made in Europe. During the 19th-century, eastern traditions were a popular source of inspiration for artists. Craftsman used the examples purchased in the East as models for their designs or attempts to make exact copies. Of particular interest were the glassworks made in Persia in the 1300s and the Persian ceramics from 1600. By appropriating forgotten techniques, such as glass enamel and lustre-painting, the replicants even surpassed the originals in terms of quality.
In some cases, it could not be certain that the original was indeed the original. On display is a glazed and painted lidded bowl that was produced in Persia during the 19th-century. The unknown artist, however, got their inspiration from Austrian, French and German ceramics, which in turn had been based on Middle Eastern originals.
As well as ceramics, Europe was fascinated by the exotic fashions of the eastern world. The bright colours and materials were a vast contrast to the style of clothing back home and visitors to the Middle East also noted costume dictated the status of the wearer. Due to this interest, costume books became a popular source of exotic portraits, which in turn allowed western artists to create oriental-style portraits of European sitters.
The Kaempfer Album is an example of a costume book by a Persian artist known as Jani. The album contained 44 drawings of characters from Persian literature and life, including a Qizilbash, a woman and two storytellers. Qizilbash was a label given to a variety of militant groups, particularly those living in Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kurdistan during the latter 15th century onwards. The term also became associated with the foundation of the Safavid Empire.
Although Jani was Persian, his illustrations cannot be used as an example of Persian art. His nickname Farangi Saz, which means “Painter in the European Style”, suggests he had been heavily influenced by European visitors. It also reveals that the western world was as much an inspiration to the east as it was the other way around.
In Europe, drawings of eastern costumes began as early as the 16th-century, evidenced by Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) sketches of eight women from Turkey. Since the drawings were produced in Rubens’ studio in Belgium, it is uncertain whether he ever met a Turkish woman. It is thought his inspiration came from an Ottoman costume book rather than real life.
Some Europeans experienced eastern costume and culture first-hand, often dressing in the appropriate fashion as part of the European diplomatic corps in Constantinople. Diplomats were invited to attend ceremonies and gain a privileged insight into the political sphere of the East. Dragomans (interpreters and translators) were employed to act as intermediaries between Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries and Europe.
The Flemish-French painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737) accompanied the French Ambassador to Constantinople in 1699 where he was commissioned to produce 100 oil paintings of the local people. Some of these, such as Dinner Given by the Grand Vizier, revealed the lives of the elite during the Tulip Era (1718-30) of the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier was the equivalent of a prime minister and the French Ambassador was invited to attend the meal along with two dragomans. The main purpose for these grand dinners was for the Vizier to demonstrate his wealth and power.
Dragomans featured in costume books, such as the example on display that belonged to the Prussian ambassador to Constantinople. The reports from the dragomans were one of the key methods of spreading Islamic culture throughout the west during the 17th and 18th centuries. Due to their influence, the Quran was available in French by 1647, having been translated by the diplomatic envoy André du Ryer (c.1580-c.1660). This was shortly followed by the French translation of One Thousand And One Nights by Antoine Galland (1646-1715), who was attached to the French embassy. This is a collection of stories by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, and South Asia and North Africa, and come from a variety of roots: Persian, Arabic, Indian, Greek, Jewish and Turkish.
One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, has been extremely influential since its translation into a European language and in 1926 it became the earliest full-length stop-motion film under the title The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The original stories have inspired numerous projects, most famously Disney’s Aladdin, and has been a great stimulus for authors such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), James Joyce (1882-1941) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922).
Based on the “tyrannical world of the ‘Orient'” is Irish poet Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) Lalla Rookh (1817). Lalla Rookh, which means “tulip cheeked” is a set of four narrative poems about an Indian princess of the Mughal Empire. Engaged to the king of Bukhara in Central Asia, Lalla Rookh sets off to meet her future husband, however, along the way, falls in love with the poet Feramorz. The poems have inspired operas and music hall performances, such as Their Customs are Very Peculiar and Feramors by Anton Rubinstein (1829-94).
Other aspects of Middle Eastern culture have influenced operatic works, for instance, Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Told through four Acts, Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been captured by the Egyptians. Radamés, an Egyptian military commander falls in love with the princess and is torn between his feelings towards Aida and his loyalty to the king of Egypt. To make things more complicated, the king’s daughter Amneris is in love with Radamés. As with most operas, Aida does not end happily and they sing their final duet O terra addio whilst suffocating from being buried alive.
One of the reasons for the sudden burst of “oriental” themed operas, plays and books was the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The canal, which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, allowed watercraft an easier route from the North Atlantic to the Indian ocean. As a result, a great number of tourists were able to visit the East. The increasing developments of steamships and railways made it far easier to reach places such as Constantinople, Cairo and Marrakesh than ever before, thus opening up the world to anyone who wished to explore.
Amongst those who travelled to the East were artists and photographers who wanted to capture the visual culture of the Orient. Whilst some were successful, others discovered that reality did not fit with their imagination and stretched the truth in their artwork to complement European ideas. Many paintings of the Middle East were produced by artists who had never left Europe, relying on photographs and drawings by those who had visited the region.
Islam was a foreign religion in Europe and Muslim life became something exotic and intriguing to the western world. Paintings were produced of people at prayer or at religious schools to highlight the differences between the Middle East and the Christian faith of Europe and America. It is not certain how accurate these artworks were since the main purpose was to maintain the “oriental vision”.
Alfred Dehodencq (1822-82) was a French Orientalist painter known for his vivid oil paintings of North African scenes. He travelled to Morocco in 1835 where he lived for at least ten years, completing some of his most famous works. One of these works is called The Hajj, which depicts an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. Whilst Dohodencq had plenty of experience of Islamic life in Morocco, the scene is entirely fictionalised because he had never seen the Arabian Peninsula he depicted in his painting.
In the Madrasa by the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935) shows a group of young boys partaking in religious learning in a school (Madrasa). Whether Deutsch was privy to this scene is unknown, however, he made journeys to the Middle East in 1885, 1890 and 1898 during which time he visited Egypt three times. Deutsch is mostly remembered for his depiction of life in Cairo, particularly the colours, scenery and customs.
Swiss painter Otto Pilny (1866-1936) travelled the caravan route from Cairo to Tripoli when he was only 19 years old. Later, he became a court painter for the Ottoman Empire, suggesting that his work was accurate enough to please the Ottoman authorities. Pilny was particularly captivated by the Bedouins, a nomadic Arab group, and often travelled with them into the desert where he sketched their activities. One example of this is Evening Prayers in the Desert, which Pilny completed in 1918.
With new technologies available, artists and photographers were able to produce more up-to-date versions of the earlier costume books. The initial sketches of these artists have proved to be more accurate than their final outcomes, which tended to be enhanced with exotic colours and aspects of their imagination. Jean-Léon Gérôme was one such artist whose finished paintings were often highly imaginative. His sketch of a girl playing a stringed instrument, however, captured the true appearance of the model and showed how close an observation Gérôme conducted of the Middle East and North African cultures.
Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) sketch of a seated Arab was produced on the spot during his second trip to Morocco. His first trip was with the first French ambassador to Morocco, Charles-Edgar de Mornay (1803-78) during which time he was profoundly affected by what he saw, likening the Arabs to the people of Classical Greece and Rome. Whilst it was easy to find Arab men to pose for him, Delacroix resorted to painting Jewish women instead of Muslim because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered.
Women of Algiers in the Apartment is an example of a painting Delacroix painted using Jewish women instead of Muslim. A merchant in Algiers had allowed Delacroix to look into his harem to get an idea of the interior, including textiles, ornaments and other props. Whilst the setting is authentic, the women in the picture are ambiguous and their activities unknown.
European men were fascinated with the goings-on in a harem. A harem was merely a private domestic space that unfamiliar men were not allowed to enter, however, due to this secrecy, the minds of the artists went wild. Using their imagination, many artists used the backdrop of a harem to paint naked women, however, this was not always the case. The Italian painter Cesare dell’ Acqua (1821-1905), who never visited the Middle East, used his imagination to paint a sensual portrait of an Ottoman woman burning incense. The model is fully clothed but wears the decorative textiles that Dell’ Acqua probably saw in costume books or other artists’ paintings.
Although many artists attempted to portray the Muslim woman, it is impossible to tell how accurate they were or whether they were far off the mark. Those who copied ideas from other paintings added extra elements, making the result even further from the truth. None took this as far as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), however, who used his surrealist style to produce Women Amongst Themselves with Sculpted Voyeur, which was loosely based on The Turkish Bath by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).
The theme of women in the Middle East and North Africa continues to the very end of the exhibition. Today, the term “Orientalism” is contested by many, some arguing that the ideals of the Orient were entirely inaccurate – more like “Disorientalism”. To close the exhibition, the British Museum displays contemporary artwork by four female artists from Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Palestine that comment on female identity and undermine the way women were portrayed by Orientalist artists.
One artwork that particularly stands out is the photographic triptych Les Femmes du Maroc by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi. Her portrayal of Muslim women is in stark contrast to the brightly coloured paintings of the 19th century. Fully clothed in white with only their eyes and hands showing, the three photographs are covered with strings of Arabic letters, emphasising that they are human beings and not the passive objects in the voyeuristic imaginings of European painters. Nonetheless, Muslim women still have a long way to go before they fully shake off their identities as possessions rather than independent women.
“There is a great deal of self-contradiction in strong and proud women, participating in the revolutionary process, willing to go to war with rifles across their back, and yet still [they] endure the laws of the harem.” – Shirin Neshat
The British Museum has curated a fascinating exhibition about the way the “Orient” became popular throughout Europe. It also highlights the inaccuracies that developed as a result, however, it shines little light on the truth. Then again, with so many paintings, ceramics and objects in existence it is difficult, if not impossible, to subtract the false from the truth.
Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art is open until 26th January 2020. Tickets cost £14, however, members and under 16s can visit for free.