Two exhibitions at the British Museum and Watts Gallery strive to re-contextualise European Orientalism and emphasise artistic relationships between east and west, but do they succeed? asks our arts writer Miriam Al Jamil.
Any reader unfamiliar with books written in Arabic might open one by mistake at the final page. So, to use the ancient symbol of eternity, we begin at the end, at the tail of the snake rather than at the mouth that bites it. Once we have circled round the oroborous space at the heart of the British Museum’s latest exhibition, Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, we reach a final section of work by contemporary Muslim women artists, all of whom subvert and question many of the images displayed earlier. Their work is presented as a concluding commentary to a linear narrative which begins around 1500, but focuses overwhelmingly on the Orientalist painters of nineteenth-century Europe. If we could return to the beginning with their interpretations in mind, more complex gender and political issues would attach to the art and artefacts on display. Through print, photography and film, these artists explore female identity, invisibility and sexuality with reference to Western artistic tropes such as the recumbent ‘odalisque‘ repeatedly invoked in the work of artists like Ingres, Matisse and Picasso.
Raeda Saadeh‘s self-portrait, Who will make me real? (2003, see feature image above) makes eye contact with the viewer as she reclines like an odalisque but completely covered in pages from Palestinian newspapers, challenging our attention unlike any woman imagined by Ingres. Her body is only for male consumption as a reader of the printed word – and it is the word rather than the image that defines Islam – introducing new metaphors for the female body as powerful as any of those attached, for example, to the classical allegorical statues described by Marina Warner in Monuments and Maidens (1985). The final room shows a video installation by Turkish artist Inci Eviner, which reinterprets Antoine-Ignace Melling‘s 1819 print depicting an imagined harem. Her superimposed occupants of the harem are far removed from Melling’s passive figures. They cover and uncover themselves, struggle, challenge and inhabit shared physical spaces. Eviner is quoted on the explanatory label: ‘I wanted to tear this scene apart and get into it’.
The frustration felt by male Orientalist painters about the restrictions on their access to women who lived in the Islamic countries they visited, and their inability to draw women in their own domestic environments, led to wholly imaginative and salacious depictions, often concocted in studios on their return – or indeed in studios which they had never left in the first place. Few of the female models bear any resemblance to the nationalities they are supposed to depict, though the vast reach of the Ottoman Empire at its height encompassed huge areas from the Caucasus and the Middle East to North Africa with all their ethnic and cultural diversity.
John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) painted his wife Marian as a languid resident of the seraglio. His work features in the British Museum, but he is the subject of the Watts Gallery exhibition, John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame, which shows him mainly in the guise of Sheikhs, Bedouin chiefs and bazaar merchants, all with his unmistakable long face and grey beard. These become increasingly uncomfortable when juxtaposed on a gallery wall. In what ways did he inhabit these personae or were they merely escapist fantasies or marketing opportunities? They were arguably a form of alter ego and an experiment in romantic self-fashioning, an alternative to his conventional life as the established gentleman-artist of Victorian London but they are now more commonly interpreted as cultural appropriation through an assumption of colonial entitlement. Lewis wore Ottoman dress to a costume party in London in the 1860’s, and as the Watts Gallery notes, it was ‘partly promotional, enhancing the apparent authenticity of the “oriental” images he produced.’ The fluidity of identity is particularly controversial in Orientalist paintings and did not seem to concern the enthusiastic European viewing public in the nineteenth century.
The customary lethargy and otiose passivity of the figures in Orientalist paintings belies the vibrant activity and mercantile exchange within the Ottoman Empire itself. Such a conception went on to define a current of Western attitudes for decades. Edward Said‘s seminal book Orientalism, published over forty years ago, is not surprisingly referenced, albeit discreetly, in a few labels at the Watts Gallery; at the British Museum it is cited from the outset in the introductory description.This points out that the ‘Orient’ of Said’s study is one of Europe’s ‘deepest and most recurring images of the Other’. Neither exhibition extends its investigation into the activities of scholars and explorers such as Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) who entered the holy city of Mecca in disguise, an undertaking which also necessitated undergoing circumcision. Such a commitment, however contentious, renders the lifestyle of Orientalist painters little more than masquerade, though Burton’s career hardly exemplifies a comfortable alternative approach to East-West relations.
Orientalist paintings relied on a huge variety of props, textiles and furniture, ceramics and metalwork. These objects are represented by exquisite examples in Inspired by the East. The collaboration between the British Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia, has allowed a balanced exhibition of both objects and paintings rather than the expected emphasis on artefacts and sculpture from the British Museum collections. Many objects are displayed in cases in front of paintings in which they appear. For example, a wide leather belt decorated with carnelians is surely the one worn by The Guard in Antonio Maria Fabrés y Costa’s painting of 1887, unless it was not as unique as it appears to us in this context.
Lewis possessed a red sash which he wore as a turban in his painting Portrait of a Memlook Bey (1863). The same sash was worn by his wife in paintings on show at Watts Gallery where we are informed that she presented it after Lewis’s death to the British Museum. It is presented in a case at Inspired by the East with the information that although Lewis acquired it in Constantinople in around 1840, believing it to be 1000 years old, it was in fact contemporary and made in India. Why he would knot, wind and twist a piece of fabric believed to be so ancient and delicate is curious. The sash exemplifies the very old phenomenon of copy, reproduction and sales pitch by merchants which gave no quarter to gullible Westerners willing to believe in the authenticity of what they desired. A century earlier Sir Horace Walpole had believed his set of chairs, made on the Coromandel Coast of India and bought for his house Strawberry Hill, were Elizabethan and English in origin.
One of the stated aims of Inspired by the East is to ‘recreate’ the nineteenth-century longing for the decorative. Juxtapositions of either copy and original or original and decorative interpretation require careful scrutiny to decide how they complement each other. An Ottoman plate by an anonymous craftsman and its ‘near perfect imitation’ by the French ceramicist Théodore Deck (1823-1891) hang side by side. Were nineteenth-century technological improvements sometimes able to ‘surpass’ the originals, as the display label suggests? We find ourselves focusing closely on the curl of a leaf and shape of a petal, the comparative depth of blue and turquoise and consistency of design. A copy inevitably formalises the confident flourish of the craftsman’s brush and corrects the slight imperfections of finish. But I know which I would prefer.
Early sections of the exhibition point out that Costume Books were ‘a way of picturing the Ottoman world’. Likewise, westerners were pictured by Safavid artists in drawings that highlight their dress. Like Cantonese portraits commissioned by East India Company merchants in the eighteenth century, there is always something which catches the eye as inauthentic, something disproportionate about the facial features or too painstaking about the lace, pocket or unfamiliar European boot. Such drawings are records of the exploratory eye that connects different cultures, that questions through representation and seeks common ground. The Dragoman, ‘professional go-between’ of the Ottoman court, a ‘class of translator-fixers attached to embassies’ who mediated diplomatic affairs with other courts often appeared in Costume Books in ceremonial robes. Dragomans were key contacts for diplomatic travellers in the Ottoman Empire, for negotiating access to the right networks and influential individuals. The mutual dialogue which characterised these sixteenth- to eighteenth-century encounters contrasts with the more guarded Orientalist attitudes later in the exhibition.
The textures, bold designs and scintillating colours; the diaphanous veil and heavy gold embroidery; the gathers and folds of curtains and cushions: all formed the landscape of the Orientalist imagination. The exhibition at the Watts Gallery includes a gown created by The Octagon Project: East London Textile Arts which draws on the colours and shapes of Oriental fabrics, ceramics and architecture. The exquisite robe is covered with over two hundred embroidered octagonal designs made by more than seventy contributors. It is evocative and inspiring, and reclaims for a contemporary audience the undisputed opulence of the Orientalist vision which was primarily a seductive and sensuous fantasy.
Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art will be shown at the British Museum from 10th October to 26th January 2020. For more information or to book tickets, click here.
John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame was shown at the Watts Gallery from 9th July to 3rd November. Click here for more information.
From November 2019 to February 2020, works from The Octagon Project will be on display at the Art Workers’ Guild in London. See here for more information.
Feature Image: Raeda Saadeh (born 1977), Who will make me real? Digital C-type print, 2003. Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects / © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.