‘Inspired by the East’
Friday, June 19th, 2020
The British Museum staged the exhibition ‘Inspired by the east: How the Islamic world influenced western art’ late last year and it closed on 26 January this year. It was jointly sponsored by the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia. Well-received and well-attended, the Guardian said that it was an ‘exhibition of dreams’ and the Times Literary Supplement said that it was ‘visually delightful and intellectually challenging’.
The exhibition begins with a quote from Edward Said and his work on ‘Orientalism’. It reminds the visitor that there has been a history of representation of the Orient that infantilized and ridiculed the East. Said documented various scholars and painters who looked down from Enlightenment Hill on to those in Cairo or Istanbul who had yet to learn the rational ways of the West. The exhibition states that it wishes to challenge this notion by bringing to the fore those painters that looked upon the East with admiration and by exhibiting objects that show that there was a history of mutual cultural influence.
The exhibition does not disappoint in this aim, it has plenty of material to choose from and there are many paintings and objects in this exhibition. There is no lack of evidence to the contrary. Robert Irwin has in fact gathered a huge amount of material to make a counter argument to Edward Said in his book ‘For Lust of Knowing’.
The exhibition contains paintings from some of the main examples of those who instead of looking down on the East, looked up to it. Ludwig Deutsch is presented as one of the best examples of this genre and one of his paintings is in the exhibition. The exhibition in fact opens with a large painting of a man deep in prayer (by Frederick Arthur Bridgman) looking up towards the heavens. One looks at him and for a moment joins him as he looks upward asking God for forgiveness.
There is also a painting by Nasreddine Dinet who was one of the founders of the Society for French Orientalist Painters. His paintings of everyday life in North Africa are very different in character and temperament from the many paintings of the Eastern harem that have come to be seen as exemplars of the Orientalist gaze.
There is also a painting by Eugene Delacroix of an individual Arab gazing away into the distance. But why should this be important? Is it important for a Muslim man to see a painting of Delacroix that shows an Arab in a positive manner? One that makes him thoughtful, serene and stylish? Why does it matter – is it a form of validation that even the greats could look upon the East with admiration? Do we need such validation or should we need it? Does the act of validation not keep in place the power structure that in other places exerts oppression? This may be reading too much into the choices of the exhibitors, they may have simply tried to show that there were many painters who painted the East in a way that could not be described as humiliating or disparaging.
The exhibition showed many objects that substantiated the argument that there was mutual cultural influence for many centuries whether this be in architecture or the arts and crafts. By doing so, the exhibition problematizes the oppositional discourses that are so common nowadays. However, one may ask how realistic such a presentation is. Does it describe the orientalist enterprise in its totality? Is it seeking to ignore those moments of oppression even in art? Perhaps it never set out to answer every question in this debate, perhaps all it offered was to show that there is another way that this can be done. The book on the exhibition can be bought here.