Exhibitions and events
How did the Islamic world influence Western art?

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art examines how European and North American visual arts have been inspired by the Islamic world for centuries. Known as ‘Orientalism’, this representation of the East in Western art often blurred the line between fantasy and reality. Ranging from painting and decorative arts, interior design to architecture, the objects and artworks depict or refer to subjects and styles from the Islamic World, primarily the Middle East and North Africa.

The Orientalist art movement reached its height during the 19th century and is perhaps best known for its production of impressive oil paintings and works on paper. This movement, however, in fact stems from as early as the 15th century and continues to be referenced in art today. It has influenced the production of a wide range of works of art including ceramics, metalwork, photography, to name a few, but also extends more widely to include theatre, architecture and music.

The Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s influential text Orientalism brought critical attention to the subject in 1978, questioning the ways in which the West has envisaged and misrepresented the East in culture. In it he criticised the often over-romanticised and inaccurate representations the West has presented of the East, or the ‘Orient’, particularly through literature and extending into politics. He defined the Orient as being ‘the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other’. To tackle such an enormous subject goes well beyond the scope of this exhibition, which focuses on the art movement of Orientalism. Here, we engage with such critiques, by recognising issues of misrepresentation whilst also identifying a long and rich history of influence and exchange in both directions. A human propensity to know and understand people and places.

School of Veronese (1528–1588), A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I. Oil on canvas, c. 1580.
© Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Indeed, for centuries Europe defined itself in relation to its Middle Eastern neighbours. From around 1500, as Europeans became both increasingly curious and aggressive in their dealings with those outside their borders, there was a sustained awareness of the empires of the Middle East. These Eastern neighbours were the Safavid Empire (1501–1722), centred around modern Iran, and the Ottoman Empire (about 1300–1924), which comprised modern-day Turkey, most of south-eastern Europe and the Arabic-speaking lands. Likewise, European traders and diplomats were considered an exotic ‘other’ by people in the Middle East. At a time when relations between Europe and the Middle East were more evenly balanced than in later periods, this was a period marked by exchange and fluidity.

This can be seen in the imitation of certain styles, for example, in this Iznik plate from the 17th century. It was known as a centre for high-quality pottery production for centuries. The distinctive floral designs were also popular on tiles that decorated the inside of buildings during the Ottoman period (c.14th – 20th century).

Glazed and gilded pottery dish, Iznik, Turkey. Ottoman dynasty, 1601–1625.

The second image shows tiles made by English designer William De Morgan in the 19th century. He was influenced by Middle Eastern ceramics and designs, creating floral motifs that appeared in fashionable ceramics, stained glass and furnishings.

Four earthenware tiles, decorated by William De Morgan (1839–1917) at Sands End Pottery, Fulham, 1888–1897.

As Europeans increasingly looked outward to the Americas, Africa and Asia from the 1500s, they developed new ways of visualising, identifying and disseminating information about the people they encountered. Costume books became a popular way of ‘classifying’ different groups according to their dress, from sultans and mystics to dancers. However, these portrayals could often be based on stereotypes and helped perpetuate them in Europe.

The presence of Europeans in Middle Eastern cities also provided local artists with the chance to indulge their own taste for the ‘exotic’ in portraits of European dandies and courtiers.

Levni (active c. 1703–1730), leading artist at the court of Sultan Ahmet III, A European gentleman in a red coat. Ottoman School painting, Turkey, early 1700s.

Arguably the best-known artistic output of the Orientalist art movement was a huge body of paintings by European and North American artists. Many of these artists travelled to the places they depicted, whether Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), Jerusalem, Cairo or Marrakesh. Others travelled no further than Paris or Vienna, but used a mixture of photographs, props and imagination for inspiration. Recurring images included everything from detailed sketches of daily life to imagined scenes of the harem. Interest in Orientalism developed in tandem with European colonial interests in the Middle East, which allowed soldiers, traders and artists greater access to the places and peoples of the region.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847–1928), The Prayer. Oil on canvas, 1877.
© Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

In the exhibition we examine the idea of Orientalism, offering another look at this cultural relationship, revealing that Orientalism encompasses many types of visual and decorative arts – not just painting, as is often assumed. Orientalist objects with origins in Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa as diverse as ceramics, photography, glass, jewellery and clothing, and contemporary art highlight a centuries-old tradition of influence and exchange from East to West and West to East, whether gained through diplomatic encounters, spoils of war, or simply through travel. They range from objects that were created by early Western pilgrims visiting the Holy Land to ceramics that were made by 19th-century Western artists directly copying earlier versions from Turkey or Iran.

Although Orientalism remains a highly charged and contested term, with Orientalist arts and crafts rapidly declining in popularity from the 1940s, its visual language remains a potent resource for artists today. The exhibition concludes with four contemporary reactions to the imagery of Orientalism by Middle Eastern and North African female artists. These works – including Inci Eviner’s 2009 video work Harem and Lalla Essaydi’s Women of Morocco triptych – answer Orientalist representations of the East, subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists.

Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956), Les Femmes du Maroc. Triptych of photographic prints, 2005.

This triptych is from a series of photographs in which Essaydi reimagines the harem paintings of 19th-century Orientalism. Here, women are active agents rather than passive objects subjected to the voyeuristic imaginings of European artists, such as Delacroix, whose Femmes d’Alger is referenced by the series title. Essayadi replaces the bright colours, nudity and luxury of Orientalist paintings with monochrome settings, fully clothed women and strings of Arabic letters, taking back ownership of their representation.  

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is open from 10 October 2019 – 26 January 2020. Find out more and book tickets.

Supported by Jack Ryan

Sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank

Organised with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia