East met West recently at the British Museum for a preview of the latest pioneering collaboration between the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and the UK’s premier cultural institution. Tun Dr Mahathir was there last weekend, before the launch.
There are few individuals who have pondered East-West relations over as long a period as the Malaysian Prime Minister. Even the title of the exhibition appealed to him: “Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art”. It takes us back to the Look East policy, although Dr Mahathir was looking further east then than the curators of this exhibition are now.
As he wrote in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue: “Much of my life has been spent in trying to reconcile the differences between East and West. The history of these relations has sometimes been hostile and hard to follow. This exhibition condenses 500 years of occasionally tense encounters into a highly visual and fascinating compendium. From the earliest contact that Europe had with Islam – long before America had become any sort of world power – there was very little understanding and a lot of curiosity. It was a revelation to me how much interest the West was taking all those centuries ago, and how little they knew of their closest neighbours at the Asian end of the Mediterranean.”
Continuing, he added: “There are not enough exhibitions here that fully explore relationships between the Islamic world and the West. Even more welcome is that on this occasion it is a true collaboration between institutions at opposite ends of the world.”
Being a collaboration, there are curators from the British Museum and from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Just as there are objects from both. What the visitor gets to see is one seamless vision. Very positive it is too. I wonder whether the British Prime Minister will be nodding his head as much as his Malaysian counterpart if he also makes a tour of the exhibition.
As Boris Johnson is proud of his Turkish-Muslim ancestry (his grandfather’s name was Osman Kemal), he might well enjoy the meeting of Orient and Occident that is taking place at the British Museum. Considering that he needs some new, non-EU markets, he might be looking up old family connections in Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire looms large in this exhibition. The face that stares down at Londoners from the advertisements on double-decker buses is of Sultan Bayezid I. He’s truly the poster boy of the exhibition. His image is taken from a painting by the 16th-century Venetian artist, Veronese. Venice had a fascination with the East, and as none of the Ottoman sultans ever made it to Venice, it was up to Western artists to travel to Constantinople (Istanbul).
Several of the artists on display at the exhibition are the work of European artists working at the Ottoman court. One of the most interesting is Stanislaw Chlebowski, whose career shows how confusing and inconsistent borders could be in the 19th century. He was born in what’s now Ukraine but was then part of the Russian empire, later incorporated into Poland.
He lived in numerous countries before heading East, working in Constantinople as an official court painter to Sultan Abdulaziz. As relief from being on the inside track of Ottoman society for 12 years, Chlebowski relished the street life of his new home. He depicted bazaars and beggars, and even ladies at prayer. Armed guards were among his favourite subjects. With his numerous views of mosque interiors, the emphasis tends to be more on the setting and the weapons.
A more spiritual dimension can be found in the work of other artists, especially the painting that greets visitors when they enter the exhibition. To some extent, Frederick Bridgman’s The Prayer summarises the whole exhibition in one painting. Bridgman was a son of Alabama who roamed far and strove for accuracy. This painting does more than capture the details; the central figure evokes a sense of spiritual connection that’s hard to find in any genre of art.
Muslim men at prayer were one of the most popular themes for Western artists and buyers in the 19th century, which might come as a surprise in the present geopolitical situation. There were many other themes, too. One that gets much attention from academics is the harem. What they ignore is true images of the harem, such as the beguiling work by the Ottoman master, Osman Hamdi Bey.
His painting Young Girl Reading is the strongest possible antidote to the raging hormones of French fantasists such as Ingres. His notorious painting Turkish Bath was executed when he was 84, and in that long life he’d never been more than a few hundred miles east of Paris.
In reality, the number of these works of fevered imaginations was so small – compared to the phenomenal output of other themes – that they’re almost irrelevant to Orientalist art. More than that, every artist who churned out images of semi-clothed women in the East did the same within a Western setting. Undoubtedly there were lascivious customers for such works, but what most buyers wanted was something else.
The starkness of the desert or the sumptuousness of the palace was both in considerable demand. One painting of an ox-powered threshing machine and its peasant operators was in such demand that Emperor Napoleon III of France tried unsuccessfully to obtain it from the ultimate Orientalist painter, J.L Gerome.
“Orientalist” is a word that does not appear in the title of this exhibition, but its presence is felt everywhere. Rather than being the term of abuse that it became in the 1970s, it is embraced here as a neutral description of creative works that depict the area once known as the Orient: the Middle East and North Africa. Within this broad umbrella are sheltered works of art as different as paintings, books, ceramics and metalwork.
It’s the decorative arts that are among the greatest inspiration that has come from the Islamic world. “Inspired by the East” has an abundance of these artefacts. The luxury that Westerners craved was found in the East and then reinterpreted by artists such as Theodore Deck, Emile Galle and C.L. Tiffany. Sometimes it was less of a re-interpretation and more of a direct copy. Visitors to the exhibition can engage in spot-the-difference challenges with originals and reproductions. In almost all cases, the inspiration was working from East to West.
One exception to this was some of the bejewelled medals created in 19th century Persia. The orders and decorations awarded by rulers have a distinctly Western flavour, showing that cultural exchange wasn’t entirely a one-way street. “Inspired by the East” is as much about aesthetic responses as about the intellect.
For a creative field to have been so popular for so long suggests it had a huge and genuine appeal. This exhibition might help viewers to see the art as it was in its day, and perhaps feel inspired by it as well as partially reclaiming the Orientalist word. For those visiting London, it’s on from Oct 10, 2019 to Jan 26, 2020. To see it in Malaysia, art lovers will have to wait until June 2020.