Young Woman Reading 1880 by Osman Hamdi Bey
Reading the British Museum press release of Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, I was preparing myself for a big show. The exhibition was promoted as “Covering five centuries of artistic interaction”, and since it was a paying show for the the general public, I expected wall to wall works of Orientalist paintings, myriads of Middle Eastern tiles, and in my wildest dreams, I pictured a reconstruction of Lord Leighton’s Arab Hall he had built in his Kensington House in the 1870s at huge expense. Having fallen in love with “the East” Leighton sourced hundreds of tiles for his Arab Hall from Damascus.
As usual I was letting my imagination run away with me and what I in fact stepped into was a compact show with neatly set out exhibits, key objects from the BM’s Islamic collection and loans from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, this supplemented with a small collection of paintings by Eugène Delacroix, John Frederic Lewis and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.
In the opening I stared at a map of the Holy Land, drawn in brown ink. It was dated 1486 when Europeans first showed an interest in the Middle East through religious pilgrimages.
A selection of ceramics and accessories in a glass cabinet illustrated Europe’s commercial exchange with the Ottoman Empire and Iran. There was an assortment of French handbags from the 1600s, fashioned from Safavid silks, and Italian plates, inspired by Ottoman ceramics. They were far less vibrant, than their Turkish counterparts.
More interesting were the beautiful tiles and dishes further ahead. The glassware was particularly eye-catching such as an Austrian-Hungarian blue stoppered jar (1916), which I would have gladly displayed on my mantelpiece at home.
In the crowds I had to fight to get my perch. The dim lighting didn’t help and made the job of gleaning information from the exhibits doubly trying.
Passing by a section entitled ‘Diplomacy’, I halted before two paintings of diplomatic dinners with ‘Dragomans’ milling around the distinguished guests. These were interpreters who needed a brilliant command of European languages in order to satisfy the Western diplomats populating the city of Constantinople in the nineteenth century. How did I know they were Dragomans? Well they all seemed to be sporting peculiarly tall hats with scooped out tops! Why that shape! For transporting rolled up manuscripts perhaps?
Finally it was to the Orientalist painters we turned. In the late nineteenth century, hoards of light-seeking artists escaped the winter smog in Europe and flocked to the sun, colour and sounds of the East. Some of them painted there, others returned to their Paris studios, furnishing them with carpets, silks and other Eastern props. Some painted from memory, others painted fantasies. Women in harems. I was expecting a lot more of these hidden worlds.
Instead, I saw mosques in the early morning sun, kneeled men in prayer and Qur’an boy students. I eventually came upon a portrait of a woman, fully clothed and burning incense. The painter, Cesere Dell’Acqua (1821-1905), had never visited the Middle East. The woman is pure fantasy, dressed in a brocaded robe, earrings, with a veil over her dark loose hair. She is thought to be Circassien from the Caucauses. It is assumed that the artist was inspired by a costume book!
The Orientalist section had been a disappointment. The focus on mosque interiors, prayers and Qur’an reading, had dampened my curiosity. They were of course of great historic interest but where were the harems? These were important for the latter part of the exhibition would contain works of art, which called into question the Orientalist movement with its colonialist and sexist overtones.
The final two rooms of the show were the most compelling, containing works by ‘Eastern’ artists. I loved Osman Hamdi Bey’s Young Woman Reading 1880. A young woman in yellow brocade, reads the Qur’an in a typical Arabic setting (see Header image). This painting must surely have been seen by Matisse, who, in his odalisque paintings of the 1920s and 30s, put his models in similar ‘oriental’ settings. The fact that Hamdi Bey received his artistic training from the orientalist painter Gérôme, makes interesting reading at the show.
Persian Woman by Antoin Sevruguin
Also of note were the black and white images of photographer, Antoin Sevruguin, a Georgian-Armenian nineteenth century photographer who had a studio in Tehran. At the exhibition we see a Persian woman with masculine features, reclining in what resembles a tutu skirt. The semi-erotic “European” pose is unusual, I learn from this fascinating blog post https://www.vintag.es/2018/07/antoin-sevruguins-portrait-photography.html when I get home. It contains forty amazing images of a world we would not normally have access to.
By now I had reached the climax of the show, where contemporary female artists of Arabic background were exhibited.
Raeda Saadeh’s 2003 print entitled Who Will Make Me Real?, seems to suggest that even now, Arabic women face a crisis in identity. A woman reclines in a hopeless ‘orientalist’ pose and stares out at me, entirely dressed in Palestinian newspapers. The gesture is both awkward and defiant.
I loved the triptych by Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi (born 1956). A fully veiled woman is seen both in profile and face on. In a monochrome setting, with light Arabic lettering flitting over her clothes and filling the space around her, she seems to disappear. Is Lalla Essaydi bemoaning the invisibility of veiled women, or Moroccan women in general? The conclusions are ambiguous as the overall effect is so aesthetically pleasing.
Triptych by Lala Essaydi
Despite my quibbles concerning the orientalist section, this is a cohesive, unassuming show with a clear narrative. An opportunity to acquaint yourself with exciting woman artists from the Arabic world. Worth a visit.
Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is on at the British Museum until 26th January 2020.