In his 1978 work Orientalism, Edward Said accused Western artists and intellectuals of instrumentalising their perception of the Islamic world to support the narrative of Western dominance and colonialism. The British Museum’s show of Orientalist painting from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, allows us to evaluate the truth of Said’s statement.
The exhibit breaks into the five parts. The first part draws on the Museum’s extraordinarily heterogenous collection of maps, objects and clothing. One is reminded that the Turks and Persians used to call a museum tuhaf-khana or “house of wonderment”, and that is what the British Museum is. This section reminds us of the rich exchange which has always existed between Europe and the Middle East. The most evocative items here are the 18th century French ladies’ handbags, made with antique Safavid silk scraps. LVMH should consider reediting these items. Turks sketched by Ruben, Robert Shirley the first English ambassador to Iran portrayed by Van Dyke, Sultan Bayezit by the school of Veronese, are all reminders of this era when Christianity and Islam regarded one another as both rivals and peers.
The second part of the exhibit evokes the enthusiasm for Islamic exotica at the end of the 19th century. Like the recent show at Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum, the British Museum highlights how the rediscovery of craft techniques like enamel on glass and lustre painting encouraged European artists to make attractive copies of Mamluk mosque lamps, Persian vases and bowls. Decorative artists like Owen Jones published design books of arabesques, and architects added Turkish baths and fountains modeled on the Alhambra to their constructions in Europe and America.
The third and largest part of the exhibit displays academic 19th century painting either inspired by Islamic subjects or painted in-situ by artists who spent, in some cases, years of their careers in Cairo or Istanbul. The first thing one notices is that the works by Delacroix, Ingres, Gerome and Marjorelle, are wonderful paintings, while their Islamic subjects are simply a secondary aspect. Ingres comes in for special focus, because the eroticism of his Turkish odalisques and bathers could be seen to be a clear case of Orientalism, where the Westerner depicts the East as decadent if not depraved. Or one could argue that academic painters of this period could not present nudes to the public without the appropriate verfremdung of Greek mythology, Ariosto’s heroes, or in this case, members of the harem. That’s why Manet’s “Olympia” was such a scandal. It is curious to note that this painting, a key part of Said’s charge sheet against the colonialist, was acquired by the debonair Turk Khalil Bey, who also owned “L’origine du monde”.
The remaining painters are, mostly, gifted illustrators, whose works exhibit a certain super-realism. They recall tourists’ postcards of the period, but are are overloaded with observations, details and color. The artists are clearly enthusiastic about their subjects. Many became court painters to local rulers like the Ottoman Sultan or the Khedive of Egypt, while others painted themselves in turbans with majestic beards. Rather than being statements by the dominant culture about the colonized, it could be these paintings are attempts to document a culture which the painters knew the Suez Canal and the steamship would soon consign to history.
The fourth section presents a very few number of works of Turkish and Iranian artists and photographers who took up Western techniques in the end of the 19th century. The most well-known of these was Hamdi Bey, the founder of the Ottoman antiquities museum. Hamdi’s gracious Ottoman lady in her embroidered silk caftan compares favorably to Sevrugin’s photograph of a Persian lady, squeezed into a ballet tutu which the Shah imposed on his harem after a visit to the Paris opera.
The final section displays work by Turkish, Iranian and Palestinian women artists re-appropriating the image of the oriental woman from the male, colonialist gaze.
The exhibit covers a lot of ground, from early interactions between Europe and the Middle East, to questions about gender and identity in our times. One would like to know more about the impetus for the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia to acquire so many works by the orientalists. It maybe because the modern Malays feel the same nostalgia and affection for the intimate street scenes of Cairo and Istanbul that inspired the painters. They may not be concerned if these painters participated in the narrative of Western dominance decried by Edward Said. Only the languorous nudes in Ingres’s “Bain turque” still inspire some ambiguity about the male, European gaze.