Art

Inspired by The East - Exhibition at The British Museum

A new special exhibition opened in October 2019 at the British Museum in London. It explores how western artists have long been inspired by the Islamic world. Covering five centuries of artistic interaction, the exhibition is a collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) and includes a major loan of objects from the Kuala Lumpur-based institution; their first appearance outside of Malaysia.
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Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956), Les Femmes du Maroc. Triptych of photographic prints, 2005. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art charts the long and complex cultural interactions between Europe and North America in the ‘west’, and North Africa and the Middle East in the ‘east’. At its core is an examination of the tradition known as Orientalism, the representation of the east in western arts and which often blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Orientalism reached its height as an art movement during the 19th century (when western artists began visiting the Middle East and North Africa in greater numbers), but this exhibition traces its origins back much further, to the 1500s. It also demonstrates that Orientalism was not just restricted to painting as is often assumed, but highlights a much wider influence across many types of visual and decorative arts. Visitors are able to see objects as diverse as ceramics, photography, glass, jewelry, manuscripts and clothing, as well as contemporary art. 

The British Museum’s exhibition looks at how Islam – and by extension Islamic art – was represented in the West, and it’s clear from 19th-Century Orientalist paintings that tiles, jars, carpets and furnishings inspired by Islamic geometric designs and art history were greatly admired for their beauty. But Islamic art had been making its way into Europe long before French and British colonialism, and the exhibition begins in the 1500s, when trade with the Ottoman and Safavid Empires hit full throttle. Even before this, Europe’s neighbouring Muslim countries were objects of curiosity. And with Palestine as the birthplace of Christianity, the Middle East was a cultural focal point, providing a constant supply of Christian envoys and pilgrims.

Glazed and gilded pottery, Iznik (Turkey), 1600–25. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“This major exhibition will highlight just how extensive and enduring the cultural exchange between the west and the Islamic world has been. It is an artistic relationship which has endured for five centuries and has influenced an astonishing diversity of material culture,” said Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum.

Ludwig Deutsch (1855–1935) In the Madrasa. Oil on panel, 1890. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Sophia Smith-Galer at BBC Culture noted: “As much as the Middle East and North Africa were colonial playgrounds for western powers, literature, art and architecture across Europe are testament to a long, rich tradition of Islamic art that pre-dated 19th-Century colonialism and has, gratefully, outlived it.”

Edmond Dulac (1882–1953), The Princess burns the Efrite to death, 1914. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition runs until 26 January 2019. After its run at the British Museum, the exhibition will open at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from 20 June - 22 October 2020. 

Read more about the exhibition and Orientalism in our latest L'Officiel ART issue.

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