Discover How Islamic Art Inspired The West At The British Museum

Inspired by the East, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Discover How Islamic Art Inspired The West At The British Museum Inspired by the East, The British Museum 4
A painting of an Arabic school. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

A flattering Western European painting of a nobleman is nothing special — hell the National Portrait Gallery is full of them. But this painting from the school of Italian painter Veronese is of the turbaned Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I. A regal portrayal of an Ottoman Sultan, is something rarely seen in London, and this one is part of major exhibition at The British Museum exposing how art in the West was inspired by the East.

The show takes us back before the time when Western European powers invaded and pillaged... everywhere. This is a time when Western and Eastern powers were on a more even footing and Europeans were fascinated by their Eastern neighbours — sparking a movement referred to as 'Orientalism'.

A beautiful vase created by a Frenchman imitating Islamic styles. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

A lot of these paintings do present a Romantic view of the 'Orient' with paintings of men at prayer in mosques and out in the desert, all depicted in that warm fuzzy light associated with a lot of Western art. However, the art in this show comes across as trying to understand another culture rather than to portray it in a derogatory sense.

Particularly commendable is that many of these paintings have been loaned from the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia — this is a Muslim country collecting work of what the Europeans once thought the Islamic world looked like. It turns the origins of these paintings on their head so now we have Eastern eyes romanticising the views of Western Romantic painters of the East.  

The portrait of Sultan Bayezid I. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Western painters would have easy access to female models back home but were frustrated by their lack of access in the Islamic world where they weren't allowed to enter harems or domestic spaces. So they often used non-Muslim women in their place, or their imaginations to guess what life behind closed doors looked like. Frequently they got it completely wrong. Men refusing to take no for an answer, why is that not surprising?

The paintings are accompanied by beautiful vases, ceramics, stained glass and furnishings all inspired by Eastern designs. While they may be designed by European hands they're clearly doing their best to stay true to Islamic designs and a gold vase sparkles with Arabic text.

The museum has also included four contemporary artists' take on Orientalism. This work is by Raeeda Sadeh. Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects / © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most interesting artefacts are the costume books that act as a who's who of Eastern society, using choice of dress to separate the Sultans from the mystics and the street vendors. They were translated into English and French and I can imagine European travellers abroad referencing their books to ensure they didn't insult or bow to the wrong person. As a contrast an Ottoman court painter created a book of watercolour paintings of Western dandies, whose dress sense must have felt rather ridiculous to Eastern eyes.

The show shines a light on a less explored part of Orientalism, through beautiful objects and fascinating stories. Plus it's always good to know there was a time when Europe was admiring other cultures, rather than plundering them. That came later.

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art is on at The British Museum from 10 October to 26 January. Tickets are £14 for adults.

Last Updated 08 October 2019