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How the East inspired Western artists

The blurred history of Orientalist art

The Islamic world may have inspired Western artists for centuries, but their fascination with the East cannot be fully divorced from its colonial context

The Islamic world may have inspired Western artists for centuries, but their fascination with the East cannot be fully divorced from its colonial context

Nicolas Pelham | November 15th 2019

Like many students of the Middle East, I am still haunted by Edward Said 41 years after he wrote “Orientalism”. The seminal book argued that Western academics, writers, artists and journalists had been agents of European soft power for over two centuries, constructing an image of the East that was exotic and therefore in need of taming. Orientalists’ art, literature, maps and artefacts reinforced the superior mindset of colonialists and whetted the appetite of Western governments to invade and possess Eastern nations, according to Said. His ideas shook up coverage of the Middle East years before I began working as a journalist in the region, but I wrote racked with guilt. On one of my first assignments in Egypt, the British embassy in Cairo flew me with the then British prime minister, John Major, to visit the war cemeteries that Britain tends for soldiers killed fighting in the deserts of El Alamein during the second world war. It was a privilege rarely afforded to a young reporter and they expected a puff piece. I returned with a report about irate locals demanding Britain give up control of a site commemorating battles between two invading European armies on Egyptian soil. I titled it “Egypt for the Egyptians”. 

Since the publication of “Orientalism” in 1978 many museums and art galleries have hidden away their collections of desert landscapes, desolate ancient ruins and other memorabilia from 19th-century tours of the Orient. A new exhibition at the British Museum attempts to cast off the guilt and shame. Its neutral title – “Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art” – seems to strip art of political baggage. “We’re hoping to move beyond Said,” explains a curator. The exhibition hopes to highlight the quality of Orientalist art, presenting it as a more sincere – and surprising – cultural exchange. 

The curators are right that Orientalism is more complex and blurred than Said believed. Western fascination with the East predates European colonisation by many centuries. It thrived when Islam was a rising influence in the world and Muslim armies advanced to the gates of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th century, Handel and Mozart wrote operas about sultans as the Ottomans consolidated their hold on south-eastern Europe. And as the world shrank in the 19th century with the introduction of the train and the steamboat, Eastern monarchs headed West as much as Western ones went East. The Persian shah, Naser al-Din, spent 18 days in London in 1879 – he spends much of his diary complaining how wet everything was. The trip was part of a European tour which also included stops in Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Paris and Liverpool. When the shah returned to his capital, Tehran, he adorned the recently built Sepahsalar mosque with the Christian accoutrement of a bell tower that still chimes on the hour. There was also the Ottoman Sultan, Abdel Hamid II, who instructed his court orchestra to play Verdi as he walked back up the hill to his palace from Friday prayers at his Istanbul mosque.

Yet Orientalist art cannot be divorced from the political backdrop in which it was produced. Most Orientalists survived by satisfying Europe’s market and catering to the colonial mindset. Some, like the French painter Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-89), worked to commission for European emperors, queens and ambassadors. Others fed European fantasies with harem scenes from the East that, if they had been set in London or Paris, would have been thought pornographic. Ignoring these details would be warping the past. Take Edouard Riou’s painting of the pomp and ceremony at the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. The caption beneath the painting in the British Museum exhibition says that it shows how “developments in technology and travel during the 19th century increased awareness of, and interest in, the Middle East.” It makes no mention that Riou’s glorification of the event had been commissioned by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat who developed the Suez Canal. Or that ceremonies like this beguiled Egypt’s rulers into financing a vast piece of infrastructure that benefited the West but bankrupted Egypt and led, 12 years later, to its conquest by Britain. Absolving European Orientalists of guilt might require a little more effort and honesty, particularly from a museum that owes so many of its prized artefacts to the colonial project. 

“A Memlook Bey” (1863), by John Frederick Lewis

As this painting’s title “A Memlook Bey” implies, this self-portrait oozes imperiousness and a sense of entitlement. Bey means lord and Mamluk refers to the slave class that ruled Egypt until the 19th century. The artist is painting himself, raising the question of who the artist is lording over. Ostensibly Lewis is haughtily turning his back on the Western viewer and striking out for the Orient. Lewis was the epitome of the mid-19th century British orientalist. He spent a decade living in a mansion in old Cairo, dressed in a red fez and a traditional Egyptian garment called a galabeya. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray went to see Lewis in Cairo and remembers him riding a grey horse “with two servants besides him”. Lewis loved playing the sheikh in the Sinai desert. But he owed his keep to the Royal Academy and London’s art market. The garb can be seen as an imperious rebuke to the natives and an appropriation of their traditional attire.

“A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I.” (c. 1580), by School of Veronese

The turban is Eastern. The heavy winter tunic looks Western. Together they represent the two halves of the new Ottoman Empire. For over 500 years until the Balkan wars of 1913, the Ottoman Empire was as much a European realm as an Eastern one. Sultan Bayezid’s mother was from the Balkans and gave him his blue eyes and pale complexion. He married a Serbian princess and called himself “Sultan-i-Rum”, Sultan of Rome. But something about this posthumous portrait of the sultan, who ruled the empire between 1389 and 1402, suggests his hold on power is off-balance. His posture – back heading one way, face the other – emphasises his disorientation. The strain of deciding which way to turn shows on his furrow. So fixated was he by extending the Ottoman hold over the remnants of the Byzantine Empire that he laid siege to its prized capital, Constantinople, for eight years. But the siege left him exposed in the east and ended in failure. Advancing from the east, the Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane, defeated the sultan and held him captive until his death. His tragic predicament earned him a place in Western lore at a time when the Ottoman army horrified Europe with its power. This painting, produced in Italy 150 years after Bayezid’s death, prompts the question that bedevils European observers until today. Does Turkey, the modern successor of the Ottoman Empire, lean East or West?

“Inauguration of the Suez Canal” (1869), by Édouard Riou 

This depiction of the ceremony that opened one of the colonial era’s greatest feats of engineering seems a picture of harmony. From their two tented pavilions, red carpets symbolically link Europe and Africa and descend inwards until they meet in a confluence of languages, uniforms and cultures. The cross shape symbolises the global crossroads created in Egypt by the Suez Canal. But for all the pageantry, the symmetry is incomplete. On the far left, three white bearded clerics look on disdainfully. The green sash of Islam cuts them off from the pomp. Although cheek by jowl, the Egyptians and Europeans keep to their own and do not converse. Is this a premonition of trouble to come? Egypt paid most of the costs and provided the labourers for the Suez Canal, thousands of whom died in the process of digging it. But under the contract, the canal was a concession managed by Europeans, who took much of the revenue. Egypt was to fight multiple wars over the next century before finally winning it back in the 1970s.  

“Four Nude Women and Sculpted Head” (1934), by Pablo Picasso

For artist and viewer alike, the Orient allowed the Western libido free rein. At first glance Picasso’s harem, a favourite Orientalist motif, repeats this exoticism. Only slowly does the viewer realise they are being watched. A Zeus-like sculpture – said to be Picasso’s self-portrait – looks straight out from atop his plinth. His wide eyes suggest hunger and lust, but he looks straight past the four bathing women at the viewer. The women’s eyes start to do the same. Even the flowers in the vase on the window morph into eyes, which are everywhere – unmasking the viewer as a voyeur. These women are not just 19th-century fantasy dolls. They are alive and answering back.

“Les Femmes du Maroc” (2005), by Lalla Essaydi

Sixty years after Morocco gained independence from colonial rule, artists like Lalla Essaydi are producing art that challenges and redefines Orientalist tropes. In an inversion of tired Western depictions of the harem, Essaydi’s self-portrait sees herself barricaded against prying eyes with body armour. Her armour takes the form of thick cloth covering her curves, on which are written Quranic verses as spiky, knotted and impenetrable as wild brambles. Every part of her, eyes included, spell “Keep Out”. She is no longer a Western fantasy but the Western viewer’s equal. Her stare is direct, hostile and forceful. She has forsaken exotic colours for the simplicity of black and white. For some in the East, the veil symbolises a restored sense of personality, power and identity.