Inspired by the East. How the Islamic world influenced Western Art

10.10.2019-26.01.2020 at the British Museum

The Prayer, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1877, oil on canvas, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

On October 10, 2019, the exhibition Inspired by the East opened at the British Museum, which, according to its title, seeks to demonstrate how the ‘Islamic world’ influenced Western art. Besides a large number of paintings from the late 19th century, a few historical maps as well as objects of arts and craft are shown.

The title, however, misleads the visitor: It is not an exhibition dedicated to the influence of the East on the West, but rather a show of orientalist art that presents an imaginary Orient from the perspective of the colonial West. While the exhibition itself is rather disappointing and the critical perspective is sought in vain, the accompanying catalogue provides information on the various discourses on Orientalism.[1] In fact, these discourses, that were already established and examined very precisely in the last quarter of the 20th century, deal with hegemonic and geopolitical structures. But these disappear in the exhibition itself behind the bright colours, the scenes from 1001-Nights as well as the depictions of  exotic views and nomadic ways of life, not to mention the devotional and prayer representations. ‘The world of the other’ is presented in a way that builds up differences and creates hierarchies. 

It is not the intention of the curators to provide a glimpse into non-European artworks, their individual aesthetics and their continuation in European art (apart from the adoption of ornaments, which – often examined and clearly recognizable – mark the aesthetic inscription from East to West). Rather, the very first wall text, appearing immediately after entering the exhibition, makes it clear that this “exhibition examines the artistic movement known as Orientalist, in which subjects and styles from the Islamic world […] were depicted or reimagined for Western consumption”. Thus, the first piece the visitor sees, The Prayer by Frederick Arthur Bridgman from 1877, is supposed to show an Islamic prayer scene. But on closer observation it becomes clear from the details (walking stick, shoes, and posture) that it is a depiction of traditional Christian devotional gestures and modes of representation, which were, however, embedded in an oriental setting and dressed in the ornamental and splendid costume of this region – a familiar sight in a new costume, which makes it both foreign and accessible at the same time. Accordingly, neither the actual life in these regions, which are defined as the ‘Islamic World’, nor artworks from there are shown, but orientalist pieces that reimagine the Orient for the Western audience. The exhibition is therefore a revival of Orientalism as an artistic movement and here one must really ask oneself whether it is truly necessary to give this problematic art form such an uncritical stage. The labels repeatedly state with regret that the paintings of famous orientalist artists have fallen into oblivion, without, however, questioning why this art genre is rightly perceived as problematic.

In the 19th century, orientalist paintings, literary tales and theatre pieces created an imaginary Orient and served to make this region an attractive travel destination. At the same time, they satisfied the European observer’s longing for exoticism. In the form of decorative furnishings, objects from faraway countries, but also objects made after them, entered the households of the bourgeoisie. It was chic to have a piece of the foreign in one’s own home. But Orientalism is a form of social, political, military, ideological, scientific and artistic appropriation of the Orient; more than that, it creates the Orient, as Edward Said points out.[2] While Said focuses primarily on literature in his study, the Orient becomes a central motif of 19th century paintings that served the great demand of the market as souvenirs or decorative objects. A large number of artists dedicated themselves to this genre. As James Thompson aptly put it, imagination, experience and memory provided the basis for their depictions.[3] Thus, not all the artists whose work dealt with the ‘Orient’ also travelled to one of these regions.[4] The Orient became an appropriated object, which through the power of imagination, through what was seen and remembered, was made into an image that in part still plays on our imagination today. “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be ‘Oriental’ in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be – that is, submitted to being – made Oriental”.[5]

In her essay The Imaginary Orient, Linda Nochlin points out that a problem encountered with orientalist painting is that it is equated with scientific images. Its truthfulness is therefore not questioned, since the representations, by negating time and richness of detail in places where the abundance of detail seems unnecessary, give the paintings (she speaks here of Jean-Léon Gérôme as an example) an “effet de reel” (Roland Barthes).[6]  The ‘true’ Orient is supposedly shown and it is not considered that it is a Western perspective that orientalises the Orient. It is the same with the exhibition: according to one of the captions, the “function of Orientalist painting was to create a visual record of places of interest”. However, the fact that it is rather a matter of the Western view upon the East, a voyeuristic view, that shows what should be seen and thought and omits what is marked by commonalities, is not addressed. Yet Orientalism “is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different world” and with that it has less “to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.”[7] The fact that Orientalist representations are rather projections and imaginations, and tell us more about the West than about the chosen subject, is not a theme in this exhibition. Framed as ‘inspiration’ by its title, the colonial gesture associated with the exhibited images is concealed. (The only spot one could speak of as a setting of projection within the exhibition – but only if one is trying to be positive about it – are some of the inscriptions, which, as illuminated silhouettes, cast a shadow on the exhibition walls and, in addition to their aesthetic presence, may carry the echoes of projections within themselves.) 

Once the exhibition visitor has left behind the prayer representations, the early modern trade and missionary journeys, the Orientalist theatre and ornaments, seen the portraits of rulers and passed through the room with the paintings of 1001-Nights, in which the Oriental is shown as a nomad, Muslim and erotic figure framed by desert scenery, the exhibition closes with four contemporary artworks by Shirin Neshat, Lalla Essaydi and Inci Eviner who critically examine the Orientalist gesture of sexualising the female body as well as the repression women in these countries undergo. Placed at the end of the exhibition, these artworks appear as a necessary gesture to remedy the lack of political and critical perspective – a decision that minimizes the relevance of these artworks. It would have been desirable if the curators had given more thought to their responsibility in these times of right-wing populism and demands for restitution, in these times of the genesis and communication of prejudices, and had used the exhibition to show the colonial and geopolitical relevance of orientalist art and that it is not just forgotten images that are to be shown again. Through a stronger interweaving and merging of artistic positions from West Asia and North Africa as well as from Europe, the exhibition would have presented a diversity of voices that would have inevitably triggered the longed-for critically-reflected perspective.  


[1] Exhibition catalogue: Inspired by the East. How the Islamic World influenced Western Art. Edited by William Greenwood and Lucien de Guise. London 2019.

[2] Edward Said: Orientalism. New York 1979, p. 12.

[3] James Thompson: The East, imagined, experienced, remembered: Orientalist nineteenth century painting. Dublin 1988.

[4] John M. MacKenzie: Orientalist. History, theory and the arts. Manchester 1995, p. 44.

[5] Edward Said: Orientalism. New York 1979, p. 5f.

[6] Linda Nicholin: The Imaginary Orient. In: Linda Nochlin: The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. New York, 1989, pp. 33-59, here p. 38.

[7] Edward Said: Orientalism. New York 1979, p. 12.


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