LONDON — Only an oafish fool with malign political proclivities would try to expunge Islam from the story of the betterment of humankind. Think of the contributions that the Arab world has made to philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, architecture, etc. Where, to cite just one example, would Gothic architecture be without Islam?
These are the kinds of thoughts we inevitably carry into a major exhibition entitled Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, presented by the British Museum, one of the greatest in the world, in collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
Why then do we feel a little disappointed, if not short-changed, when we walk out through the shop at the end? For this reason: we feel that the exhibition has been, more than anything else, a giant teaching aid of a fairly solid and dependable kind, but one that has not quite pushed us far enough.
The exhibition is scrupulously well-staged and well-paced. In fact, it is quite deliberately slow-paced — no one would wish to hurry — because it is full to the gills with objects of fascination, many relatively small — from maps to books, ceramic ware to begging bowls, paintings and prints to glass and tiles — requiring much dutiful looking in the half-light of these gallery spaces, which seem to turn and twist back on themselves, labyrinthinely. How could it not be fascinating, given what the vaults of these two museums hold?
The East both charmed and threatened the West in about equal measure, and the movement of peoples back and forth between them was fairly fluid from about 1500 on. How we wished, back then, to understand what the Safavids and the Ottomans were up to, how they lived their lives, fought their wars, disported themselves!
Maps were made, pointy Ottoman helmets were taken as booty by soldiers, and tiles were copied from the Alhambra for houses in London. Awestruck pilgrims voyaged to see the Holy Land of their well-thumbed Bibles. A now near-forgotten American painter called Frederick Arthur Bridgeman painted himself as a devout turbaned Muslim in a painting called “The Prayer” (1877). He couldn’t have looked more devout if he had been scrupulously preparing himself for his own martyrdom. The painter John Frederick Lewis spent almost a decade in Cairo getting it all down for the boys back home, head swimming through a “hazy, lazy, tobaccoefied life,” as recounted by his friend, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. What fun it must have been.
The question is this though: does this exhibition dig quite deep enough, intellectually? No is the answer. It stays on the level of relatively appealing visual representation throughout: how the West painted the fabled East; how the East then reflected the West back at itself in its turn. Mirrors mirroring distorting mirrors. They were enthralled by each other, of course, the look, the costuming, the modes of self-parade.
The exhibition quickly seizes hold of the term Orientalism and never lets it go, from first to last, worrying at it, thrashing it about like a dog with a favorite bone. We know that Orientalism is a bad thing. Edward Said has taught us that. It is a way of misrepresenting, demeaning, reifying what you see, of creating fables out of real objects, real places, real people.
The West did that to the East, quite shamelessly. It barged in. It brought stuff from the souqs back to the studio by the sackful, mixing and mismatching props, restaging scenes of exotic places and people which were often not quite true enough. It saw what it chose to see, and what the armchair collectors wanted to see. The scenes were glamorous enough though. They were alluringly Other without a doubt.
The 19th century was absolutely rife with European Orientalists, as we recognize again and again in this show: landscapes rendered with a mystical degree of timeless indefinition, as if afloat on the air; snooped-upon religious practices of the utmost mysteriousness; a smooth-gliding calm and orderliness on every street corner; and, perhaps above all things else, the sight (half-glimpse?) of those Eastern women, beings of such transcendental sexual allure, with their smooth-fleshed, hourglass bodies, withdrawn behind their almost impermeable veils, deep inside their fiercely guarded harems.
The harems of course were impenetrable to Western visitors, and so the painters had to imagine what went on there. And they did, oh yes they did, with scarcely concealed priapic excitement: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and so many others.
There are many of these oriental pictures in this show, most of a fairly good quality and a relatively high degree of interest, but barely any is a masterpiece. We look, fairly quickly, and pass on. The parade of paintings in the end feels a bit like the far too scrupulous documentation of a theme too often reprised. And then it stops, in the 19th century, in France, at the point when photography emerges.
And we turn a corner, to the exhibition’s startlingly abrupt conclusion, which appears as if from nowhere: artworks by four females of the 21st century, all making powerful arguments about how women have been wrongly represented in the past.
“Who will make me real?” asks the Palestinian artist Raeda Saadeh in a photograph from 2003, in which the artist strikes an odalisque pose, clothed in an outfit made from Arabic-language newspapers. The passivity of women is blown away; the bright colors and nudity favored by the Western painters give way to the sobriety of monochrome. These women are no longer the mute, unstirring, helpless objects of desire.
We have leapfrogged an entire century to come to this. At last we are in the midst of the politics of now, the predicaments of our own day. But nothing else about the show had really prepared us for it. This little section feels merely flung down, quite abruptly, almost as an afterthought.
And the very fact that it has happened in this way reminds us, quite powerfully, quite joltingly, what else the exhibition leaves almost entirely unsaid about the complicated relationships between Islam and the West, and what a wasted opportunity it has proven to be,
An otherwise painstakingly interesting show, though never really much more than that, Inspired by the East promises so much yet delivers, in intellectual terms, so frustratingly little at the very moment when there’s so much crying out to be said in this world of thuggish prejudice and wanton ignorance.
Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, England) through January 26, 2020.