Inspired by the East: Considering the relationship between East and West in the British Museum’s exhibition on Orientalism.

Paramvir Singh Khera 28 January 2020
Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928), The Prayer. Oil on Canvas, 1877.

 

Objective, dispassionate open-mindedness is often impossible. Attempts to acquire knowledge or to reason towards judgements are not undertaken in a vacuum. Historical and contemporary context is particularly inescapable in relation to questions about Eastern influences on Western culture. Discussion is often warped by viewpoints that seem irreconcilable, perceptions originating from opposite ends of the colonial lens. But Frederick Arthur Bridgman’s ‘The Prayer’, the first artwork exhibited in this exhibition, wipes the slate clean and sets a remarkable tone. An elderly man stands on a prayer mat, eyes fixed upwards, palms uplifted. The depiction possesses a gravity that demands the respect of the viewer. From the evocative and authentic details around the man’s feet, the shoes placed with soles together to avoid sullying the intricate prayer mat, the variety of objects inserted into the scene that were actually collected by Bridgman in his travels, the eye soars heavenwards through the pristine white cloak and turban. The man is somehow divinely illuminated against the stately, dark, high-vaulted and decidedly temporal background. This is an artwork full of spiritual reverence and rich with cultural appreciation: it is no mere fetishisation.

This seemed to me to be the key recurring theme. The portrayal of an Islamic world full of wonder and mystery thrills and lays bare its uncomfortable juxtaposition with the vacuity of current Western perceptions towards the same regions. The most stirring paintings in the exhibition are those that concern themselves most heavily with the spiritual. Perhaps the image of Oriental man at prayer best reconciles those varied elements of Eastern culture that seemed most attractive to the West: a solemn, mystical way of life, alien and exciting to European aristocracy, married with an abundance of colour, craft, and wealth that managed to amaze, romanticise, and reassure all at once. There is, however, a vibrancy and energy in pieces such as ‘The Great Umayyad Mosque’ by Carl Wuttke that also appreciates spirituality as the backdrop to everyday life, a great motivator and a great humanising influence.

Carl Wuttke (1849–1927), The Great Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Oil on canvas, 1913.

 

And there is a symbiosis present in the collection. Neither did the paintings seem to me to be consistent with the view of an arrogant European attitude towards the culture of the Islamic world based on racist pastiche, nor even entirely with the implication of the exhibition title, that the Orientalist movement in the West owed a cultural debt to the East for exclusively profiting from the exchange. As fascinating as the depictions of the East in a Western style, which obviously is the mode of cultural transfer that is easiest on the Western eye, were the depictions of the West in Eastern style. Paintings of ambassadors and other early European travellers in the Persian style show a similar fascination and inspiration, less interesting to a Western observer only because of his familiarity with the subject matter. Indeed, in the 19th and 20th centuries there is an increasing propensity for Islamic artists to adopt Western techniques, especially photography once it emerged as a viable medium. How one can reconcile this fertile arrangement in the arts with the social, economic and political brutality of colonialism I do not know – perhaps artists lack a conquering instinct.

The weakest part of exhibition was the finale, a very stunted series of contemporary works attempting to “invert the theme” of Orientalism. What is fascinating about Orientalism, the cultural exchange that it signifies and explores, is completely absent from this section. The few pieces that are presented, a photograph of an artist covered in newspapers, for example, provide only the cheap thrill of shock and say little. A twist in the tale could have expanded on the continuation of these themes, even exploring the profusion of contemporary religious art from the East. In the end it was no more than a simple nod to the fact that modern art exists.

What the final section gets wrong, the rest of the exhibition gets right. The bracing cold water of Bridgman that is so brilliantly thrown at the unwitting visitor upon arrival really does provide clarity. An inoffensive interpretation of Orientalism, indeed the entire idea of a relationship between East and West not rooted in plunder and brutality can seem inconceivable, especially to someone brought up in the shadow of a colonial history. But it is possible, if in nothing else then in the pigments, the figures and the scenes that adorn our canvasses. This exhibition provides precedent, that such a collaboration can produce remarkable beauty in art, and provides inspiration, that the West can and must strike this relationship with the East once more.