Inspired by the East

I visited this exhibition at the British Museum, it had received mixed reviews, Jonathan Jones in the Guardian gave it 5 stars, but others were much less generous. I went with an open mind to see how relevant it may be to my study of Japonisme.

It made me think much more widely of the topic of Orientalism. The exhibition acknowledged the comments of those such as Edward Said that Orientalism was mainly a Western construct to continue the colonial attitude and actions of the West towards eastern civilisations. It also had some interesting exhibits of ways in which eastern art had influenced the west, whether through subtle influence or overt appropriation.

One such influence was on the design and patterns used in tiles. The exhibition displayed alongside each other tiles produced in the Ottoman empire and in the West – the influence (copying even) of the eastern work being effectively displayed. This was also true of ceramics produced in East and West.

The exhibition confronted the type of Orientalist painting that Said stated upheld the colonial subjugation of eastern countries. Paintings such as The Snake Charmer by Ettore Simonetti were displayed with the gallery notes making clear that many of the artists had never visited the area or knew much about the subject, merely reinforcing existing stereotypes by using second hand descriptions and tales to produce images that portrayed indigenous people as being lazy with little or no sense of responsibility.

This was particularly true of images of the harem, which western artists would never have been admitted to, nevertheless they produced detailed images based on little more than their own fertile imaginations. The gallery notes explain that even though he had never visited the Middle East or North Africa, Ingres “regularly portrayed harems and odalisques. Placing nude women in such interiors made the images acceptable to polite European and North American society, which would otherwise have viewed them as obscene”.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition was contemporary artists response to orientalist paintings. Raeda Saadeh took the Odalisque image and reimagined it for the present day.

Inci Eviner used Antoine-Ignace Melling’s 1819 design for a harem to produce a video which questioned the way in which western audiences view eastern images.

Overall the exhibition widened my appreciation of Orientalism, it illustrated the concept of colonial subjugation and how this manifested itself in some paintings. But it also acknowledged the influence of eastern art forms on the west, more so in terms of design and particularly ceramics.

The exhibition attempted to give a balanced view of Oriental influence on he west, it acknowledged the colonial stereotypes presented by some painters, with the gallery notes stating “Most artists resorted to their imaginations, using the backdrop of the harem as an excuse to paint nude women. This invasive approach was, in many ways, a metaphor for the Orientalist approach to the region”.

This will inform my study of Japonisme in considering whether it is a case of influence, appropriation or western imperialism (or a combination of any two or more of those).