The British Museum show is a bold attempt to look at orientalist art as a cultural exchange that influenced paintings, ceramics, travel books and fashion. Our writer gauges its success
The British Museum’s new exhibition, Inspired By the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, attempts to present orientalist art as not only one where western artists traded in cliche, but also to show how portrayals of the east in the west were more than just racist pastiches. It attempts to present orientalist art as a sort of cultural exchange, rather than plunder, more of a long-term interaction between east and west that influenced not just paintings but also ceramics, travel books and watercolour illustrations of Ottoman fashion. It also presents orientalism as an effort to understand other cultures at a time when there was not much travel, and perhaps an idealised longing for a life in an Islamic world that had not yet been untethered from the familiar by industrialisation and secularisation.
The exhibition succeeds in achieving some of this. There is little here along the lines of The Snake Charmer, the painting famously used on the cover of the first edition of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which dominates discourse on the topic. In this tasteless depiction, a naked snake-charmer draped in a python entertained turbaned, cloaked men sitting on the ground. There is a mix of the dramatic romanticism of the early orientalists and the more iconoclastic realism of daily life, albeit still restricted broadly to the settings of the bazaar or the street throng.