B ritain’s new monarch is well known for his engagement in Islamic art and culture. There has perhaps not been this level of interest since the days of King Charles III’s great-great-great-grandparents. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fascinated by the world in general, including what was then known as the ‘Orient’. They collected accordingly, and on at least one occasion competed with each other for the same work of art. This was the case with a pair of bronze sculptures by the most admired ethnographic artist of the time, Charles Cordier. His African Venus and Saïd Abdullah of Darfur were entirely in the Orientalist tradition. After the Queen gave them to the Prince Consort as a Christmas present in 1852, the two heroic-looking Africans were displayed in the family-only wing of Osborne House. They are now at the entrance of the Durbar Hall in the same house.
A different Cordier sculpture, Arab Sheikh of Cairo, is in the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. The silvered-bronze bust is not, however, in the catalogue of the museum’s large collection of Orientalist art. This massive new publication is reserved for paintings and other works on canvas, paper, card and wood panel. The title gives a clue to the collection’s raison d’être: Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?
The book is a successor to the joint exhibition between the IAMM and the British Museum, held in 2019-20. Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced Western art included around 40 Orientalist paintings from the IAMM collection. The new volume is twice the size and features more than 300 works. Hot off the press, it represents a counter-claim to ownership of the once neutral word ‘Orientalist’. Were these paintings at best a smokescreen and at worst something more perfidious than Albion could manage by itself — an unlikely coalition of the entire Western world against the ‘East’? Or was this simply art that satisfied 19th-century curiosity about the recently accessible world on Europe’s doorstep? The IAMM collection contains much more of the latter, shaped by the same meeting of cultures that is visible throughout the museum in Kuala Lumpur.
Visitors from many parts of the planet still seek out Islamic art and aesthetics, travelling huge distances to do so. Back in the 19th century there were countless armchair enthusiasts eager for scenes of the Middle East and North Africa in a time of transition. Collecting of this field has gone through a renaissance in the past few decades, with much of the interest coming from the old Orient. The leading auction houses have been vital to encouraging awareness. Although Orientalist paintings have tended to have their own dedicated sales, it’s always worth seeing them in close proximity to views of Europe from the same era. If Postcolonialist critics viewed these more often, they would understand why Victorian artists relished the prospect of easterly vistas.
The IAMM is a pioneer among institutions in the Islamic world reclaiming a heritage that has long been about relations between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Part of this exchange is the conviction that an Orientalist painting is more than a work of art; it is also an insight into other people, places and products. For the IAMM, the collection is about what the artists might have seen, rather than what they never could. As a riposte to recurring accusations of misogyny in Orientalist art, women feature prominently in the collection – as artists and not just as subjects.
The new book challenges many preconceptions. Although the Islamic world extends much further than the Middle East and North Africa, this was the region that artists could visit. Their impressions are from a time when travel to the Orient had become possible, albeit uncomfortable, hazardous and expensive. Some journeyed further. Sadly for our museum and for the posterity of Southeast Asia, very few professional painters from the Occident made it to what is now called Malaysia, or to the world’s most populous Muslim nation: Indonesia.
Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? is an exploration of the grey area of representational authenticity. It’s a useful approach for a museum that is about to celebrate its silver anniversary as a custodian of Islamic art. The more recent painting collection is a valuable follow-up for examining how outsiders to Muslim cultures interpreted what they saw. Occasionally, the response was conversion to Islam. Those who never visited the Orient were at least acquainted with the material culture.
Rather than being dictated by the artists, the book is divided into themes that follow the painters’ different creative callings. Some of them specialised in market scenes, others in architecture, and a few wouldn’t tolerate a composition without camels. What is not on view in this book is harem scenes, other than impressions by those artists who had experienced or understood the tame reality of a pervasive fantasy. Readers who would gladly never again hear the phrase ‘Orientalist male gaze’ should be consoled by Queen Victoria. The film Victoria & Abdul was substantially accurate. The Queen-Empress seems to have had no prejudices against men from the Orient and was captivated by the last Sikh Maharaja, Duleep Singh: “extremely handsome… those eyes and teeth are too beautiful.” She had his portrait painted by Franz Winterhalter, a leading recorder of the beau mode.
The last word should go to Queen Victoria’s favourite French Orientalist sculptor, Cordier. Far from seeking out ugliness and deprivation on his visits to the Orient, he came back with some highly progressive ideas for the time.
“Beauty is not the attribute of just one privileged race, I have promoted throughout the artistic world the ubiquity of beauty,” he declared at a conference of ethnographers. It can’t be said that the academic response was as encouraging as from the artists and collectors of the time. Long live royal art patrons!
Oriental Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?
Published by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, September 2022
Authors: Lucien de Guise, Edhem Eldem, Mary Kelly, Alia Nour