There is a show at the British Museum right now called Inspired by the East, the Influence of Islamic Art. It is the kind of show that the British Museum does really well, an overview of something from history or art, giving you the context of how it was produced and what effect it has. You get the obvious direct influences, high Victorian Western images of the Arabic world like the above, but also other inspired pieces such as the tiles of one of my favourite artists, William De Morgan.
One example I really did like was this watercolour of a woman in veil and headdress (above right). It is a very striking composition, with that pyramid of red. I like her pose as well, and the general composition reminds me of a sci-fi, postapocalyptic character. I really like it when you find images that feel very contemporary in historic art. I find myself wondering about the person depicted.
Got to have Islamic militaria. You get two helmets and a sword. I really like the helmets, both of them inscribed with intricate patterns on them. The shapes of the helmets really appeal to me, but what grabbed my attention (but was frustratingly unexplained) was the little chimney shape on the above left helmet. What the hell is that for? Presumably for holding some kind of plume. In addition, very interesting to see something different, that hanging decorative item is in fact a begging bowl. It is made of Coco-da-mer, a kind of nut. Don't google it, there is a sex shop of the same name. Again, there are wonderful Islamic writing and designs inscribed around the outside. I always like seeing things like this. To counterpoint this, in a display just near it were Western and modern pottery, and tableware that uses these designs and elements. The glassware was particularly attractive.
The Alhambra has long been on my list of places to visit and this rekindled my desire. I want to wander through those tiled halls. It directly inspired Lord Leighton, who had part of his house built to reflect its grandeur. You can see it, it’s call Leighton House in Kensington High Street and is well worth a visit. Underneath is its inspiration: designs for the room and the detail you can see in said room.
There was one actual carpet (above) and it is beautiful. A rich red with intricate detail of people bopping around in various ways. It is difficult to imagine this being walked on or even on the floor, so it may be that it was hung on a wall. I spent some time peering through its finely wrought details.
One of the things that occurred to me while wandering round this show was that there were lots of depictions of men at prayer or otherwise engaging in acts of faith, but I never saw one of an Islamic woman; then I rounded the corner and saw that someone else had realised this, over 150 years ago.
The painting is above left. The artist in question was Osman Hamdi Bay, who was described as the most Parisian of Ottomans and the most Ottoman of Parisians. A strange accolade but there you go. The painting itself is superb. The colour contrast is excellent, the way the woman pops out of the background. Then, the intricacy of the background, the lattice over the window, the turquoise of the tiles and the mother of pearl on the table. It’s lovely and I think Bay is a new favourite of mine.
There are also some excellent modern takes on some of the classics. There is the woman above right; she references a nude, but instead she is covered in newspaper. Sadly I have failed to note both her name and the name of the painting, but it is a very striking image and I liked it very much. Similarly, there is a classic etching called the Harem of the Seigneur. The last exhibit in the show was a projected version of that picture with moving figures, castigating and criticising the original. It was done very well I thought.
A show worth seeing and I really enjoyed it.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.