Orientalism in Islamic Art

by Brett Levine

Orientalism is the historic term for the study of Middle Eastern cultures, religion, art and architecture. It originated in the indiscriminate aggregation of all civilizations encountered by Western cultures as they colonized the East. Orientalism initially represented a romanticized interpretation of Eastern cultures. This narrow framework for considering Islamic art has been discarded for a more complex understanding and interpretation of Islamic art in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Romanticizing the Orient

Depictions of the Orient as a romantic and alluring place were prevalent as early as the Renaissance. Italian artists, including Bellini and Rembrandt, painted figures in Oriental dress. After the French expansion and colonization of countries to the east, painters, including Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix, began appropriating the Orient and its artistic motifs while depicting it as either a place of extreme eroticism, through the idea of the harem, or as a place of extreme violence through works such as "Massacre at Chios." The combination of eroticizing the Orient while fetishizing the female form came to an apex in Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' "The Turkish Bath," which now hangs in the Louvre Museum, in Paris.

Oriental or Islamic

One of the most significant challenges for Islamic art is that it has generally been subsumed into the Western theoretical generalization of Orientalism. This problem is further complicated by the tendency to use the term Islamic to refer to the religion, while leaving no other term to describe the cultural breadth of Muslim societies. The British Museum has outlined a framework for defining Islamic art. This framework includes being from a region where the predominant religion is Islam; Arabic calligraphy having a preeminent role; a predominance of geometric and arabesque patterns; and the absence of figurative imagery in religious contexts.

Orientalist to Islamic

In 1978, the Palestinian-American literary scholar and academic Edward Said published "Orientalism," a sustained critique of the previous scholarly and academic constructions of the "imaginary Orient." Said remarked that the Orient and the Occident were ideas that had individual traditions, histories and realities. Said's work sparked a reconsideration of the idea of a "monolithic Islam" that shared religious, cultural and spiritual values. Instead, the West's unification of the Islamic world was replaced with diversity of both geography and iconography, leaving "the arts of Islam" as a possible replacement for the blanket generalization of Islamic art.

New Interpretations

The shift from the exoticism of Orientalism to a complex understanding of the diversity of Islamic Art can be experienced in a physical manifestation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of eight years, from 2003 to 2011, the museum changed its former Islamic art galleries to galleries of the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. This marks a shift from an interpretation of art that hinges upon a shared religion, Islam, to an understanding of the diverse historical, religious, geographic and cultural variations that influenced the arts of each of the identified regions. Through this seemingly simple act of renaming and reinterpreting the arts of what is thought of as the Islamic world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art consciously shifted the thinking around the arts of the region, further distancing its creative interpretations from the historically unifying and fetishizing identifier of Orientalism.

About the Author

Brett Levine is a writer with more than 17 years of experience writing for a range of national and international publications. His articles have appeared in "Art Papers," "B-Metro," "Alabama" magazine, "Object," "Urbis" and "RealTime." He holds a Master of Arts in arts administration.

Photo Credits

  • Sean Gallup/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images