An Orientalising Experience through Time

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As part of my teaching here at INTI Center of Art and Design (ICAD), Subang for the History of Art and Design subject, it is routinely to visit a place of the arts and to explore and experience the arts using the sense of seeing to be able to analyze, describe and interpret the art that the students view. Interestingly, for this time around, the visit was directed to the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, located in the very heart of KL to view their featured exhibition titled Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?

Ms Khadijah giving an overview explanation to the Foundation in Design students on the western influences that makes the Orientalist Art Period

Personally, the Orientalist Art Period is one that is very foreign to me and at a single glance, I would have just shoved it under it root topic of Islamic Arts and Architecture. That being said, I was enamored by the vivid colours and intricate details each of the paintings depicted and truth be told, it was something rather foreign as traditionally, there are no human figures depicted in Islamic arts. The exhibition that features a collection of paintings by European artists who were fascinated by the exoticism and mystique of the Middle East and Northern Africa showcase great passion in its depiction of people, landscapes and architecture of the Orient. Each stroke and every chisel was taken into great care to creating a visual representation of the cultures and the traditions of the region.

A comparison of paintings: (Left)The Coffee Service (gouache on paper laid on a panel, year unknown); (Right) Girl with the Pearl Earring (oil on canvas, 1665). Johannes Vermeer. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Holland

Among its vast collection was Carl Haag’s The Coffee Service, which truly captured my attention as it shared a close similarity to the infamous Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. A single glance the visual compositing is uncanny as we would notice the model wears an alluring smile while sporting a scarf headwear. Nevertheless, both subjects prominently display the earrings. Taking into observation of both paintings, you can not deny the mastery at capturing the human expression and the distribution of light in the composition. Though respective of their styles, it is wonderful to note the intriguing visual contrast between the Dutch Golden Age painting and Orientalist art as both paintings do capture the delicate features of the subject. Viewers are instinctively drawn to the girl’s gaze and the brightly-lit earring. Additionally, extra attention to details are given, particularly in the texture of the fabric and in capturing the human expression hence creating a personal connection with the viewer. Clearly, though separated by time, these masterpieces demonstrates richness and diversity of creative expression and visual observance.

Moving onwards, students were introduced some elements you would see in Orientalist architecture as its exotic influences comes from various architectural styles, namely, Islamic, Persian, Mughal and Arabesque motifs.

Orientalist Architecture

Orientalist architecture, also known as Neo-Moorish or Indo-Saracenic architecture refers to a style that emerged in the 19th century in and around Europe and America. Its a style that was inspired by Eastern or “oriental” architectural traditions. This is a period marked by exploration, colonialism and cross-cultural encounters.

Architectures were diverse in style and were seen to incorporate elements like Gothic revival, Renaissance and Baroque influences. Materials of choice also included brick, stone, stucco, and tiles.
These intricate tile patterns were often seen in wall coverings, floorings and decorative elements as they contributed to the overall charm of Orientalist culture. Designs often sported in geometric with floral and vegetal motif with a vibrant colour palette – cobalt blue, turquoise, emerald green and deep red.

Aside from their special exhibition, the Islamic Art Museum Malaysia houses an amazing collection of stunning architecture models that blends traditional Islamic elements with contemporary design. From calligraphy to ceramics, textiles to metalwork, the museum prides in her diverse collection of artistic masterpieces that heralds from around the Muslim world through the ages. Amidst all this lies the ceramics and pottery section that is a personal favorite. The vibrant colours and delicate designs that are handcrafted finely, never fails to take my breath away. The beautiful blue and white tiles of Iznik and the intricate floral patterns of Persian pottery embodies the artist’s deep appreciation for nature and the unwavering dedication to perfection.

Overall, the visit to the Museum was an enriching experience as it allowed students to delve into the glorious world of Islamic art, architecture and culture and introduces them to the power of art and its ability to bridge cultural divides while fostering a basic understand and appreciation for History of Art and Design for their course. On that account, the on-going special exhibition is must as it will take you on a captivating journey through time and a chance to reflect on the unique perspective that conjoins Western and Eastern influences into the very art and traditions of the Islamic world.

Osman Hamdi Bey’s ‘Young Woman Reading’ (oil on canvas, 1880), which is part of the ‘Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage?’ exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?

2 June to 15 October 2023
9:30am to 6:00pm daily

Only at IAMM, KL

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