Sultan Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini (Wikimedia)

Western art's debt to the Islamic world

The discipline of art history is slowly recognizing the Arab influence on European art


Noah Charney
December 10, 2017 7:00PM (UTC)

The history of European art loves to demonstrate its influence. This is even the case when, aesthetically, such a claim looks like a stretch -- for example, Abstract Expressionism, as strikingly different as it looks from the traditional, academic painting of Europe, could never have existed without reacting against something. Thus Renaissance Europe led to Abstract Expressionism! There is an element of colonialism to this: that Europe is the greatest, that others recognize this and learn what they can from it. That’s a chauvinistic view, though one that can be argued reasonably, at least in certain fields of art. In truth, art moves in waves — however great the art of Florence was from the 14th to the 16th centuries, starting around 1560 or so there was a pretty steep drop-off, with my own beloved Giorgio Vasari the pick of the litter (and, I’m the first to admit, a step down from the top league, in painting, if not in architecture). And 17th-century Florence is pretty grim, the odd Carlo Dolci aside. Historians and students have to fight an uphill battle against centuries of Eurocentrism to appreciate, or even be exposed to, art from other parts of the world, beyond the field's obsession with Europe (with the addition of the post-World War I U.S. scene).

What about influence floating in the other direction? There is plenty of evidence for it, but it tends to be overlooked. What the artists of the court of Sultan Mehmed II learned from Gentile Bellini, who was sent there from the Venetian Republic as a sort of diplomatic gift, in order to paint some court portraits (and likely do a bit of spying on the side), has been of greater interest to art historians (admittedly, most art historians are European or Europe-based) than what Bellini learned from his time in Istanbul. We recognize the influence of Oceanic and African art on Picasso, of Japanese prints on the Impressionists and on Van Gogh (who made a painting that is a direct homage to Japanese prints) and on Manet, who features Japanese art in the background of some of his paintings. Most critics tend to explain this with a Eurocentric paternalism — these were periodic dips by European artists into foreign waters. But a stronger, richer relationship, more nuanced and bilateral, can be argued, and is surely nearer the truth.

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It took a long time to admit this. It was only in 2011 that German art historian Hans Belting shook things up with his book "Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science," which is already been admitted into the pantheon of influential art history books. He himself described it as a “daring undertaking,” to be so brazen as to consider that Renaissance art of Europe, especially of the sacred cow called Florence, could have be influenced by Arabs. For so many centuries Europeans have liked to think of Arabs as barbarians, enemies, iconoclasts, that this can still feel shocking today. But that is a legacy of religious issues, far more than of cultural heritage. The other objection is that Islamic and Jewish art is, by law, non-formal. It should remain abstract, geometric, botanical. Ironically, this comes down to divergent interpretations of the exact same law from the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Or, to quote in full, because it’s easy to misinterpret otherwise:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.

This was interpreted by Muslims and Jews as a strict and very clear law against formal imagery, especially religious — in neither religion is it permitted to depict God. But it couldn’t be much clearer, could it? No images of anything in heaven, on earth or in the water. Period. (And I love how God is totally open about being of a jealous disposition.) Despite the truly overt clarity of this, the Second Commandment, Christians chose to interpret it in a completely different way: That one should not make false idols, like the Golden Calf, but that anything else was cool.

Given the Western preference for formal art over abstract, until the 20th century, and the sense prior to that that abstract, geometric or floral art was more decorative, more like wallpaper, than something great or canonical, it is easier to understand the sidelining of Arab art. But one cannot sideline Arab science, as Arab scientists were infinitely farther ahead of their European counterparts, by many centuries. And so Belting’s book looks both at formal influences between Florence and Arab Baghdad, but also theoretical ones, hence the subtitle. One of his key arguments is that the invention of artistic perspective, which was the great leap forward of Renaissance Italy — single vanishing point perspective, that transposed onto two-dimensional painting the illusion that the viewer was looking at a three-dimensional scene — was only feasible thanks to Arab science and the study of optics.

He also speaks of “symbolic form,” as in a vocabulary of visual symbols that are used to represent, and explain, the world around us. Christian symbols were formal: Crossed keys represent Saint Peter, for example, although they also included abstractions. A long vertical line intersected by a shorter horizontal line, in the shape of a letter “t” has come to represent all of Christianity, through a complex route: It is the cross on which Jesus died, Jesus died to reverse Original Sin, which was the fault of Eve compelling Adam to take the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden, and the religion called Christianity was developed by Saint Paul after Christ’s death, because Christ and his followers, all observant Jews, genuinely thought that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and therefore could not die, and so were unpleasantly surprised when he did; this required an alternate interpretation of the situation, and hence Saint Paul’s concept of an intentionally suffering savior who, in dying, saves us all. All that in a pair of crossed lines, as abstract a symbol as you can get.

Today, when abstract or minimalist art is considered just as great as formal art, and with the recognition that the West’s historical Occidental-centricity is not acceptable, but rather too narrow and biased a world view, it is easier for us to considered cross-pollination. But it is slow to sink in. Americans felt a smug enjoyment of the popularity of Coca-Cola or McDonald's in Russia, or how someone in Kazakhstan might “Netflix and chill.” We borrow cultural touchstones from elsewhere — Japan has, in recent decades, passed onto us much of its culture of technology and graphic novels and films, for instance — but there is still an unfortunate disdain for the Arab world, the mistaken thought that it is somehow “culture-less,” or at least that its cultural heyday was so long ago as to no longer count. But this remains, as it did a millennium ago, more an issue of clashing religions, or rather values that trickle down from clashing religions, than anything objective about the value of the arts and cultures themselves.


Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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