Tuesday, August 18, 2009

William Morris and Islamic Art

Journalist Navid Akhtar has taken an opportunity to examine the influence that Islamic design had on William Morris.

Akhtar argues that Morris' designs are "inextricably linked to the curving sinuous arabesques of traditional Islamic Art," pointing out the strong connection between Morris' work and Turkish ceramics and Persian carpets.

Akhtar goes on to argue that Morris was influenced, not only by the aesthetics of Islamic art, but by the principles that guided that art. He even suggests that Morris' famous decorating maxim "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,"--is drawn from a saying in the Koran that "God is beautiful and loves beauty".

While this might be a bit of a stretch, it's undeniable that Morris and many of his friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were strongly influenced by Islamic design elements (particularly the repetition and symmetry that can be found in many middle-eastern art). Akhter suggests that many of the notions that Morris held dear--such as the importance of social consciousness, usefulness and beauty in every day objects-- were also common to Islamic art.

I think it was very important to Morris that these ideals were universal, but it's also interesting to see that a new generation of Muslim artists using Morris as artistic inspiration. What are your thoughts?

You can listen to the full radio broadcast at the BBC.


Hermes said...

Although I think its true that they did look at and use elements of Islamic Art, I've always suspected that Celtic Art also influenced them. It has similar repetitive elements and the Celtic Revival was well under way in their period.

The Nightwatchman said...

'Bad artists borrow, Good artists steal'.

Every artist will look at some thing and make a decision to take an elemental that they have seen and then reuse it in their art. As Hermes points out with the Celtic Revival.

Evey artist will look back at some person who they 're-discover' and challenge the pervading traditions at the time. E.G. Manet looking at Spanish Painting.

I have seen it written that Islam religion could be seen as a reformed Christianity. Then Christianity a mixture of Judaism and Mithraism.

People and cultures will borrow things from each other and reinvent it. A good historical/mythological example is how many countries claim descent from the exiled Trojans, Roman, England and then this is carried through by using classical architecture to emphaise this link.

As Delacroix was a noted orientalist, did his work influence Morris or was it another pointer for him to look outside of the traditional Gothic and Classicism of his time.

Margaret said...

William Morris was strongly influenced by Medieval art, so it's not surprising that a lot of Islamic Art fascinated him, since it had kept alive many of the techniques that had since died off in the West. I did a post last year on the Historic Pottery at the Cluny Museum in France (http://www.theearthlyparadise.com/2008/05/historic-pottery-and-tiles-at-cluny.html), and you'll recall that a lot of the pottery was influenced by designs from the Middle East (the Cluny has a lot of pottery from 9th century Iran). Some of the design motifs were used frequently by Morris and Walter Crane.

That being said, of course Celtic revival very much influenced William Morris and the PRB. I think that, as Nightwatchman points out, the movement was eager to take inspiration where they could find it, and the east was just one source of ideas.

Thorsprincess said...

As you say, nearly all of medieval art is strongly influenced by the Crusades. Moorish architects and artisans were essential to the cathedral-building craze that peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Moors had been driven out of Spain, but they had lived and worked there many years, creating the architecture and art that flourished and spread throughout Europe. As you point out, the Cluny Musee is full of examples of Eastern art and influence. Many of the Romantics, like Delacroix and later Impressionists, whose work overlapped the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, became infused with interest in Islamic-influenced art. In fact, every time Europeans (especially France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire) came into conflict with Islamic regions, interest in their arts became noticeable in the works of Occidental artists. Later effects of so-called Orientalism in art were piqued by interaction and exchange of technique and subject matter with an artistic interest in learning from ancient and "exotic" sources.

This was not a new source. Persians borrowed from Egyptians, Greeks and Romans looted all the worlds they conquered for their best arts and artisans, while
Byzantine art shaped Western thought and art with Eastern influence that spread throughout the West. Traders like Marco Polo brought back the secrets and arts of China, while Arabian culture and religion were spread East and West by traders and warriors headed toward the Himalays and to Africa and the Mediterranean, reaching the Iberian peninsula, the Golden Horn, making inroads into the northern Barbarian lands and the Middle East.

Art and artisans followed, influenced, exchanged and transformed the West. Some exchange, particularly of ideas and scholarship, also occurred, but the West has benefited most evidently in learning from other cultures, learning to value, exploit, and absorb the contributions they encountered, like a giant culture-manufacturing behemoth.

The Romantics were interested in roots and romance. Orientalism was one popular contemporary source. They also sought out Medieval sources, which had been inspired by religious revival, Marian devotion, and the fertile streams of Islamic art, architecture, poetry, artisans and materials that had streamed into Medieval Europe as treasures of encounter and conquest.

If the East is only one source of Western art and ideas, it is mighty river that has coursed through and shaped European art for centuries. As students of history, and lovers of Medieval art, the Pre-Raphaelites revered Medieval art, and were obviously aware of its Islamic sources and imagery. They were as well influenced by contemporary interest in sources from the near East and especially the Moorish influences of the African coast.

I love this stuff. It makes me want to run back to France and head down the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail. I long to sit in one of those cloister gardens of Moorish design.

Tracy said...

I am no scholar, but I love art... So to be rather overly simplistic perhaps, I just think/notice that most everything seems to overlap somehow. One group, movement or culture looks to another for ideas and inspiration. For so long the West looked East, and in time the East looked West. In times past influences and insights were gained from other cultures. And we can all learn much from each other now. I like that. :o)

The Nightwatchman said...

Not sure, but I think T E Lawrence's PhD was on how the architecture of the middle east was brought back to Europe after the conquest of the Holy land in 11/12th century.

Hels said...

My understanding of the pre-Raphaelites and their circle was that they were trying to draw on the beauty and piety that was once Medieval Christendom.

Are there any examples of Morris' that are thought to be particularly Islamic in inspiration? Since all his work was small in size, repetitive in nature and beautiful in intent, I would like to compare Islamic-influenced images side by side with non-Islamic-influenced images.

Anonymous said...

we are very much aware of the influences of morris, but in reality we sometimes forget to pin point the deep sources of his designs.we talk about him as though he never had any influrnce and that most of his work was inspired by nature.
Simply put, there is nothing new under the sun.