When Europe hungered for ‘Arabesque’ art and decor

The Clark Art Institute traces 300 years of Islamic influence on European creativity

French artist Paul Elie Ranson's "Tiger in the Jungle," created in 1893.
French artist Paul Elie Ranson's "Tiger in the Jungle," created in 1893.Petegorsky / Gipe Photo/Williams College Museum of Art,

WILLIAMSTOWN — “Arabesque,” a new exhibition at the Clark Institute centered on the sinuous form and insidious influence of its titular subject, has a beginning and an end, but the middle is where things really get interesting.

In that central space, with deep azure walls and ogee-arched doorways typical of Islamic architecture, you’ll find a suite of lavish chromolithographs by the British architect Owen Jones. On an aesthetic-historic quest for knowledge, Jones spent chunks of 1834 and 1837 assiduously sketching the dazzling tile and woodwork found in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. (The sprawling palace complex was — and is — one of the best-preserved examples of ancient Islamic architecture in the world, a remnant of long-ago Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, which ended some five centuries ago.)


Owen Jones's close study of the Alhambra's intricate motifs was quickly appropriated by the decor industry into such things as block-printed lengths of satin.
Owen Jones's close study of the Alhambra's intricate motifs was quickly appropriated by the decor industry into such things as block-printed lengths of satin.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Morris and Louise Rosenthal Fund (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Morris and Louise Rosenthal Fund

A fastidious sort, Jones drew as much as he could with an obsessive’s devotion to detail — the drape of shadow across a wall of mosaic, the dizzyingly intricate Islamic forms and scripts he saw inscribed into the repetitive geometric patterns in the woodwork and marble. Years later, in 1856, Jones published “The Grammar of Ornament,” his exhaustive, hand-drawn study of the Islamic world’s visual language, featuring the same vibrant colors he had seen with his own eyes.

You could almost guess how much would be lost in translation, even before it was published. Almost instantly, Jones’s earnest effort to bridge culture and faith, geography and epoch was gobbled up by a decor industry increasingly enamored of exotica. And so, Jones’s reverence for the aesthetics of a long-ago Islamic kingdom became a toolkit, swiftly spawning wallpaper and sofa fabric, side tables and flower vases. The British, by then, were expert in eliding the irritations of context and cultural specificity — centuries of ruthlessly efficient colonialism taught them that much. The world was theirs for the taking, especially the bits they liked best.


That story isn’t the central thrust of “Arabesque," though I think it’s the most interesting part. The show is far more interested in the viral influence of a floral motif borrowed long before Jones started sketching. (His tale, in fact, elicits a disclaimer: “As history has shown, there are often issues of misunderstanding when one culture borrows the imagery and ideas of another,” reads a wall text near Jones’s work. “[W]e recognize the complexity of this topic and encourage visitors to consider both the works on display and the context of their creation.”)

That’s not to say “Arabesque” isn’t instructive. Curator Anne Leonard builds a seductive display: The first part, “Rococo to Romanticism,” gives us Gabriel Huquier’s “The Acrobat,” from 1735, a delicate tangle of foliage softly framing an idyllic family outing, and the four panels of Philipp Otto Runge’s 1807 “The Times of Day,” more rigid and spare, but verdant all the same.

Alphonse Marie Mucha's lithograph "Zodiaque (La Plume)" was created in 1896-97.
Alphonse Marie Mucha's lithograph "Zodiaque (La Plume)" was created in 1896-97.The Art Institute of Chicago (custom credit)/The Art Institute of Chicago

That introductory passage culminates with Eugen Napoleon Neureuther’s “Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty),” 1836, an engraving of curling floral overgrowth so crisp and detailed it unnerves. In the 18th century, the Arabesque was fully uncoupled from its Eastern origins, having been borrowed 200 years earlier during the Renaissance in Italy. As Leonard writes, artists of the day would have been surprised to hear the motif described as anything but European. For them, its fluid form simply meant freedom, with neither beginning nor end.


There’s something to the overlap of moments, from the high baroque to the romantic, that ties together neatly here. In the 18th century, the Arabesque form suited rococo’s opulence and intricacy. By the time of rapid industrial growth of the 19th century, romanticism — the spiritualization of nature, a leeriness of an urban, mechanized world — was ascendant. The naturalistic forms borrowed from the Arab world fit nicely with the ethos.

Alongside it, Britain’s colonial excursions had established an era of mass global trade. With it came a desire for exotic motifs from the empire’s faraway corners. That impulse ran parallel to the fast-growing field of anthropology and the desire to categorize and classify the various cultures now under the thumb of the West. Artists and architects like Jones ranged far afield, earnestly in search of knowledge. But their output was only surface skimmed and released into the sitting rooms and art studios of the petit bourgeouisie.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Divan Japonais" lithograph from 1893.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Divan Japonais" lithograph from 1893.Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago (custom credit)/Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

The exhibition’s third and final gallery, “Arabesque as a Design Principle,” spills right from the pages of Jones’s tome. You can see it in the cabaret posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and in the work of the Nabi group of painters, who were upfront about their inspirations. (“Nabi,” translated from Arabic, means “prophet,” though the Nabi paintings here are more pretty than prescient — Paul Ranson’s adorably snarling tiger, wreathed in foliage, or Maurice Denis’s “La Depeche de Toulouse,” complete with flower-and-vine decorated frame.) You can see “The Grammar of Ornament” in the wildly ornate calendar designs of Alphonse Mucha, wreathed as they are by luxuriant flora and sharp, clearly Arabic-inspired graphic motifs. The aesthetic seeded, if you’ll pardon the pun, Art Nouveau, of which Mucha was a celebrated practitioner. And so an ancient aesthetic emerged, scrubbed clean, into the thoroughly modern world.


But the last word comes from an unlikely source: Henri Matisse, whose “Pianist and Checker Players” hangs here as a kind of parting thought, all alone in a corridor. Every surface of the 1924 painting is alive with color and form: the red and white floral motif of the wallpaper, the ruddy tile floor, the flowering vines on the crimson rug underfoot. Matisse was a man of his time, but he could also see past it. Two years before he made the painting, the Ottoman Empire fell, collapsing a bridge between West and East that would help plunge Europe into deeper perils — fascism, authoritarian rule, a devastating world war. Matisse’s picture grasps at the harmony of the Arabesque motif, but it comes out ravishingly disjointed — overworked, more complicated than complex. It’s an anxious painting, stiff and nervy — a death rattle for a simpler time, where all was for the taking, and a sign of things to come.

Henri Matisse's "Pianist and Checker Players."
Henri Matisse's "Pianist and Checker Players."g-williams/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through March 22. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte