A freely evolving artistic line: Clark Art Institute exhibit looks at the influence of arabesque

  • “Divan Japonais,” 1893 color lithograph by Henri deToulouse-Latrec. From the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.

  • Table of vellum, hammered copper, pewter, walnut and ebonized beechwood by Carlo Bugatti, circa late 1890s. From the Art Institute of Chicago. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Tiger in the Jungle,” color lithograph by Paul Elie Ranson, 1893. From Williams College Museum of Art. Image by Petegorsky/Gipe; courtesy Clark Art Insitute

  • “La Dépêche de Toulouse,” oil on canvas by Maurice Denis, 1892. From the Detroit Institute of Arts. Image by Bridgeman Images/courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Mosque Lamp,” enameled, gilded and applied glass by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, circa 1880. From Clark Art Insitute. Image courtesy Clark Institute of Art

  • “Pianist and Checker Players,” oil on canvas by Henri Matisse, 1924. From the National Gallery of Art.  Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “The Peacock Shirt,” line block printing by Aubrey Beardsley, 1907. From the Princeton University Art Museum.  Image by Emile Askey/courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty),” etching on steel by Eugen Napoleon Neureuther, 1836. From the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Tim Tiebout/courtesy Clark Art Institute

  • “JOB,” color silkscreen on paper by Alphonse Mucha, 1896. From the Williams College Museum of Art. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute 

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2020

For much of the last 40 years, there has been frequent discussion about the deep divide between the Islamic and Western worlds, particularly how people in each view their counterparts. And tensions between the two of course go back centuries, to the time of the Crusades and the battles fought between Christians and Muslims for control of Jerusalem and other sacred sites in the Mideast.

But art has long proved a more promising place for cross-cultural exchange. Case in point: “Arabesque,” a new exhibit at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, examines how the arabesque — the curving, sinuous ornamental motif that dates back to antiquity and first appeared in the Islamic world as a form of sacred writing — became a fundamental compositional element in the work of many 19th-century European artists.

As curator Anne Leonard notes, some European artists had made use of arabesque before 1800, though primarily as a decorative item, such as ornamentation on the edges of an illustration for a book or as part of the design for wallpaper or textiles. But beginning with a number of German Romantic-era artists of the early 1800s, those sinuous lines steadily became a more central component of some artists’ work, such as that of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the French painter and printmaker of the 1880s and 1890s.

“Arabesque became not just a cross-cultural motif but a cross-artistic one,” said Leonard, the Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark, during a recent tour of the exhibit. In 19th-century Europe, she added, arabesque “became an important means for experimentation not just in the visual arts but in music and literature and even in dance.”

She notes, for instance, that the term came to be used for the ballet position in which a dancer stands on one leg, with the other extended behind her parallel to the floor and her arms extended outward. The term arabesque itself is a French word derived from the Italian arabesco, meaning “in the Arabic style.”

“Arabesque,” which runs through March 22, includes 45 works — prints, paintings, etchings, photographs and more — drawn from the Clark’s collection and a number of other museums, including the Williams College Museum of Art. Arranged chronologically, the exhibit reveals how the use of arabesque in European art really accelerated after the British architect and writer Owen Jones visited the famous Moorish palace, Alhambra, in southern Spain in the 1830s and published a book of drawings of the intricate artwork and design of the structure.

That, and another book Jones published on Islamic art designs, “The Grammar of Ornament,” became “really important source books for European artists,” said Leonard. “They created a lot of interest in making objects built around these kinds of patterns, things that could be used for interior decorations.”

The exhibit includes colorful panels from both of Jones’ books and other examples of some of this art, such as the “Mosque Lamp” designed by Philippe-Joseph Brocard of France in 1880 and a small table, circa late 1890s, by Italy’s Carlo Bugatti, a noted Art Nouveau designer and decorator.

A sinuous fairy tale

But arabesque first began making more creative inroads in European art in the early 1800s, thanks to a number of German artists, such as Philipp Otto Runge and Peter Von Cornelius. The latter contributed a number of arabesque-inspired engravings to illustrate an edition of the play “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who according to exhibit notes overcame his initial reservations about the design to become a big admirer of Cornelius’ work.

But it might have been Eugen Napoleon Neureuther who really made the case for arabesque, again as part of literary works or in celebration of them. One of the highlights of the exhibit is his elaborate — one might say obsessive — 1836 etching “Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty),” in which dense, swirling vines and other foliage seem to burst from the edges of the work. Entwined in that foliage are suitors who have tried and failed to enter Sleeping Beauty’s castle to wake her; at the bottom of the engraving, the entire text from the story is written on what appears to be a wall.

Neureuther’s innovations with arabesque “knew practically no bounds,” Leonard writes in an accompanying catalog. The artist created designs for an album of Goethe’s ballads and romances, she notes, in which his “so-called border illustrations … were anything but that. Fast overgrowing the borders, like kudzu in a garden, the profuse decorations creep well into the text areas of the page, sometimes even taking them over.”

Yet it was in the latter part of the 19th century that arabesque blossomed more fully as a central design element, with artists letting “the sheer energy of the arabesque line lead where it would,” as exhibit notes put it. Much of that can be seen especially in the colorful lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec and Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who incorporated flowing and curving lines in posters for popular cabarets and products of the day.

For instance, Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Divan Japonais” lithograph from 1893 — an advertisement for a Paris club — includes a curving portrait of the famous can-can dancer Jane Avril in the audience, grasping the hand of an unseen person. All around her are other sinuous motifs: the back of her chair, the cane and top hat of an elderly gentleman next to Avril, the headstocks of two basses in the orchestra pit.

And in an 1898 poster he designed for a company that sold cigarette rolling paper, Mucha depicted a woman with flowing hair that fills half the frame — this at a time when women never appeared in public with their hair undone — as she luxuriates in smoking a cigarette, the smoke from which creates a swirling counterpart to her hair. Given women weren’t supposed to smoke in public in those days, either, the overall image represents a sort of a double taboo, according to exhibit notes.

The exhibit concludes with a 1924 painting by Henri Matisse, “Pianist and Checker Players,” a bit outside the time frame of the show but noteworthy because it offers a “synthesis,” as Leonard writes in the catalog, of different art forms based around arabesque. The painting, of a parlor in which a woman plays a piano and two boys play checkers at a small table, is full of arabesque motifs — in a rug design, the room’s wallpaper, a curving statue — while the musical theme is also celebrated through two violins hung on the wall.

“As a symbol of imaginative freedom,” Leonard writes, “[arabesque] remains unrivaled.

“Arabesque” is on view at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through March 22. For more information, visit clarkart.edu.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.