April 28 – September 3, 2017
Exoticism is a provocative term in the world of art history. By its very definition, the word indicates that the work of art it describes is “different” or “other” than what is considered normal.
When trade routes began to open up to the Middle East and Asia during the 16th century, the awareness of the exotic areas of the world that most Westerners had never seen became an enticing idea to many. Exoticism became a 19th and 20th century trend in art and design that stemmed from an over-simplified fantasy of Westerners perceptions. Although Africa, the Middle East and Asia were erroneously considered more primitive at the time, they were simultaneously admired for being quaint and uncorrupted by industrial capitalism. Many Westerners believed that industrialization had made the design and architecture of Europe too utilitarian, and they were drawn to the beauty and aesthetic superiority of non-Western art, culture, and design. They found these “newly discovered” parts of the world quite fascinating. Interest in archaeological findings in Egypt and other areas of the Middle East helped to create a phenomenon that cultural historians now refer to as Egyptomania. The emphasis of geometric designs in Islamic art helped to influence home interiors of the 19th century, and the fine and decorative arts of China and Japan left major impacts on European and American decorative arts throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
While Exoticism can certainly be seen as an important trend in art and design, the trend’s place in the overall history of the time period must also be considered. Exoticism’s popularity was a product of Western exploration, but also of Western imperialism and dominance. The interpretations of these “exotic” cultures in paintings, reproductions of arts and crafts, and performance pieces were frequently manipulated for European audiences for maximum effect and consumption. These manipulated interpretations were often hurtful to these beautiful cultures that Westerners so revered.