Peacocks, Dragons and Winged Lions: The fantastic bestiary of Oriental art, its circulations & reinventions in Europe (18th-20th c.)

Country: France

City: Inha

Abstr. due: 15.09.2019

Dates: 27.03.20 — 28.03.20

Area Of Sciences: History and archeology; Arts;

Organizing comittee e-mail:

Organizers: CNRS / INHA (Paris)


With the golden age of Orientalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, many decorative motifs of the Orient started infiltrating European art and culture. The pattern books and dictionaries of ornaments published in the wake of Owen Jones’s pioneering Grammar of Ornament (1856) mostly favoured abstract motifs, like the purely geometrical or highly stylised motifs of Islamic art; however, figurative motifs, and particularly those featuring animals (as also happens in Islamic art) also fired collective imagination and were subjected to numerous appropriations, reinterpretations or variations—sometimes entirely divorced from their true origins. Thus, in the 19th century, fin-de-siècle Symbolists and Aesthetes turned the figure of the peacock into the symbol of Japonism par excellence, largely disregarding its almost timeless presence in the cultures of China, India, Persia; Art Nouveau stylistics delighted in the curves and counter-curves of the dragon, without always considering its Chinese origins; designers and architects entertained the popular public by decorating exhibition pavilions with the winged lions and creatures of the Middle-Eastern pre-Islamic past, rediscovered in the narratives of excavations in Mesopotamia… and many other examples of European appropriations of the Oriental bestiary could similarly be mentioned, such as inventive accommodations of the figures of the phoenix, the simurgh, griffins, lamassus and other fantastic creatures.

This conference will not aim to recall/rewrite the historical development of these motifs or follow their complex peregrinations throughout the Oriental world, but will rather investigate the logics of their reception in 18th and 19th century Europe, looking into the ways in which Oriental figurative motifs became both loci and agents of transcultural and aesthetic transfers, and studying the types of critical discourse held on them.

We shall seek to understand the modalities of their appropriation by European culture, the mechanisms of their redefinition or reinterpretation, the various stages of their progressive copy, stylization, accommodation or distortion in Western art, and the multiple variations on a theme. The possible fertility of some misinterpretations of Eastern motifs will of course be a moot point.

Of particular interest is the formal and cultural plasticity of such motifs—deriving, perhaps, from the fundamental hybridity of some of them, like the winged lion, half-feline and half-bird, or the dragon, half-reptile and half-bird of prey. Such hybridity allowed them to be invested with ever-changing meanings, but also to be subjected to endless intermedial transfers, from the arts of the book to ceramic or textile art, architectural decor, etc., and also from the decorative arts to the fine arts.

The cultural tensions at work in such artistic borrowings – or pillaging – matter equally, particularly when a symbol fraught with religious, spiritual, communal, or political meaning is redefined as a purely decorative element. Does this transformation of symbols into ornaments imply a mere loss of sense, or does it lead on the contrary to the creation of fresh significance and value? And is it the inescapable fate of decorative motifs to be constantly redefined and revalued through cross-cultural exchanges?


Suggested questions:

  • Oriental figurative motifs and their reinvention in Western art and ornament: appropriations, transformations, distortions, and re-semantisation.
  • The actors of these appropriations/transformations: artists, workshops, manufactures…
  • Definition of the very notion of motif. Dialogues and tensions between figurative and abstract motifs in ornament.
  • Choice and interpretation of figurative motifs in pattern books and dictionaries of ornament.
  • « Applied » examples of trans-cultural importations—e.g. William de Morgan’s ceramics, Whistler’s paintings, or the British Aesthetes and the invention of the Japonising motif of the peacock
  • Ornament as a possible “contact zone” between Eastern and Western cultures. Can decorative motifs be “translated” or transposed? Or conversely, can cultures be translated through their ornamental motifs?
  • Islamic/Indian/Chinese/Japanese… motifs in Europe: fascination, rejection, denial, re-creation
  • The difference between inspiration, copy and plagiarism: the mechanisms of the aesthetic plunder of the Orient by the West
  • Cultural transfers and misinterpretations in the « philosophy » of Ornament in Europe.


Possible fields of investigation:

The conference aims to create a dialogue between specialists of different academic disciplines: material culture, iconography, global design history, history of aesthetics, post-colonial criticism, intermedial studies, history of art, epistemology, museology, history of collections, ethnology and anthropology


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