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Islamic Art at the National Gallery

I have already noted the interest in Islamic art this year, particularly in western museums (see post on April 1). There are two exhibits in Washington right now, both of which I have been to see recently. Going into the East Building of the National Galley of Art, however, the first thing that I noticed was a conspicuous absence. The enormous mobile by Alexander Calder (Untitled, 1976), created specifically to hang in I. M. Pei's atrium, was removed for cleaning on April 19, not to return until next summer. If I had any doubt about how much that sculpture, rotating meditatively, dominates the room, I don't anymore.

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum is on the building's upper level, spread through six rooms. There is no major collection of Islamic art in the nation's capital—although there is the beautiful Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue (here are some pictures), which has some artworks on display—so you should jump at the chance to see this assortment of pieces on loan from the extraordinary collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (their Islamic gallery will be closed for renovation until summer 2006). The show was underwritten by the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (who was profiled in The New Yorker on March 24, 2003, and who is discussed prominently in Fahrenheit 9/11) and Saudi businessman Mohammed Jameel, who is the major donor responsible for the new Islamic gallery at the V & A. Prince Bandar is quoted in a press release from the museum (dated February 19, 2004) as saying the following:

Now, more than ever, we need to work to build bridges of understanding between our societies and cultures. This important collection of Islamic art provides a historical perspective and cultural context for one of the world's greatest religions.
Yeah, exactly. As I wrote recently (New Museums in Qatar, June 9), I would much rather have the Saudis spending their money on art, and Americans desperately need the chance to learn something about the cultural heritage of Islam. (Holland Cotter's double review of this exhibit and the Islamic exhibit at the Sackler—Polyphony For the Eye, July 16, for the New York Times—has some interesting ideas on this point.)

Tile commemorating the pilgrimage to Mecca, 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonThe Web materials for this exhibit are disappointing to say the least. You can see thumbnail images of most of the artworks I will mention in this set of press materials, and there is this Checklist of Objects in the Exhibit, but that's about it. That not only stinks, it also undermines the possible didactic value of the exhibit, limiting those who might learn something about Islam to the people who walk into the museum. Prince Bandar should get on the National Gallery's case about this.

The first room of the exhibit focuses strongly on the Islamic calligraphic tradition, which was so important in the mostly word-centered cultures of Islam, where, especially for sacred art, figural imagery was often banned by religious leaders. The extraordinary Qur'an pages shown here are enough of a reason by themselves to go this exhibit, including a 17th-century book from Istanbul, which flirts with imagery in its stylized, decorative flower images. Riza' 'Abbasi's The Romance of Khusraw and Shirin is shown in a 17th-century copy from Isfahan in Iran, with beautiful illuminations (allowed in secular works of literature in some places). Of greatest interest were the older examples of writing, including a 14th-century Qur'an section from Iran and a strikingly plain Iranian pair of Qur'an leaves from the 11th or 12th century. I also admired the brightly colored Ilkhamid tiles from the late 13th century, showing scenes of animal combat.Also prominent by early date are the ivories from Cordoba in Islamic Spain, most of them dating from the 10th century, including a remarkable pyxsis with a tiny carved elephant rider, in the second room.

What are typically the best examples of Islamic art, things like dishes and other vessels like this ewer, frankly are not that interesting to me, I have to admit. However, there are a handful of large decorative objects that have the stunning effect of really bringing you into the aesthetic context of Islamic art. A fritware tomb marker made for Husayn, son of 'Ali Zayn Al-'Abidin around 1300, stands about six feet tall in the third room, glowing with remarkable color and mesmerizing patterns. The same can be said of the maplike Tile Commemorating the Hajj (image shown here) in the second room, albeit on a smaller scale. The fourth room is dominated by an immense Ottoman fritware fireplace (dated 1731 and probably made in Istanbul), temporarily installed on a wall. The opening is in the shape of the mihrab, and it is covered with Arabic script and flower patterns. I stood there for a while staring at the top of this fireplace, where there are two protuberances which looked to me, for all the world, like two breasts. I have no idea what their function might be or what the artist intended. The third room is largely occupied by the 23-foot-tall wooden minbar (what is a minbar?), covered with ivory inlay, made for Sultan Qa'itbay between 1468 and 1496, probably in Cairo. The second room also features two large carpets, examples of a type of art one would expect to see in an Islamic exhibit, the Safavid "Chelsea Carpet" (woven in Iran in the early 16th century) and an Ottoman carpet with a nonfigural design (probably Ushak, also from the 16th century).

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until February 6, 2005. From here the exhibit will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (April 3 to September 4, 2005); the Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (October 22 to December 11, 2005); and the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, England (January 14 to April 16, 2006).

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