Friday, December 14, 2012

Islamic Art at Indianapolis: "Beauty and Belief"

Tile panel. Polychrome painted under transparent glaze. TURKEY (Iznik), 16th century.
63.4 cm x 26.4 cm x 5.5 cm deep.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The subtitle for Beauty and Belief, showing through January 13, 2013 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is Crossing Bridges to the Arts of Islamic Culture. When I crossed that bridge, I left everything  behind for a truly enveloping experience. I was transported through eyes and understanding into a worldview of transcendent beauty in which every detail is an element of patterns both visible (Dhahir) and invisible or spiritual (Batin), all interconnected forever, through time past and to come. 

The art collected in this spectacular show by its curator, Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, illustrates the vast spread of the Ummah—the traditional Islamic community. Al Khemir's point of the unity of expression is made through the inclusion of work not only from the Middle East and North Africa. An orienting graphic that greets the visitor is a huge map of the eastern hemisphere, marking regions and cities that are centers of Islamic culture. I was impressed to see this vast range laid out visually: It extends from Toledo and Valencia to Venice to Mogadishu; Aden to Ankara, Tashkent and New Delhi, to eastern China and south to Kuala Lumpur.
Qur'an Manuscript, Volume 16. Ink and color on burnished cream paper
with brown morocco binding. CHINA, 18th century. 22.2 x 29.2 x 2.5 cm.
Private collection

Beauty and Belief emphasizes visual consonance across socio-economic levels as well. It presents work from royal households—items of breathtaking craftsmanship made from precious materials. But there are just as many artifacts put to daily use from common homes, ceramics particularly.

The breadth and unity of Islamic culture is further illustrated by the variety of materials and processes in which one finds similar motifs. The show includes ceramics, textiles, many metals worked in forms as dainty as incense burners and as grand as doors; ivory; paper; wood; glass; and photographs of architecture. Across all media we see decorations based in endlessly elaborated calligraphy; flora and fauna; geometric patterns; and all of these nestled in patterns that blend elements in indistinguishable unity.

Incense Burner. Cast brass, pierced, engraved, and inlaid
with silver. SYRIA (Damascus), 15th century.
Diameter 13.4 cm. The British Museum, London.
A big surprise that flies in the face of long-accepted belief about Islamic art, is that the figure in fact appears regularly in Islamic art. Al Khemir demonstrates convincingly that though it is sacrilegious to introduce images into the mosque, people and animals are routinely and abundantly portrayed in all other sorts of art, both representational and fantastical. 

Art-making is always an act of devotion in Islam: The artist's actions and the results of his labor are suffused with spirituality. The tiniest mark is invested with the holy since, "God is the ultimate beholder." This does not mean that every decorated item assumes religious or sacred function—only the contents of the mosque have that—but it means that the spirit is omnipresent in a way the believers are conscious of and accustomed to. Moreover, a bowl decorated with an elaborate calligraphic expression like, "Great is his majesty," relates to the entire material universe of those words both written and on the breath of individuals who repeat them.

Tawhid is the Islamic idea of oneness with god—that everything comes from god and goes back to him, in a cycle. God passes through artist in the very acts that they dedicate to him. Every thing they make, then, and each detail of its decoration, has its own meaning but also has meaning congruent with the universal. Every piece of art is significant in itself and has significance greater than itself, as a drop in the eternal confluence of god's spirit. The Islamic worldview is thus charged with meaning in a way foreign to most Westerners, for whom most details of the material world are indifferent or negligible.

Detail proceeds infinitely in Islamic art. The incense burner, for instance is only 13.4 cm (about 5.15 inches), yet it contains a world of repeated, interlocking design. The patterns are a combination of abstract flowers and leaves intertwined with geometric elements knotted among one another: stars with many blunted points, circles and ellipses in clusters, and so on. Such combinations of patterns and design elements are familiar in the West as they were copied into Renaissance design. 
Three Finials, each with a Name of God. Steel, incised and overlaid in gold and backed with silver.
IRAN, probably early 18th century. 20.5 cm x 12 cm. x 0.3 cm. Private collection. Photo © Peter Savage, Visible Time, London

Tile with Twelve-pointed Star. Ceramic mosaic with
polychrome glaze. IRAN (Isfahan), 15th century.
Diameter, 62.23 cm. Seattle Art Museum,
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
The detail of these 8-inch high finials (probably from a grille in a mosque) is dazzling; they are from a set of ninety-nine, each bearing one of the ninety-nine names of god. Close inspection shows that not only the calligraphy differs between them; the floral background designs are, while similar, different enough to make me wonder if they were intentionally variant, or the accident of work by many hands. The finials themselves form a greater pattern, for the negative space between them mirrors, top to bottom, the shape of the objects themselves.

The mosaic tile illustrates on a much more complicated level the use of positive and negative shapes along with interwoven natural and geometric designs. Within the twelve points, the artist has created a golden square composed of four soft triangles meeting in a star. The gold star sits at right angles to its turquoise twin, which makes us aware of the turquoise floral "pillows"—soft rectangles—formed behind the gold frame. At the points of the turquoise star rest white, lotus-like flowers with strong triangular centers. The elements of the gold border are also joined by tri-partite gold elements. The integration of the mathematical with the illusions created by the use of positive and negative space and of color juxtapositions—and all within a design so flowing, natural, and elegant—seems to me an exemplary  expression of the Islamic aesthetic. Note, as well, how much occurs within a single tile that can be fit into a larger design: Just like its many patterns, the tile itself is related to many possible patterns that can extend forever beyond its borders.

Bowl with a Hare. Incised, white slipped and painted pottery, Aghkand type.
Northwest IRAN or the CAUCASUS, 12th-13th century. 11.5 cm high,
30 cm. diameter. The British Museum, London. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.
The combination of natural and geometric patterns takes on a new complexion when it becomes part of a picture with the introduction of an animal or a person. The colors of the bowl with a lively, leaping, ears-lifted hare, and the freshness of the drawing soften the symmetry to promote a sense of the scenic: a rabbit gambols across earth and verdure. There's a informality here that doesn't pertain to the tile, above, because the forms are not as precisely placed or outlined. Moreover, the alert, moving animal appears uninterested in the disposition of the environment: He is confident, it seems, of the world's beauty and order, the world the artist reflects as a devotion to a god who loves beauty. Al Khemir grounds us with a quote from the Prophet Muhammed, that "God is beautiful and loves beauty." Here is a hare who artlessly assumes beauty.
Griffin. Cast bronze with engraved decoration. SPAIN  (possibly
Cordoba), 11th century. 107 x 32 x 82 cm.
Opera della Primaziale Pisana, Pisa (copy in exhibition).

Figurative and pictorial art goes in many directions, though. Beauty and Belief assures us that fantastical animals in the form of figurines are not uncommon in Islamic art. Belief in an invisible world leaves plenty of latitude for such. Where Greco-Roman tradition tends to cast creatures with the qualities of several animals as monsters, in Islamic tradition they tend to be guardian figures. A griffin—combined eagle and lion—long topped the cathedral in Pisa, Italy. When the building was restored, the figure was lowered and inspected, only then discovered to be covered with Arabic writing. 

Another form of fantastical animal in Islamic art is the composite, an animal whose mass is composed of the forms of other animals, all fitted together to take the shape of the one. In a picture like the one shown, the exterior (pictured) animal proceeds in the scene as if it were  just like any normal animal of its species, allowing the viewer to speculate about not only the reality status of the story, but of the creature within the story's borders. Such composite drawings are apparently thought to be in a class unto themselves and more metaphysical in spirit than representations like the happy hare or the beneficent griffin, suggesting the ideas of transiency and ultimate unity, or the unity of the invisible spiritual world. 
Composite Elephant and Other Creatures. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. NORTHERN INDIA, circa 1600.
15.88 x 22.23 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.
Interior composed of animals including bear, tigers, rabbits, fish, deer,peacock, leopard, oxen, antelope, boar, snakes, and a man.

Though I arrive at it last, calligraphic quotations form the the Qur'an and the Hadith (the reports of the Prophet Muhammad's deeds and sayings) are ubiquitous in Islamic art. Calligraphy not only presents holy texts but becomes, in itself, as aesthetic object. Calligraphy is the most noble art, the domain of the most scholarly and cultured persons. Styles of writing abound. Calligraphers succeed one another for generations in families as priests would, for calligraphy is seen as a particular form of devotion. Practitioners never identify their work, so selflessly do they dedicate it to god.
Bowl with Kufic Characters. Earthenware
with white slip and glaze. PERSIA (Nishapur),
9th-10th century. 9.8 x 26 cm. Seattle Art
Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
Photo: Paul Macapia.

Beauty and Belief astounds with its abundant examples of the written word; but then, it is clearly impossible to exhibit Islamic art without doing so. In a catalogue essay, Dr. Al Khemir reminds us that through the Qur'an, god manifested himself in the language of Arabic; all Muslims, regardless of their spoken language, learn to read Arabic. "In Islamic culture," she writes, "even a piece of paper with Arabic written on it becomes sacred and treading upon it is disapproved of." It stands to follow that scribes of Arabic are  honored, and that exquisite calligraphy would be the most highly valued art.

As with all manifestations of Islamic art, calligraphy is presented in every form and situation from the simple and common to the most elaborate and precious. The white earthenware bowl with a few black characters as border is enormously elegant in its design; it pleases the contemporary eye with the proportions of the calligraphy and and the overall relationship of black to white, enhanced by tracings of red. One need not recognize script at all to admire the bold, dynamic design.

Where the beauty of the calligraphy on a common bowl might be executed in relatively little time, many forms of calligraphy were painstaking in relation to the value thought to inhere in the message written. The gilded inscription within the fine net of a horse chestnut leaf says, "The best people are those who do good for other people," and reads from bottom to top. This painstaking art form preserved important cultural saying for the Sufi sect. The catalogue explains the technique, which involved stenciling the text and covering it with wax before laying the leaf  on top, soaked in chemicals that ate away nearly everything but the vein structure, to reveal the writing. The writing was further outlined with piercing to remove still more of the leaf surface. The fineness of the leaf's filigree enhances the bold lines of the calligraphy, enhancing the stature of the words both as marks and as message.

Natural Leaf with Calligraphy, Thuluth script. Horse chestnut leaf. TURKEY, 19th  century. 20.x 8.9 cm. Private collection, USA.

Even in an exhibition with very little that that fails to inspire excitement, wonder, or delight; to illuminate a culture that's been nothing but obscure to me; there are still two or three works that stop my heart with their beauty, with the purity of the artist's passionate expression, or with their power to grab and shake me. This sheet of calligraphy is one of these, a 19th century collection of sayings that refer to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. Written on black paper, each saying appears in a different color, and the whole is enhanced with gold paint.

Riqu' Script Referring to 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Possibly transcribed by
Zayn al-"Abidin al-Isfahani in 1802. Multi-colored text on black paper with gold flecks.
IRAN, 19th century. 15.7 x 18.5 cm. Wellcome Library, London.

With no knowledge of Arabic, and no natural inclination to think in religious terms, I find myself moving through this "backwards," if the goal is to understand it as Islamic art. Simply as an artistic document to experience, I am swept away by its beauty and brilliance. I love the balance and the layering of the color panels: It runs the gamut from deepest dark colors to bright white yet without graduated, marginal changes. The color juxtapositions have to be considered as events in themselves, yet in the context of the whole sheet, they create not only a surface pattern of stripes and boxes but they also create a sense of changing depths. For me, this has the feel of a replete forest or garden maintained in manicured condition, in perpetual bloom. The calligraphic strokes are so expressive of floral forms, of stems, leaves, and vines, that were I to propose words for this image, they would be erotic, following the flowing marks and the rich, warm depth of palette. 

I would hardly be the first, though, to align sacred text with the erotic —see the poetry of the Old Testament Bible. But I think I find this artwork especially appealing because of this. While so much of the work in this show shows the minutely detailed in larger patterns that can combine forever—as I think one senses happening here—there is often a geometric logic controlling the work. Through the evident formality of this sheet I feel an erupting passion: The layout is short of symmetrical, the colors are not symmetrically designed—there's an overall urgency of movement that seems to arise from a more urgent motive. If God beholds everything, and loves beauty, don't some things catch his eye more than others? Does his heart skip a beat every now and then? I imagine he'd have to pause and catch his breath for a celestial moment here.

This extremely significant show was spearheaded by the Brigham Young University Art Museum, along with the Indianapolis Art Museum, the Newark (New Jersey) Museum, and the Portland (Oregon) Museum. 

At any time of the world, Beauty and Belief would be a welcome, timely, and deeply instructive show. It would be easy to moralize that its value is particularly great in this, our era of extended war between the United States and militant Islamic terrorists. But Beauty and Belief is a show about enduring culture and vision. No war waged on any premise touches on either.


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