What did Islamic art look like and how would I react to it given the new holy war?
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Detail of Tile, ca. 1270-80. Attributed to Kashan, Iran. Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Corey Sabourin
OCTOBER 18, 2001. New York City culture dictates that what's topical is what matters. It seemed fitting then, after the terrorist attacks, to drop by, besides my local firehouse, the Islamic art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
My first visit happened by accident, about a week after September ll. I wasn't aware such a collection existed until I showed up at the museum, and discovered it marked on the floor plan in my handout. Just the evening before I stood on lower Broadway and saw close up the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. Now I was curious: What did Islamic art look like and how would I react to it given the new holy war?
If, like me, you are largely ignorant of Islam, the wall of text in the first room is well worth reading. In this same room, a bronze lion incense burner from 12th century Iran handily shows off the primary components of Islamic art: the all-over surface design; the ornamental preferences for geometrics, floral and vegetal patterns, and calligraphy.
It took me a couple of visits to finally know a scrolling arabesque when I saw it, and this lion has that, too. The deceptively simple palm-leaf pattern of the arabesque in which background and foreground become indistinguishable is an early Islamic contribution to world abstract art.
Islam translates as "one who submits to God." Accustomed as I am to religious art of a figurative bent those bleeding Christs downstairs in the medieval gallery I had to submit to these objects, one case at a time. The process was often restful. Standing before a 16th century Persian carpet named "The Seley," I picked out a flying bird that repeated itself many times and later I imagined how the children of the nobleman who had owned the rug might have sat on it and with their fingers traced that bird with my same relaxed fixation.
In a recent review of this collection for The New York Times, Holland Cotter called classical Islamic art "antimaterialist." This reminded me of something else I had read: how the essence of Islam is the affirmation of the oneness of God. In another room, where a l6th-century wooden ceiling from Southern Spain uses a starburst pattern to re-create the night sky, the self, my self anyway, did feel able to merge with the infinite.
Calligraphy is another component of Islamic art tough for Western eyes to access. Arabic is Islam's holy language because Allah is said to have spoken to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic through an angel (whose words were later written down in the Koran, or "recitation"). So, in a land where rulers demonstrated their devotion to God by commissioning ever more sumptuous editions of the Koran, to be a great calligrapher was to get your name widely known by the right people.
The Met has folios from various Koran manuscripts, but I found the calligraphy done on ceramic tile even more vibrant. There's an 11-foot-tall prayer niche, or mihrab, from 14th century Iran in blue and turquoise tile work, where artists used three scripts they can range from dense and blocky to loopy and cursive with dazzling harmony as a result.
I had believed that Islamic art eschewed all figurative design, but that isn't the case at all. Animal forms pop up in Turkish carpets and Mughal jewelry from India, and landscapes appear in Iranian lacquer ware from the l7th century. The finest figurative art I saw were the so-called miniature paintings of battle scenes and Persian court life in the Met's copy of Iran's 11th century national epic poem, "Shahnama," (Book of Kings). If anything in the collection warrants masterpiece status, this is it.
The details in such small areas gold threads in a courtier's navy tunic are astounding. Nice enough to just look at, it pays to read the translated text of each separately displayed page. My biggest surprise came in a scene between the love-struck couple, Zal and Rudaba, when Rudaba lowers her braids from atop a tower to Zal, just like our Western gal, Rapunzel.
Reaction to art owes a lot to the reasons for viewing it in the first place. I returned three times to this tucked-away gallery for one reason only: My city was attacked by suicide hijackers who claimed Islam as their defense and whose leadership considers me an infidel. I felt a need to acquaint myself with a civilization that, some jihadistas have been saying, will enjoy a new Golden Age once the holy land is purified of Western influences (as well as those Buddhist rock carvings). In the end, I didn't discover any root of terrorism; prayer rugs and scrolling arabesques won't hijack anything, unless I let them.
Only a few works even hinted at today's headlines. One was an incomplete ink drawing from the 16th century entitled "Turkomen Horseman." The title card said that this mounted warrior with his quiver of arrows and cross expression, once epitomized the qualities of "rugged independence, self-reliance, roughness, endurance, and courage;" today the Turkomen was feared for his "alarming ruthlessness, mercilessness, and cruelty." The drawing only has a very crude connection to Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who killed 5,000 innocents a month ago, but it sticks in my mind.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York City (212-879-5500). Caveat: The Islamic gallery is sometimes closed unexpectedly; call the Information Desk at 212-570-3791 before arriving.
Special related exhibitions now on view: "Glass of the Sultans," through January 13, 2002; "Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals," through January 13, 2002.
photo of mihrab: Metropolitan Museum of Art
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