'Islamic Art' as Catchall Term

By Souren Melikian, The New York Times

The West has a problem when dealing with the cultures of the lands that adhered to Islam over time. It begins with apprehending their differences, far greater than those that separate European nations.

On the museum scene, the meaningless label “Islamic art” is stuck to works visually and conceptually unrelated. 

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which ranks among the world’s four or five greatest institutions of its kind, the recently opened “Islamic department” unwittingly illustrates the confusion. 

A glass bowl with  eagle emblem about seven inches  high is labeled at the Met as being from mid-13th-century Syria. Metropolitan Museum of Art 

When visitors stroll into the galleries devoted to European paintings, they will not see panels from 15th-century Germany hanging together with pictures from the Florentine Quattrocento on the excuse that they are Christian. And Chinese scrolls will not be thrown together with ones from Japan or Korea on the basis of shared Buddhist themes. The arts of China, Japan and Korea, whether Buddhist, Confucianist or other, are considered from the historical perspective of their cultures, sparing viewers any aesthetic inconsistency. 

When it comes to Islamic lands, inconsistency is apparently not a worry. Never mind that their histories explain the highly distinctive character of the art of each broad cultural area. 

Historic Iran, broken up into the modern states of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, plus bits here and there, shares with China the privilege of being one of the two oldest civilizations in the world with an uninterrupted continuity on its own territory. 

 A manuscript page showing the Hindu god Krishna  holding up Mount Govardhan to shelter villagers, from  around 1590. Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Arab Near East lands like Syria and Iraq also have age-old pasts. But they largely rejected it, in contrast to Iran. This also is true of Egypt, whose ancient civilization left few traces on its collective persona in the Islamic period. 

Turkey, at first a mere extension of the Seljuk sultanate of Iran in the mid-11th century, became the autonomous “Sultanate of Rum” after the Mongol invasion of Iran of 1219 to 1221. Persian was the language of culture and administration well into the 14th century and influences from the multiple cultures of territories that had once been under Byzantine control penetrated its art. The art of Turkey as represented today in Western museums largely dates from the early 16th century to the late 17th. 

Add to this mix the equally complex history of the Persianate Islamic culture first introduced into India by invaders coming from historic Iran in the 11th century, led by rulers of Turkic stock. The latest among the Türki-speaking founders of a dynasty in India rushed in from Central Asia where Persian culture prevailed, maintained Persian at their courts and attracted thousands of Iranian literati. 

Interaction with ancient Indian culture resulted in unique art into which some strands of European influence crept in, particularly in book painting on which Western religious engravings, brought by European missionaries to the court of Akbar, had an impact. 

Mix all of the above and you get a brew that is enough to disorient the most lucid visitor. 

In the sections dealing with the early periods — when Islam spread in a gradual and uneven process — wall vitrines are filled with ceramics, bronzes, and the occasional bit of rock crystal and ivory from the Iranian and the Arab world in more or less equal measure. 

The juxtaposition, naturally dependent on what is available in the museum’s collections, results in a confusing if dazzling blur. 

Labeling adds to the confusion here and there. Ceramic vessels of the ninth century with blue motifs on the ivory ground, ascribed to Iraq in the display, have been coming up on the art market since the early 20th century. None is traceable to an Iraqi source. 

By contrast, many such wares have been excavated by archeologists across Iran, from Khorasan in the northeast to Susa in the southwest. They far outweigh the evidence of shards dug up in Samarra, a short-lived ninth-century caliphal capital where other broken remains of all kinds of works, brought in from many areas outside, have turned up. The Met’s pieces, bought on the Western market, probably came out of Iran. Until proved otherwise, this is the likely provenance that should be stated on the labels. 

Other characterizations referring to present-day political boundaries are utterly confusing. The mention of “Afghanistan” under east Iranian bronze bowls of the 10th and 11th centuries is an anachronism — the emirate of Afghanistan was set up in the mid-18th century. Remarking that the Ghaznavid dynasty — which at the height of its power controlled all of eastern and much of western Iran as far west as the Rey-Tehran region — “favored Persian culture” is misleading. 

The dynasty founded by Sebuktegin, born in Turkistan, as Xinjiang was known until the mid-20th century, totally identified with Iran. When Farrokhi of Sistan or Onsori of Balkh wrote Persian poems in praise of Mahmud the Ghaznavid, Sebuktegin’s son, they hailed him as the shah of Iran. The Ghaznavids owe their name to their capital Ghazni, 120 kilometers or 80 miles southwest of Kabul, which was the great capital of Persian letters in the 11th century. 

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery elegantly resolve the conundrum by using the phrase “historic Iran.” 

Elsewhere, historic denominations actually crop up in the Met’s labels. The name “Jazira” appears in connection with some of the splendid silver-inlaid brass wares from the Arab world, made in the decades following the Mongol invasion of Iran. Jazira included cities such as Dyarbekir and Mardin in the southeastern Kurdish region of modern Turkey. The attribution to Jazira is plausible, but not demonstrated. A warning to that effect would be judicious. 

Some of the most important Arab bronze wares raise broader and fascinating questions that have yet to be answered. 

A small cylindrical box referred to as a “pyxis,” now stripped of the inlay that would have originally been incised with fine detail, is firmly given to “mid-13th-century Syria” in the label as in the collective book “Masterpieces From the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It is decorated with Christian scenes, as are some other highly sophisticated Arab bronzes of the 13th century. Syria? Possibly. Jazira? Equally possible. 

What makes the box deeply intriguing is the European-like handling of a female standing under one of the arches and of the little man (Joseph?) gesticulating at the Virgin and Child depicted on the lid. This is not discussed. Much research remains to be done before we can place such an object for sure. 

Where no hesitation is possible, some labels curiously switch to the hypothetical mode. 

One of the most famous pieces in the Met’s collection, a glass footed bowl of the mid-13th century with enameled and gilt scenes alternating with calligraphic cartouches on the side, is evidently, rather than “probably” from Syria. The French historian of Persian literature, Charles Schéfer, who wrote the “Chrestomathie Persane,” bought the bowl in Damascus, which is mentioned, and the profile of the bowl occurs in Syrian ceramics, which is not said. 

It is no accident that the two huge successes in the new “Islamic” galleries are the rooms respectively dealing with the art of Safavid Iran and of the Moghul empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Aesthetic consistency reveals the underlying harmonics of any art, and the admirable display does justice to admirable works. 

Both make the fit-all “Islamic” label more inept than ever. Pages ripped from a Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) manuscript commissioned for the library of Shah Tahmasp of Iran (1524-1576) deal with the pre-Islamic past of Iran. The text written by Ferdowsi in the 10th century is fraught with notions predating Islam, and the 16th-century paintings cannot be understood without referring to the metaphors of Persian literature, which they visually transcribe. 

In the Moghul room, some manuscript pages are interpretations of scenes lifted from the Bibles that Portuguese missionaries brought to the court of emperor Akbar. 

Others have been torn out of the manuscripts of translations of Hindu texts into Persian commissioned by Akbar for the benefit of a court where all knew Persian, while few understood Sanskrit. In one, the Hindu god Krishna is seen holding up Mount Govardhan to shelter villagers. 

This makes one wonder just where the Western definition of Islamic art stops. 

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