13 February 2012

Regional Islamic Art at the Met

Details, architectural elements and ceramic plate.

In January, DH and I traveled to Manhattan, visiting offspring and viewing an exhibit at The Cloisters (see previous post.)  After lunch, DH and I, refueled and recharged for another art excursion, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to check out the newly-reinstalled collection of regional Islamic art. The formal title of the installation, in fifteen galleries, is the rather cumbersome Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.  That last part is important, as there are now more people of the Islamic faith in Indonesia than in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran combined.

While more accurate than just the title Islamic art, which implies that all objects on view are a monolithic, uniform response to religious tenets, the new label is a bit unwieldy.  For convenience, I will refer to this exhibit as regional Islamic art.  Holland Cotter, whose work I generally love,  reviewed the exhibit for the New York Times, but fell into old habits of Orientalism with the title "A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty," and didn't help matters with phrases like "...regionally rooted but absorptively cosmopolitan." My thesis adviser at MIT would have scotched that adverb absorptively, and rightly so.  However, the Times has a wonderful interactive feature on the galleries, the Interactive Guide to Islamic Art. Visit it here http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/30/arts/design/20111030-met-islamic-wing.html?ref=design

Left, textile fragment. Right, wall tiles.
One of the best aspects of the new exhibit, especially for a textile junkie, is that no longer are items segregated by materials.  In the old days, all the ceramics and all the glassware, for example, were often grouped together in their own galleries. Major donors, such as Benjamin Altman, typically specialized in one type of object, gave their collections to the Met and wished to see their collections displayed more or less intact. In this scheme of things, fabric fragments, which did not display well on shelves, became curatorial step-children.

Although a gallery exclusively of glass, or of metalwork, is probably easier  to organize and display, integrating various materials makes clear how artisans from different regions and time periods approached recurrent themes and motifs. For example, in the image above, the wavy vine and flower motif was variously interpreted, in fabric and in tile, by two different designers making specific, informed choices about color, scale and form.  At long last, the curatorial emphasis shifts from the craftmanship and beauty of these objects - the technical achievement has long been admired - to the artistic interpretation of recurrent themes and meaningful symbols. Also, this inclusive approach makes the Met's collection of objects immensely more useful for artists and designers working today in various media. The two vine-and-flower interpretations have inspired me to sketch quilting designs for borders.

Details, textile fragments.
However, there is one throw-back to the former organizational concept of rooms dedicated primarily to objects of a single material, such as glass or ceramic, and that is a gallery of carpets, centered around the so-called Simonetti Carpet, woven about 1500, and, to paraphrase Holland Cotter, a portable monument. See it here: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/140009475

The Simonetti carpet, beneath a modern wood panel ceiling.
My image is a bit blurry, as the available light level is low to protect the pigments of the carpet, but in person this room just glows.  I wish a less visually intrusive railing had been installed, but understandably the Met needs to protect its masterpiece.

Nur ad-Din room, photo 1975, credit Metropolitan Museum.
Another special room is a reconstruction of a period reception room from a home in Damascus, dated 1707.  I couldn't get a good image without a fish eye lens, but the photo above, from 1975, gives an idea of the room.  With its geometric precision, and warm wood tones, an aura of orderly calm emanates from this space.

Gallery, with ceramics, metalwork, fabrics and carpet.
Most of the galleries feature a mixture of objects in different materials, grouped by chronology and geography.  Having said how wonderful it is to see the fabrics finally on display, I do have a quibble with the curators for placing some of the textile fragments too high for proper viewing! The galleries have double-height ceilings, which allows for large carpets to be hung vertically; in addition, the exhibit designers obviously didn't want to have a lot of empty wall space, so some textile fragments fill the upper walls.  It's better to have these fabrics on display rather than in eternal storage, but it is frustrating to have only a distant view of such detailed weavings; next time I'll bring binoculars!

Another gallery, with the Emperor's carpet.
Above is an overview of the gallery with the so-called Emperor's carpet, a fabulous knotted pile textile supposedly owned at one time by Peter the Great.  Seats and excellent lighting allow comfortable, up-close-and-personal viewing of miniature paintings.

Page from the Shahnama, or Book of Kings.
While representations of people are not common in religious buildings in many Islamic regions, there is nevertheless a strong tradition of figurative art in secular settings. 

Reciting Poetry in a Garden, tile panel, 17th century.

The geometric, floral and calligraphic traditions in Islamic regional art are well known,  and justly celebrated in these galleries.  Master craftmen were imported from Fez, Morocco, to create a courtyard based on patterns in the Alhambra. The artisans are doing plaster carving in the image below. In a nice touch, the gallery audio guide features the craftsmen speaking about their art, with translation. 

Image credit, the Metropolitan Museum.

Detail, contemporary carved plaster.
In addition to the audio guide and the interactive online guide, there is also an excellent online essay on the history of displays of regional Islamic art at the Met, by Rebecca Lindsey. http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/features/2012/displaying-islamic-art-at-the-metropolitan

Image from 1933 exhibit Plant Form in Ornament, with Iznik bowl, real carnations and Italian velvet. 
The image above is from Ms. Lindsey's essay. This 1933 exhibit was a repeat performance of a highly successful exhibit organized in 1918 specifically as an "industrial art" exhibit, a resource for manufacturers, artisans and designers. For me, this type of exhibit is the apogee of museum function - scholarship  and an exploration of the artistic process of abstraction which results in beautiful, timeless objects in various materials.  In this one example, the curator has joined the original source - the carnation - with the Turkish artist's floral abstraction in clay and glaze, and placed both bowl and flower on top of yet another interpretation, this time in fiber, by an Italian textile designer.  This example also shows why the word "exotic," besides being an explosive word in the world of art criticism, isn't accurate.  Patterns ultimately sourced from regional Islamic art have had a huge influence on Western consumer goods, whether the source is acknowledged or not.

The newest configuration of the regional Islamic art galleries doesn't have actual flowers - maybe for an Art in Bloom-like special event? However, the placement of objects in newly-orchestrated, rational groupings means that these works, besides eliciting an emotional response to their beauty, can begin a dialog with us about the cultures that produced them.  Greater comprehension will make the textiles, ceramics and other items no less marvelous to look at.