|World Report : Palace and Mosque: Pretty little things|
|“Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art From the Victoria and Albert Museum,” the show that opened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, is one of those exhibitions that, on walking through, you will say there’s plenty of good-looking art in it.
There’s a slew of impressive calligraphy. Some is in books—the Quran especially, of course—where the gorgeous writing is at the service of the words it spells out.
Some calligraphy was valued for the sake of the penmanship itself: There’s a great scribe’s practice sheet, carefully mounted and preserved by an admirer as an independent work of art. And, in this show—all of whose objects come from a museum of craft and design—most of the writing is used on decorative objects of one kind or another.
There is a wonderfully bold tomb inscription from Uzbekistan, in deeply carved ceramic tile that makes the wall it sits on come alive. There are exquisitely delicate glass vessels, and heavy ones in brass, whose surfaces crawl with a calligraphy that’s as much about ornament as about the phrases it conveys. It’s worth remembering that for many of the peoples who embraced Islam over the 1,000 years covered in this exhibition, Arabic script started out as a foreign import.
The decorative potential of Arabic letters must have come across more strongly to them than to a native speaker, who would have read them first for meaning and only later for their look. A storage jar made in Egypt or Syria, when those countries were under the rule of the Turkish Mamelukes, has calligraphic decoration that doesn’t spell out any words. Of course, it’s hard to know if a fabulously cursive Arabic script helped build a taste for twisting ornament, or if it was that taste that helped sell fancy letterforms in the first place.
In the later 15th century, Ottoman woodworkers covered a 25-foot-tall wooden pulpit, known as a “minbar,” with starbursts of geometric inlay that easily out-shout the few inscriptions carved in it. One of the few near-constants in this exhibition is a love of over-the-top ornament. The textiles, especially, are breathtaking. I’m jealous of the little Turkish prince who got to wear—and was buried with—a little golden caftan with a blizzard of red flowers woven into it. It only underlines how preposterously drab we’ve let our clothes become. And it’s no wonder that a prelate in medieval Europe had his robes done up from a blue-and-gold silk cloth made in Mongol-ruled Iran. In 1300, how many European craftsmen could have matched the pomp and technical perfection of its woven garlands, oxen and pelicans? Then there’s the V&A’s great “Chelsea carpet,” woven in Iran but in the 16th century. It makes you realize why such “Persian carpets” have epitomized extravagant good taste for centuries.
It is hard to imagine a more impressive, luxurious floor covering. There aren’t many other works of art that strike such an absolutely perfect balance between a clearly legible overall composition and an overwhelming wealth of local incident. It’s as though a rug such as this was carefully considered to please a visitor’s first glimpse on entering the reception hall, as well as the lucky guests already sitting on it and getting a closer look and feel.
The Chelsea carpet also teaches a crucial bit of history about Islamic art: There are pictures of elaborate Chinese vases woven into it, and they indicate how willing Muslim culture always was to borrow from the peoples it brushed up against, as well as to ship Islamic goods and culture out to them.
Some of the most impressive objects in the exhibition are made of patterned white ceramic: There’s a footed bowl, made in Ottoman Turkey in the early 1500s, covered with spiraling garlands that are almost hypnotic. But such great works of Islamic “fritware,” as it’s known, were only born from competition with the imported Chinese porcelain most valued among Muslim connoisseurs. It looks as though the famous blue-on-white decoration that Europeans came to think of as traditionally Chinese first appeared on Near Eastern earthenware, then was copied by the Chinese in porcelain to appeal to an Islamic export market and only later recognized in China itself as something to appreciate at home.
Amman,08 09 2004