Art flour­ished in age of con­quest

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

WHEN the Iraqi Na­tional Mu­seum in Bagh­dad was looted in 2003, few would have re­mem­bered the days when Is­lamic art flour­ished in the face of war and con­quest. Yet it was dur­ing the early Mus­lim con­quests, when the Mus­lim Arabs con­quered the worlds of Byzan­tium and Sasa­nian Per­sia, that the foun­da­tions of Is­lamic art were laid, ac­cord­ing to the di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery of NSW, Ed­mund Capon.

‘‘ It might ap­pear to us now some­thing of a para­dox that Is­lam’s rapid and mil­i­tar­ily spon­sored ex­pan­sion from the Ara­bian penin­sula to Iraq, Iran, North Africa, Spain, Cen­tral Asia and thence to China and to In­dia, could fos­ter such ex­tra­or­di­nary cul­tural and artis­tic ex­plo­rations,’’ Mr Capon said.

‘‘ Such ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sions brought variety, en­rich­ment and op­por­tu­nity to the arts of Is­lam.’’

The Golden Age of Is­lamic Art ( 750AD- 16th cen­tury), when cal­lig­ra­phy, met­al­work, glass, tex­tiles, wood­work and ce­ram­ics flour­ished, co­in­cided with a pe­riod of rapid ex­pan­sion into es­tab­lished ter­ri­to­ries with dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tions, many of which were ab­sorbed by Is­lamic cul­ture and re­flected in the var­i­ous art forms.

The stylis­tic unity of Is­lamic art, founded on the use of a com­mon Ara­bic script, cal­lig­ra­phy and an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of struc­tural or­der, evolved to em­brace the tra­di­tions, ma­te­ri­als and tech­nolo­gies of dif­fer­ent re­gions and eras.

The cu­ra­tor of The Arts of Is­lam, Michael Rogers, said Is­lamic art was very much a prod­uct of lo­cal cul­tures.

‘‘ It de­pends upon his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy and some­times also so­cial fea­tures. So to talk about the art of Spain in the 15th cen­tury and the art of Iran in the 15th cen­tury is to talk about very dif­fer­ent things,’’ he said.

The co- or­di­nat­ing cu­ra­tor of The Arts of Is­lam, Char­lotte Schri­wer, said that as Is­lam spread, Is­lamic art in some places, such as Ar­me­nia, South China and to some ex­tent In­dia, be­came the art of non- Mus­lim and mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions.

‘‘ Quite of­ten Is­lamic art is pro­duced by other eth­nic or re­li­gious groups,’’ Ms Schri­wer said.

‘‘ The Ar­me­nian Chris­tians pro­duced art for the Mus­lims . . . tol­er­ance was much higher than it is now.’’

As well as high­light­ing the re­gional and eth­nic dif­fer­ences, The Arts of Is­lam ex­hi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of NSW pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of Is­lamic art through its Golden Age to the 19th cen­tury, and an in­sight into Is­lamic cul­ture more gen­er­ally - its sci­en­tific achieve­ments and tol­er­ance for and co­ex­is­tence with other cul­tures.

Ob­jects from the early Is­lamic dy­nas­ties of the 7th to 10th cen­turies, for in­stance, demon­strate the artis­tic in­flu­ences of the pre­ced­ing Sasa­nian and Byzan­tine pe­ri­ods, and are rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion by a dis­play of colour­ful ce­ram­ics, painted glass and rarely pre­served finely wo­ven tex­tiles.

A beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of il­lu­mi­nated Ko­rans, one of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s high­lights, re­flects its ori­gins in the me­dieval Is­lamic pe­riod ( 10th to early 13th cen­tury): a time of ex­cep­tional artis­tic pro­duc­tion, which saw the in­tro­duc­tion of new tech­niques in man­u­script dec­o­ra­tion; new ma­te­ri­als such as pa­per; and tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions such as lus­ter paint­ing and glazed ce­ram­ics.

A gold sad­dle with del­i­cate fil­i­gree gold trap­pings, dat­ing from the 13th/ 14th cen­tury, and the first his­tory of the world, Rashid al- Din’s Jami’ al- Tawarikh ( Com­pen­dium of Chron­i­cles), are ex­am­ples of the art of the pe­riod fol­low­ing the Mon­gol in­va­sions of the 13th cen­tury, which was in­flu­enced by cul­tures of Cen­tral Asia and the Far East, such as China. ‘‘ The style in which the gold sad­dle’s trap­pings are made is in­ter­est­ing be­cause you can see a Cen­tral Asian in­flu­ence. It’s been in­tri­cately made,’’ Ms Schri­wer said.

The art of the 16th to 19th cen­turies is rep­re­sented by ob­jects from the Safavid and Ot­toman pe­ri­ods, in­clud­ing The Book of Kings ( The Shah­namah), which be­longed to the Safavid ruler, Shah Tah­masp, a dis­play of colour­ful enam­eled ob­jects from Mughal In­dia, in­tri­cately jew­elled pieces stud­ded with pre­cious stones, and finely wo­ven car­pets and tex­tiles.

There was an in­crease in the pro­duc­tion of il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts, in par­tic­u­lar de­tailed Per­sian and Ot­toman minia­ture paint­ings, and blue and white ce­ramic wares and fine Iznik pot­tery also emerged in this pe­riod.

In the 19th cen­tury, the Euro­pean in­flu­ence was preva­lent in the arts of Is­lam, and can been seen in the pieces from the late 19th cen­tury, such as enam­elled pocket watches with por­traits of rulers and del­i­cately painted lac­quer pen boxes.

Many of the pieces in the ex­hi­bi­tion, par­tic­u­larly from the Golden Age of Is­lam, re­veal as much about Is­lamic cul­ture as they do about the beauty of Is­lamic art.

Sci­en­tific in­stru­ments such as the astro­labe, for in­stance, draw at­ten­tion to the fact that Bagh­dad was a great cen­tre of sci­en­tific and as­tro­nom­i­cal re­search in the 9th and 10th cen­turies, Mr Capon said.

‘‘ The very word Is­lam casts both light and shadow over our con­tem­po­rary world and never, I be­lieve, has there been a greater need for the wealth and imag­i­na­tion of Is­lamic cul­tures and artis­tic her­itage to be re­vealed, to both the Is­lamic and non- Is­lamic com­mu­ni­ties,’’ he added.

IN­CENSE BURNER OR PO­MAN­DER IN THE FORM OF A LYNX Ori­gin: Iran, late 12th or early 13th cen­tury AD. Cop­per al­loy, cast, with en­graved and open­work dec­o­ra­tion

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