Art flourished in age of conquest
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