Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 23, 2013
Maryam D. Ekhtiar, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011. 448 pp.; 377 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300175851)
The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gallery 453: Iran and Central Asia (9th–13th centuries). New Galleries for The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, opening November 1, 2011, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

After eight years of intense study, research, conservation, and planning, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s former Islamic Art galleries were reinstalled and opened to the public in November 2011 under the name The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Navina Najat Haidar coordinated the reinstallation, with contributions by many members of the Department of Islamic Art, including senior colleagues Daniel Walker, Michael Barry, Stefano Carboni, and Sheila Canby. Almost twelve hundred objects are now on view in fifteen galleries, organized chronologically from the seventh through the nineteenth centuries, and covering a vast geography from Spain to India. The sheer amount of gallery space, the number and quality of objects, and the chronology, geography, and media covered are dazzling. In her preface to the catalogue published in conjunction with the reopening of the galleries, Sheila Canby writes that the name change “reflects the shift away from the perception of Islamic art as a unicum to the recognition of the variety of forms and meanings that characterize each period and locale.” The variety of objects on view certainly does this. Both the name change and the challenges and implications of displaying Islamic art in post-September 11 America have been addressed by recent astute reviewers (Nasser Rabbat, “What’s in a Name? The New ‘Islamic Art’ Galleries at the Met,” Artforum 50, no. 8 [January 2012]: 75–78; and David J. Roxburgh, “The New Galleries for ‘The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,” The Art Bulletin 94, no. 4 [December 2012]: 641–44). I will focus instead on other perspectives emphasized by the reinstallation and the catalogue—namely, the interconnectedness of the Islamic world and the architectural aspects of the reinstallation.

The reinstallation’s concerns begin to establish themselves in the introductory gallery. A wall panel introducing the galleries begins with the rise of Islam in Arabia, and describes the different kinds of artistic expression one encounters in the galleries, including the use of figural imagery, and the predominant patterns of patronage. Nineteen objects from various contexts and in different media—ranging from Qur’ans, to carpets, to ceramic and glass, to architectural fragments—are displayed here to give a sense of the breadth of the collection. The wall label for each object touches upon techniques, materials, and patronage. On display are objects made for the most discerning patrons of the Islamic world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: an exquisite sword with gold decorations probably made for the Ottoman ruler Suleyman the Magnificent, the opening illuminated page of an album made for the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, and an illustrated folio from the exquisite Shahnama (Book of Kings) made for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp. The focus on royal patronage is also an indirect compliment to the sophisticated tastes of the collectors who gifted or sold the objects to the museum, such as Edward C. Moore, who had been a designer working alongside Louis Comfort Tiffany, and who owned the wooden minbar doors on display, and Barons Edmond and Maurice de Rothschild and Arthur A. Houghton Jr., who owned the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Facture, variety, and patronage continue as major themes in the rest of the installation.

The galleries create a chronological path: the seventh to the sixteenth centuries are mostly covered in an inner circle, with artworks from the early modern dynasties of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals organized in an L-shaped enfilade embracing the latter half of the circular path, and incorporating the later periods. The catalogue is organized in a parallel fashion, chronologically and geographically. The introductory section consists of essays by Priscilla Soucek (“Building a Collection of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, 1870–2011”), Navina Najat Haidar (“The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia”), and Rebecca Meriwether Lindsey (“A Century of Installations: A Photo Essay”). Each of the following sections in the catalogue—“Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th Centuries)”; “Art of Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean”; “Art of the Eastern Islamic Lands (9th to 14th Centuries)”; “Art of Egypt and Syria (10th to 16th Centuries)”; “Art of Iran and Central Asia (15th to 19th Centuries)”; “Art of the Ottoman Court”; and “Art of South Asia (14th to 19th Centuries)”—incorporates an introductory essay followed by detailed catalogue entries. The essays mostly focus on political history, but also weave in urban and architectural history. The 289 catalogue entries, written by 38 contributors, vary in content depending on the authors’ interests, but issues of production and patronage remain at the fore. In general the objects are organized not only chronologically but also by medium: manuscripts and works on paper (paintings before drawings), followed by ceramics, metalware, and other portable arts, with textiles often the last group. Such a hierarchy of materials is not apparent in the gallery installations themselves. There, on the contrary, the sizes of the objects establish such hierarchies. Textiles, for example, take up the most amount of space and thus draw a lot of attention. This perhaps points to the different audiences of the catalogue and the galleries, or the different kinds of viewing encouraged by the two.

The collecting history of the Department of Islamic Art also had a significant influence on the appearance of the new galleries. As Soucek explains in her introductory catalogue essay, until the establishment of a separate department for the art of the Near East in 1932, the Islamic collection grew with gifts. The ensuing period, from 1932 until the foundation of a Department of Islamic Art in 1965, is marked by the museum’s involvement in archaeological excavations, leading to the rich collection of materials from Nishapur and Sabz Pushan now exhibited in gallery 452. The collection has grown since then through both gifts and acquisitions, and is impressive in its breadth—yet there are some areas that seem to have received more attention. The largest number of objects on view and detailed in the catalogue are from the Persianate cultural sphere, pointing to both collection practices and the availability of materials on the art market. The heavy emphasis on objects from the medieval period is closely linked with the interests of earlier scholars in the field. Certainly most of these objects seem to have entered the collection before 1965. Turning to more recent acquisitions and gifts, one observes that materials from South Asia seem to have gained currency in the 1970s, and acquisitions since the 1990s have begun to include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century materials, mirroring academic scholarship that has begun to focus more on recent periods. The collection of “modern” and “contemporary” art from the Islamic world is clearly considered outside the purview of this department, since even the most recent objects they have acquired belong to traditional artistic and craft traditions. This is also signaled by the wall text in the introductory gallery, which refers to “the Islamic period” in the past tense, indicating that the collection’s scope does not continue to the present. The highly publicized Moroccan Courtyard, built for the reinstallation by craftsmen from Fez, steadfastly adheres to traditional materials, techniques, and designs, and its goal is to evoke a medieval courtyard, not to create a modern one.

Important discoveries made through conservation work in the past eight years are more evident in the catalogue than in the galleries, simply because they are often not plainly visible in the objects. The fragmentary folios from a Qur’an manuscript (cat. no. 117 a–e, displayed in the introductory gallery) probably produced for Tamerlane are an apt example. Canby’s research, in tandem with conservation work that analyzed the back sides of the folios, suggests that the six fragments are actually continuous with each other, and that the coarse and unsized paper on the back side of the fragments shows that folios that were originally double-sided were split up, probably for sale individually. It is fascinating that fragments bought in such distant moments as 1918, 1921, and 1972 would be continuous with each other, suggesting they were separated after arriving in the West. More visible are the changes in the reinstallation of the Damascus Room, a wood-paneled reception room from an Ottoman house in Syria, dating to 1707, removed from its original context in the 1930s and first installed in the Metropolitan in the mid-1970s (cat no. 238, gallery 461). The conservation process made it evident that the room as previously installed was missing two vertical wall panels and a riser for the seating area, which are now housed in the Doris Duke Foundation in Honolulu. The catalogue entry states that the panels “were photographically reproduced, printed on fabric, and mounted in the new installation on boards of the original size and shape.” The entry also provides the poetry inscribed on the walls and the ceiling of the room, allowing for a more complete understanding of the space. Indeed, one of the most impressive and useful aspects of the catalogue is the transcription and translation of the inscriptions from most of the objects and architectural fragments. Although not always complete, the transcriptions are extremely helpful to the scholar and interesting to the casual browser. In many ways, the catalogue completes the installation of the new galleries, providing further information on select pieces, detailing the historical and social contexts in which the works were made and used, and outlining the results of conservation efforts.

Perhaps the most remarked-upon feature of the new installation (after the name change) is the architectural context that has been created for the display of objects. The use of wooden mashrabiyya screens on the internal walls of the galleries that open onto the Greek and Roman courtyard below, the marble columns imitating the aesthetics and proportions of the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Damascus, the pointed arch separating the Safavid from the South Asian gallery, and, above all, the Moroccan Courtyard have been criticized as “casting [the objects] into an ambiguous zone between the artistic and the cultural, sometimes even bordering on the ethnographic” (Rabbat, 76). Yet they are successful and important for two reasons. First, many of the pieces on view were intended to be seen and used with other similar objects as parts of architectural ensembles, and thus their aesthetic, visual qualities are actually enhanced, rather than diminished, by being viewed in the company of other like pieces and under light conditions that approximate the original contexts. Secondly, the Metropolitan is also home to an impressive array of architectural fragments that are on display; the Damascus Room is perhaps the most spectacular and complete, but certainly not the only one. The jali screens from the period of the Mughal Emperor Akbar that separate the introductory gallery from the first South Asia gallery, the luster-glazed mihrab that takes center stage in the Iran and Central Asia (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) gallery, not to mention the spectacular Spanish woodwork ceiling of gallery 459, already provide such contexts for the portable objects. The modern embellishments bring the architectural fragments scattered throughout the galleries into a more cohesive display with these portable objects. Similarly, the colors chosen for the walls, like the red tones of the South Asia galleries and the different stones used for the floors, are approximations of the spaces in which the textiles, ceramics, and woodwork on display would have been used. The architectural interventions thus enhance the aesthetic properties of the objects on view. The cluster, for example, of Mamluk glass lamps in gallery 454 is made all the more successful because of both the dimmed lighting in which one views them and the clustering itself, for such lamps would have been seen in the company of others. An extended label in this case, titled “Mamluk Art and Architectural Patronage,” nicely connects the portable pieces to the buildings they would have been used in. The curators have struck a tasteful balance, without going overboard and turning the galleries into the bazaar-like settings of nineteenth-century displays.

The catalogue, too, gives ample space to architecture. Not only does every section begin with a photograph of a building from the relevant context, but the essays also touch upon the close correlation between architectural design and the portable arts. Carboni’s essay, the “Art of Egypt and Syria (10th to 16th Centuries),” weaves together political history and the discussion of portable works in different media (rock crystal, textiles, ceramics) with architecture and urban history, emphasizing the central place of the city of Cairo in the production and consumption of luxury materials. In the process, he also incorporates the discussion of architectural pieces such as the doors from the minbar of the Mosque of Amir Qawsun in Cairo (cat. no. 113, on display in the introductory gallery, 450), and even points to the architectural features of portable objects such as a Mamluk brass-and-silver brazier (cat. no. 104, on display in gallery 454). Some catalogue entries, such as numbers 62 and 63 on the outstanding stucco princely figures exhibited in gallery 453 (architectural decorations), both provide fresh scholarship, with original research and important findings, as well as suggest new attributions and earlier dating. The catalogue certainly goes far beyond synthesizing existing scholarship—it makes important claims and significant contributions to the field.

If the relationships between portable arts and architecture form one theme common to the catalogue and the new galleries, another with even stronger resonance is the interconnectedness of the Islamic world with other artistic and visual traditions. Upon entering “Arab Lands and Iran under the Umayyads and Abbasids (7th to13th Centuries)” (gallery 451), one is welcomed by two cases along the left and right walls. The left case is titled “Early Exchanges with the Byzantine and Greco-Roman Tradition,” and the right case includes examples of “Early Exchanges with Iran and Mesopotamia.” In this room are blue-and-white ceramics in imitation of Tang dynasty production and objects made from teak wood imported from South and Southeast Asia. In later galleries on Iran and Central Asia (ninth to thirteenth centuries in gallery 453, and thirteenth to sixteenth centuries in gallery 455) the links with Chinese art are highlighted in object labels. The phoenix and dragon motifs in the luster-painted tiles and the drawing of the two lohans based on a Chinese original (both in gallery 455) are perhaps the most obvious examples of the vibrant links between China and the eastern Islamic world. Ottoman and Safavid ceramicists, too, drew upon Chinese Ming porcelain, as demonstrated by cat. nos. 156 (elephant-shaped water jar [kendi]) and 212 (large-footed blue-and-white ceramic dish in tazza form), displayed in galleries 460 and 462, respectively. The beauty and quality of Chinese ceramics and silks enticed Islamic artists from as early as the ninth century onward. From the Umayyad and Abbasid gallery to the Ottoman and Safavid ones, all of the galleries are peppered with the work of ceramicists who created novel techniques and designs in their attempts to approximate Chinese ware.

Navina Najat Haidar, in her introductory catalogue essay, writes of the deliberate emphasis on interconnections and cultural context in the reinstallation, highlighting the open passage to the nineteenth-century European painting galleries from the Egypt and Syria (tenth to sixteenth centuries) gallery (454). Currently, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Prayer in the Mosque (1871), depicting the interior of the seventh-century Cairene mosque of ‘Amr, and Bashi-Bazouk (1868–69) hang directly opposite gallery 454, visually linking it with nineteenth-century European painting. This opening functions in two ways: for the visitor of the nineteenth-century painting galleries, it provides access to the kinds of objects displayed in Orientalist paintings; for the visitor to the Islamic galleries, it serves as a reminder of the nineteenth-century context in which Europeans and North Americans began to collect Islamic objects, which ultimately led to displays such as the new galleries of the Metropolitan. This passage is therefore rather different than the other linkages discussed by Haidar and evident in the display. While most other examples of interconnectedness speak to ancient Iranian, Greco-Roman, Chinese, South Asian, African, or Western European motifs, techniques, materials, or ideas being adopted by artists working within the Islamic world, the passageway into the nineteenth-century European painting galleries points to Europe’s fascination with the Islamic world.

Another relevant point Haidar rightly makes concerns the reconfigured display of art from the western Islamic lands—Spain, Italy, and North Africa. This material is accessible from the introductory gallery, diagonally across from the entrance to the Umayyad and Abbasid gallery, as if to signal that early Islamic art developed similarly in two different geographic places, east and west. But unlike the Umayyad and Abbasid gallery, which is cast as the beginnings of Islamic visual culture that continues in the other galleries in a seamless progression, the Western Islamic Art Gallery (457) covers a vast chronology in a very small space and with significantly less artistic variety. It ends at the Moroccan courtyard. Complexities of cultural exchange in the western Islamic lands are laid bare by Olga Bush’s catalogue essay, “Art of Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean.” The difficulty of assigning some of these objects, such as the majestic oliphant on display in this gallery (cat. no. 38), to specific sites of manufacture attests to a visual culture shared around the Mediterranean, and is a reminder of the complexity of the artistic traditions in the Islamic world. The widespread use of production techniques in some media (glassmaking is another good example: see cat. nos. 13–19) makes precise localization difficult, or perhaps unnecessary. Unusual objects such as the star tiles from Andalucía (cat. nos. 43 a–b) demonstrate how techniques were introduced to new areas, as in the case of luster painting in Spain. This gallery also helps to complicate questions of patronage and audience by displaying “Islamic” objects made for non-Muslim patrons, like the necklace of cat. no. 45 with its inscription “Ave Maria Gracia Plen[a]” and textiles with Arabic blessings later used in ecclesiastical contexts.

In her discussion of interconnectedness in the new galleries, Haidar also points to the expanded South Asia galleries, where patrons, artists, and political realities make it impossible to separate Islamic from non-Islamic. The new South Asia galleries have objects from the Metropolitan’s Asian Art Department, pointing the way to fruitful collaborations that expand the scope of the galleries even further. In her second catalogue essay, “Art of South Asia (14th to 19th Centuries),” Haidar discusses in satisfying detail not only the pre-Mughal Islamic dynasties in India, but also the colonial period, and thereby touches once more on the interactions between Islamic art and non-Islamic artistic traditions, whether European or South Asian.

In her introductory essay, Haidar lays emphasis on the fact that the “open plan and new circular path of the expanded gallery space allow for wide-ranging cultural interconnections to be discerned throughout the display” (10). This is most obvious around galleries 455 and 459–64, beginning with Iran and Central Asia (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries), and moving forward in time, but also moving west into the Ottoman Empire and east into South Asia. The undeniable importance of the Ilkhanid and Timurid artistic traditions displayed in gallery 455 for these contemporary and later periods becomes evident as the visitor walks through these galleries. Individual objects, such as a book of prayers displayed in the Safavid gallery (gallery 462, cat. no. 191)—created in the southern Iranian city of Isfahan but displaying Kashmiri and Deccani aesthetics in its lacquered binding and illuminations—attest to continued and multidirectional exchanges between these two geographies. The impact of Persian artists traveling to India in the sixteenth century is well known in the scholarship, but the display of this object and discussion of it in the catalogue expand the history of connections between Iran and India into a period and into geographies discussed less often. Indeed, the open, circular path allows these cultural connections to become fully visible.

The catalogue and the reinstallation together present the art and architecture of the Islamic world in much greater complexity than in the former installation, illuminating the multiplicity of visual traditions and the changes they went through over time. For the educated viewer, or one who visits the exhibition after having read the catalogue, these lessons are quite clear. One cannot help but wish that they had been made even more explicit, with further emphasis on use and meanings, by more detailed didactic materials (such as extended wall labels) in the galleries themselves.

Emine Fetvacı
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University