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Posts tagged Islam
A tour guide leading a group of visitors through the new galleries of Islamic art at the Met explained that all of the works fell into four categories: calligraphic, vegetal (or arabesque), geometric and figural. After seeing the galleries I understood that all four of those things are the same. They are all about the line, and the art on display is essentially graphic.
The most powerful pieces are the manuscripts filled with text and illustrations. Sometimes a page requires careful inspection, and you fall into tit like a diorama. And sometimes a page compels you to step back so that the words, rendered in an extravagant, expressive Arabic script, collapse into a pulsating all-over pattern. The drawings of the human figure are naturalistic but not realistic. The artists were obviously looking at the body as they drew, but cared more about composing a fine, ideal figure on the page than about getting the proportions right. The scenes — of mythology, courtly life, war, and love — are well-observed but, to a western visitor, stubbornly anti-perspectival. Like so much of the artwork on display, it rests on the surface.
There’s been much ballyhoo about The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia at the Met. None of the artwork is new; these objects have been part of the Met’s permanent collection for decades. But current geopolitics make it important to look at this part of the world (basically, the Muslim world) more attentively. And as we do we can congratulate ourselves for learning about another culture. The Times (unintentionally, I’m sure) captured the ambivalence perfectly in the title of their review, A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty. There’s the same faint condescension in it that there was when taste-makers first looked at African art.
In rebuilding these fifteen galleries, the Met had an extraordinary opportunity to restage works with contemporary museum protocol, and they had an extraordinary inspiration for design — Muslim architecture. But the new galleries aren’t so different from the Met’s other, older galleries: smallish, squarish, oatmeal-colored rooms, with ceilings cluttered with tracklights. There are small gestures here and there to the traditions of Muslim architecture: a white marble floor with colored inlay, two rows of hanging glass lamps, a magnificent gilded coffered ceiling, and an eighteenth century house from Damascus. As some kind of proof of historical continuity, the final gallery has been finished entirely (and handsomely) by eight craftsmen from Morocco. But none of the displays have the flair of those at the Neues Museum in Berlin, which shroud each object in magic. A generic all-white environment would have served the work better, and also offered a more sophisticated curatorial view. Over one of the explanatory wall texts, there’s a grainy black and white photo of the Great Mosque at Samarra, a huge rectangular hall with a cone-shaped ziggurat in front. There’s more architectural power here, in this small image, than in all of the new galleries combined.