When Edwin Binney 3rd recently divided his collection of Ottoman Turkish art between the County Museum of Art and Harvard University's Fogg Museum, there was cause for rejoicing on both sides of the country. Before the split, Binney's cache was the richest of its kind outside the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, according to Thomas Lentz, assistant curator of West Asian and Egyptian art at the County Museum.
Rejoice we did, but with a rather vague concept of what we were getting. Islamic culture has become prominent in the news, but it is still foreign to most art history survey courses, and the Ottoman Empire covered such a vast sweep of time and geography that it is difficult to assimilate. Falling outside the Western-civilization bias of traditional U.S. higher education, Ottoman Turkish art adds confusion to ignorance by encompassing the scope of conquerers who adapted indigenous art to their own purposes.
What would be in the Binney gift to Los Angeles? Sparkling miniatures and illuminated manuscripts? Effusively patterned tiles and ceramic utensils? Ornate textiles? Leather book bindings embossed with gold filigree medallions? Intricate metal work? Graceful calligraphy? Exotic objects of precious stone and jewels?
An exhibition of about half the 128 items donated to the museum (on the fourth floor of the museum's Ahmanson Building, through Sept. 7) answers yes to all those questions. The show has little depth in any one area, but it touches on enough artforms and history to provide basic education in the period.
"What I love about the collection is that it is comprehensive," Lentz said. "It covers the rise, the glory and the decline of the Ottoman Empire."
Turks were originally imported to the Middle East as military slaves but gradually gained power, he explained. A dramatic turning point came in 1071 when they defeated the Byzantines in Anatolia, which opened the territory to Turkification. Though the Ottoman Empire officially ran from 1281 to 1924 (including at its peak significant portions of Europe, Asia and Africa), the Turks were a dominant force for more than 800 years.
"They had the typical problem of invaders--how to legitimize their rule," Lentz continued. "They couldn't just be military authorities; it also was essential to be patrons of culture."
They adopted Persian as the official court language and at first depended upon Persian artforms, gradually changing the Persian palette and turning from typically fantastic depictions to a more three-dimensional reality.
The Turks also tended to fudge the record. Perhaps the most telling document in the exhibition is an apocryphal genealogy illustrating the descent of the Ottoman sultans from Mohammed--and working everyone from Mary and Jesus to Genghis Khan into the lineage.
"This manipulated geneology reveals how insecure they were," Lentz said. "They were just really strong guys who came in and took from everybody."
Given the circumstances and caprices of Ottoman art, there's little wonder that many of the "Persian" works Binney first collected turned out to be Turkish or that there is still much confusion among Westerners about the culture. "Islamic art is a baby field in terms of scholarship," said Lentz. A Persian specialist, he says that even he is still learning and that there are "really meaty areas" yet to be investigated.
Binney (whose fortune came from the Binney & Smith Crayola empire and whose formal education is in the field of French literature) is also a renowned collector of Indian paintings, American quilts, and prints and books documenting the history of ballet. Of all his interests, his passion for Ottoman Turkish art strikes Americans as the most exotic.
The exhibition itself, though, is not a splashy affair that plays up the romance of a fabled era. It consists primarily of fragments and objects out-of-context that demand a close reading of aesthetic details and printed labels.
Single decorated tiles can't duplicate the dizzying experience of entering a room covered with convoluted floral and geometric patterns. Fragments of lush silk brocades woven with stylized patterns of nature only provide the barest clues to an empire that awarded treasured textiles as prizes in athletic competitions. An exhibited kerchief was used as a gift wrapping but probably was more valuable than its cargo.
A battle banner invoking God's help in victory and a horse's gilded head piece (with a holder for a plume and attachments for fabric) barely suggest the emphasis on military pomp and power that gave the Ottomans a base for their artistic achievements.