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A timeless exhibition with exquisite timing

A touring collection of centuries-old Islamic art, taken from London's Victoria & Albert Museum, presents an alternative to the images of terrorism that seem to fill our lives.

August 29, 2004|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

Washington, D.C. — In an era when American newspapers and television bristle with images of Islamic terrorism, another side of Islam is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington -- a show devoted to the calm and mesmerizing beauty of Islamic art.

The exhibition, "Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria & Albert Museum," was not put together for political reasons. It has a more mundane genesis. The Victoria & Albert in London has closed its Islamic rooms for reconstruction. While the revamping goes on, the museum has agreed to send a small but exquisite portion of its 10,000 Middle Eastern objects on a worldwide tour. The first stop is Washington, where the exhibition opened July 18 and will close Feb. 6.

The 150 pieces in the Washington show include some of the Victoria & Albert's finest holdings, including a 15th century minbar or pulpit from Egypt, an 18th century ceramic fireplace from Turkey, wonderful 17th century miniature drawings from Iran, delicately enameled glassware from several countries, ivory carvings from 10th century Muslim Spain, and a large sampling of extraordinary calligraphy on paper, tiles and other materials.

Although the show owes its life to the happenstance of reconstruction in London, the political importance of the timing is not lost on its organizers and sponsors. "We're not out to make a political point," said Tim Stanley of the Victoria & Albert, curator of the traveling exhibition. "But we have a mission to educate. Will the exhibition help people understand Islamic culture? I hope so."

It is surely no accident that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, is contributing funds to pay part of the expenses of the exhibition in Washington. Saudi officials have long been embarrassed by the Saudi nationalities of Osama bin Laden and many of the 9/11 terrorists.

"Now, more than ever," Prince Bandar said in a statement before the exhibition opened, "we need to work to build bridges of understanding between our societies and cultures."

The show highlights works of Islamic art from the rise of the religion in the 7th century to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I in 1918. The area covered, reflecting the extent of Arab domination of the world centuries ago, stretches from Spain across the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Uzbekistan in central Asia.

Although this history and geography created a variety of styles, the exhibition makes clear that a few characteristics dominate Islamic art. The most important stems from the prohibition of the use of images of humans and other living creatures in the decoration of mosques and religious books and objects. As Stanley puts it, this prohibition, a strict interpretation of the Koran's ban on idolatry, "has made Islamic artists more creative." As a result, nonfigurative decoration dominates Islamic art. The artists relied mainly on two kinds of patterns. The first featured entwined tendrils, vines and other vegetation; we now call these "arabesques." The second pattern displayed an array of fanciful geometric forms. These patterns are repeated relentlessly in much of Islamic art until finally broken, often by a dash of calligraphy quoting verses from the Koran. The continual repetition is so soothing that it encourages an onlooker to linger and meditate.

Both patterns are used in the exhibition's most spectacular piece, the 20-foot-high minbar from which sermons were delivered in a mosque in Cairo during the long rein of Sultan Qa'itbay from 1468 to 1496. Craftsmen fit strips of wood into the surface of the minbar in a wild geometric pattern. Medallion-like ivory pieces, each covered in arabesques, were then placed into the gaps left by the crisscrossing strips of wood. The result is an intriguing mosaic of wood and ivory. Calligraphy on top of the pulpit extols the virtues of the sultan.

In another extraordinary piece in the show, the colorful, arabesque patterns on the ceramic tiles of an early 18th century Turkish fireplace are broken both by the curves that shape the structure and by its calligraphy.

There is an astonishing variety of calligraphy in the exhibition. Since the Koran represents the revelations God made to the prophet Mohammed, it has always been vital to the religion for the Koran's contents to be set down in writing and passed on to others. This was accomplished in the main by handwritten and decorated books much like the illuminated Christian manuscripts of the European Middle Ages except for a complete absence of people and animals. The written teachings were spread in other ways as well, inscribed on ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, ivory, enameled glass bottles and lamps, and even the blade of swords.

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