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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



The Lovers, dated Tuesday, 8 Shawwal A. H. 1039/May 21, 1630 A.D. Artist: Riza-yi 'Abbasi (ca. 1565-1635). Iran, Isfahan. Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper. Painting: 6-7/8 x 4-3/8 in. (17.5 x 11.1 cm). Page: 7 1-8 x 4 3/4 in. (18.1 x 11.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Francis M. Weld Gift, 1950 (50.164). Image (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
I can’t help but be aware of how the attention we pay to the culture of the Middle East has increased since 9/11. This aspect of political correctness is, of course, an outgrowth of the attention paid to other ethnic groups, but spiced with the sauce of rebellion against one’s own government, which can be (although it isn’t necessarily) another form of adolescent rebellion against one’s parents, and as such a staple ingredient of dada. If I were a couple of generations younger, I’d be half-Iranian instead of half-Hungarian. Back in 1930, when my radically-inclined WASP mother was husband-hunting, Hungarians were the most outrageous: clever, totally outside the WASP class system, and subtly barbarian, being as they were descended from Attila the Hun. Only a true democrat like my mother could think of marrying a Hungarian, but then again, they were so chic (and so very big in Hollywood). All of which applies to Iranians today, since they not only make good movies but come from a nation whose leaders shower hostility upon us, and might or might not be building an atom bomb.(Why shouldn’t they have a bomb? It’s the only way they’re going to get respect from the U.S. Look at how nicely we treat the North Koreans, Pakistanis, Chinese, Russians, and Indians, all of whom have nuclear capabilities. This should be no reason for anybody – including the Israelis, who are also believed to be members of the nuclear club–to go to war with Iran. I’m opposed to preventive war on principle–you never know where you’ll wind up.)

Anyway, in the past decade we have seen an efflorescence of attention paid to the various Middle Eastern cultures, and so it should be no surprise that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November 2011 opened a suite of 15 renovated and expanded New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia — galleries to house the Met’s collection of Islamic art. Or at least a tenth of it, since the total collection is comprised of more than 12,000 works of art, and only about 1, 200 items will be on display at any one time. And it’s quite a show, not only because of the many individual items on view, but also because of the inclusion of whole architectural segments, including a stunning mosaic-covered mihrab (prayer niche) from 14th century Isfahan; a large, high-ceilinged gallery with deep purple walls, and an elaborately carved ceiling; the 18th-century Damascus Room (a reception area or “Qa’a” from the homes of wealthy Syrians during the Ottoman period); and a charming little Moroccan courtyard with a fountain, two welcome benches, and surrounding arcades created by genuine 21st century Muslim craftsmen.

The 15 galleries follow a roughly chronological and somewhat geographic sequence, with the earliest galleries dedicated to the Arab lands and Iran in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods (7th to 13th centuries, or in other words from shortly after the founding of Islam by Mohammad) The last galleries display art produced in India and Pakistan as late as the 19th century, after the spread of Islam eastward; ceramics created in Spain, prior to its re-conquest by Christians in the 15th century, and ivories carved by Muslim craftsmen in Sicily after it had been reclaimed for Christianity by the Normans in the 11th century. Although the countries spanned in this huge display thus run from east to west over thousands of miles, even that doesn’t include the full territory of Islam at its peak. I didn’t notice anything from Hungary, for instance, although it too was occupied by the Turks for centuries, or anything from the other Eastern European countries where Muslims still abide–or, for that matter, anything from the Far East, though Indonesia, in particular, still has millions of Muslims.

Most of what’s on view is archaeological as opposed to art-historical, with ceramics, glassware, jewelry, textiles, metalwork & architectural elements dominating exhibits, especially in earlier galleries. Almost everything, however, is masterfully made, and hints at a different way of life, in sunny climes where buildings had to be made to be cool & shady. In the later galleries, crafts are joined by arts, with much calligraphy (sometimes large, and indeed spectacular) and paintings (mostly small, but occasionally a tad naughty). In a special glass case, with chairs in front so that one may study them in all their minuscule detail, are a whole marvelous set of 7 illuminated folio sheets from what is now Afghanistan, created between 1425 and 1487, plus a famous, particularly inviting one from the same area of a congress of birds, being addressed by a hoopoe, ca.1600. What fun! In other galleries, both exceptional earlier (15th century) Persian miniatures and later (17th & 18th century) Mughal paintings are on view, but the latest (19th century) Indian works, including “company” paintings made for the European market, are not in a league with the earlier work. One needs them, to be sure, for the sake of completeness, and so one can see what happened to a great tradition, but it isn’t a happy story. Fortunately, there is so much else to see in this section of the Met that it fully deserves the crowds gathering to witness it.

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