By Holland Cotter
Published: March 28, 2008
Sometimes in the
history of art everything seems to be happening everywhere, all at once. The
16th century was like that. It was a grand global burst of lights. The Ming
dynasty in ; the
Renaissance in Europe; Islamic empires in ,
burning at high incandescence. Visitors traveled from one to another, buying,
selling, making plans, taking notes, amazed.
Then, as also happens, there were slowdowns;
dimmings, even blackouts here and there. Such shifts in energy form the
background to “Re-Orientations: Islamic Art and the West in the 18th and 19th
Centuries,” a superb small scholarly show, one as revealing of the past as it
is germane to the present, at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College.
The show is notable for several reasons. First, it tackles a little-studied
subject. We’ve had major exhibitions on the influence of Islamic culture on . We’ve had relatively few that trace influence the
other way, Occident to Orient. (“Royal Persian Painting: the Qajar Epoch,
1785-1925” at the Brooklyn Musem a decade ago
was a stellar exception.)
Possibly because “Occidentalized” sounds unexotic, 18th- and 19th-century
Islamic art has been largely ignored. Few of the 30 small decorative objects at
Hunter have been exhibited before, though all are from the collection of a
Which brings us to another — some might say the primary — attraction of the
show. The owning institution is the
, where the Islamic
galleries are closed for renovation. This Hunter show, unassuming as it is, is
by default the largest display of the Met’s Islamic collection in the city.
“Re-Orientations” is actually the offshoot of a larger project: a yearlong
seminar led by Ulku U. Bates, professor of Islamic art at Hunter, using
material in the Met holdings to examine the early effects of Western modernism
on Islamic cultures, its impact kicking in at different times in different
Western art styles were current in the Mughal court of India in the 16th
century, through the circulation of European prints brought by Christian
missionaries. Similar influences took root in . A late-17th-century lacquered
pen box, the show’s earliest piece, is painted with Persian roses on the
outside and a European-style landscape under the lid. And by this time Ottoman
Turkey had also come under the aggressive spell of Western culture.
The Ottoman empire was a superpower, controlling world trade, claiming
European land as its own, and as late as 1683, sending an army to the very
gates of .
, meanwhile, though nervous, was not
passive. In the fields of science, economics and industry, it was surging
ahead, becoming modern, while Islamic powers were falling behind.
Among other things, the ancient machinery of Islamic imperial government had
become a lead weight. Secular and religious impulses were in stalemate. By
comparison was light on its feet,
adaptable to quick, opportunistic change. Gradually, through a combination of
dazzle and muscle, it gained the upper hand, and then pressed down hard, and
kept pressing down, with a demeaning colonial force that remains a bitter
memory in the Islamic world.
On the positive side, though, there was the refreshment of aesthetic
exchange. Europeans were hungry for Islamic objects and styles. Islamic
cultures welcomed input from . The lure
of exoticism pulled in both directions.
This is immediately evident in the adoption of oil painting, a European
invention, by Islamic artists. Qajar court painters of made
spectacular use of it in life-size royal portraits. The sloe-eyed, androgynous
youth holding a wine glass in a painting in the show may or may not be royalty,
but he is a fine example of a Qajar type.
Islamic artists borrowed themes and styles in addition to Western art
mediums. The flowers and birds on a double-page 19th-century album cover from are
Islamic in their patterning, European in their naturalism. A cobalt-blue
cut-glass beaker was probably exported from Europe to , then
customized on arrival with the addition of a calligraphic inscription in gold.
An elaborate Qajar miniature, one in quasi-Baroque style, of Abraham
sacrificing Isaac would appear to be geared to a Western market, but not
necessarily. This biblical episode depicted is also in the Koran. In a
19th-century Qajar album painting of two lovers in a landscape, the figure of
the reclining woman, her body exposed, may well derive from a Western image —
possibly photographic — of a Persian odalisque, here recast for Persian eyes.
Orientalism meets Occidentalism, in twisty ways.
Most of the show is about exactly such blending. And even when the objects
are less than spectacular — Hunter could borrow only modest items, nothing
requiring special climate control or heavy insurance — they are rich with
information. And it is information of continuing pertinence. The tensions that
modernism produced in the Islamic world — between tradition and innovation,
sacred and profane — have been pushed to the point of explosion by the
aggressive marketing of Western values globally in the present. Seen in that
perspective, every object in the show seems to tick with a volatile history.
The lineaments of that history are laid out in superb essays by Ms. Bates
and Stefano Carboni, curator of Islamic art at the Met, in a catalog that makes
a signal contribution to the field of Islamic studies and enhanced by
contributions from the 15 students from Hunter College and the Graduate Center
of the City University of
New York who worked on the project.
Three of them — Mitra M. Abbaspour, Stéphanie Fabre and Karen Zonis — are
doctoral candidates. I will be on the lookout for their names in future
projects. If they take this quiet but intensely charged show as a template, and
Ms. Bates as a scholarly model, they can only do brilliantly.
“Re-Orientations: Islamic Art and the West in
the 18th and 19th Centuries” is at the Bertha and
through April 26. (212) 772-4991, hunter.cuny.edu.