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.