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Newsletter for February 2013
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Islam at the Louvre
courtesy: (Wall Street Journal), 25 Jan 2013
The roof of the Louvre’s new Islamic art department undulates like golden fabric gently lifted by the wind—a feat, considering it is made of steel and glass and weighs almost 150 tons. Filling a neoclassical courtyard, the addition that opened last fall tripled the space devoted to Islamic art and more than doubled the number of objects on view to almost 3,000, or about a sixth of the museum’s works from the Islamic world.
In contrast to the spectacular architecture by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the installation is understated, an elegant version of open-storage: objects grouped in long glass cases; larger pieces—carved steles, inlaid doors, stone latticed windows—clustered on low pedestals; and architectural fragments affixed to partitions. The flooring is dark, the passageways plain and the lighting democratic, giving shards of earthenware as much attention as finely woven rugs from Iran, a jewel-encrusted dagger from Mughal India or 14th-century enameled blown-glass lamps from Egypt and Syria that are about as close to numinous as objects can get.
The only special treatment afforded masterpieces are smaller, more private cases. In one, a cylindrical ivory box barely 6 inches tall teems with intricate carvings. Made in 968 for the youngest son of the Caliph of Cordoba, it features men variously listening to music, plucking dates or nabbing eggs from a falcon’s nest. Elsewhere, a lion attacks a bull, goats butt heads, men wrestle and no fewer than 17 falcons populate trees.
One of the other stand-alone cases shows off a 14th-century Syrian brass basin. Engravings and inlays of silver and gold depict hunting and court scenes, animals real and make-believe, enthroned kings and courtiers and, unusually, the name of the basin’s maker, “master Muhammad ibn al-Zayn may he be forgiven,” appears six times.
The installation also includes inspired touches. A beautifully restored and reassembled vault from 15th-century Egypt connects two galleries; listening posts offer recordings and translations of poetry; and a wall of colorful Turkish tiles from the 16th through 19th centuries greets us at the end like a grand finale of fireworks.
The Louvre’s “Arts de Islam” places arts from the Islamic world on a par with those from the museum’s seven other departments, including European “Paintings” and “Sculptures,” “Ancient Egypt” and “Greek, Roman and Etruscan Antiquities.” The museum thus presents Islam (which in French denotes a culture, not just a religion) as a civilization with distinctive artistic achievements. The first section begins with Arab conquests following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and takes us to the year 1000, by which time Arab caliphs held sway over an empire stretching from Afghanistan to Spain. The next two sections cover turbulent times. Between 1000 and 1250, Turkish converts gained control of Baghdad, and the Islamic world split into eastern and western spheres. There followed 250 years (1250-1500) during which Mongol invaders entered the mix and Islamic rule receded from Spain and spread to India. The final section focuses on the Persian Saffavid, Mughal Indian and Turkish Ottoman empires, whose artistic and scientific achievements between 1500 and 1800 dazzled Europeans.
The narrative tries to insert into this chronological account a sense of what makes a work “Islamic.” An introductory panel, for example, discusses miniaturization in Islamic art, while other displays refer to the “genesis of an art” rooted in such precedents as partitioned designs of the late Roman Empire and deep-carved, vegetal designs associated with Samarra, Iraq. The first section then concludes by stressing writing as a unifying motif. In display after display, inscriptions proliferate on vessels, steles and architectural decorations, and we then walk downstairs and into the arts of the book. Here, works from various times and places illustrate thematic points—the popularity of fables and histories, the uses of figurative painting, the evolution of the Koran from a horizontal to vertical format.
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