Post made possible thanks to the support of 3pipe.net
|Leighton House, Arab Hall, London|
As art historians and lovers of art, our primary objective is looking, and deciphering the significance of the artifacts before us. We try to assign meanings to our observations in accordance with our own knowledge and experiences. But when it comes to the art and culture of the Near East, the complexity of collecting, displaying as well as assisting the general public in cultivating a greater understanding of these objects that have been taken out of their original context and transported to another realm is an omnipresent one. At the College Art Association's 101's annual conference in New York two weeks ago, in the panel organized by the Historians of Islamic Art Association, these issues were exposed and discussed in all their vividness.
From personal ancestry to experience, there are many factors contributing to my particular area of interests in the history of art. Having lived in Istanbul, historically one of the richest and most diverse cities in all of Europe and the world, have left me with a curiosity towards all the civilizations that have permeated the landscape and culture of my beautiful hometown. Which is why of all the intriguing topics discussed, I was particularly drawn to the panel "Between Maker, Agent, Collector, Curator, and Conservator: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Islamic Tilework."
|Window Grill, 15th c. Iran|
(Art Institute of Chicago)
One very important point Dr. Kaido brought up during her discussion was in regards to the decontextualization of these windows. The Chicago window was mounted on a panel and awkwardly displayed in a small gallery, as an object hanging on a wall instead of the architectural element it actually is in 1936 and consequently forgotten till it was redisplayed in an exhibition of Persian art in 2010. The Berlin window which is only slightly larger than the Chicago window is placed on a wall in the entrance hall on the right hand side above an archway which most people probably miss as they rush to find the famous facade of the Mushatta remarked Kaido.
|Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque,Iran|
|Ali b. Muhammad Mihrab, from the Tomb of Imamzade Yahya, Kashan, Iran, 1265|
(Doris Duke Foundation of Islamic Art, Honolulu)
|Detail - Luster ware tile from Kashan, Iran, early 14th c.|
What is really amazing is that these mihrabs that have been removed from their original locations and in some cases moved half way across the world, still reach us nearly intact after nine centuries. Due to the removal of tiles by 19th century western collectors from Imamzade shrines which were considered to be more sacred even than mosques, an edict was issued by the Qajar government forbidding Christians from entering these shrines in 1875. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have had much of an affect since the mihrab from the Imamzade Yahya in Honolulu, according to Sheila Blair, was stripped between 1881 and 1898, taken to Paris and exhibited in the Persian Pavilion in the Exposicion Universal de Paris in 1900. Dr. Blair mentioned that according to French traveler Henri Rene d'Allemagne, the mihrab was taken to Paris hidden in boxes amidst Mozaffar ad-Din Shah's luggage. (Although why it needed to be smuggled out if it was to be displayed is a point I couldn't quite figure out) It was later purchased by Hagop Kevorkian who lent it to the Philadelphia Museum and was purchased by Doris Duke in 1940. One other point Sheila Blair did bring up was the dismantling of the mihrab during World War II when Pearl Harbor was bombed and being put together again after the war, which again emphasized the futility of trying to date the tiles by studying the plaster on the back since the whole of the object was constructed several times in the 20th century alone.
It is apparent from Dr. Blair's paper that the exquisite lusterware tiles which were meant to be part of a whole and not produced as single objects, today are dispersed throughout the museums of the world (there are supposed to be thousands in the Hermitage collection) but as she mentioned, it could be considered advantageous especially as in the case of the Honolulu mihrab to have them accessible to scholars, since it provides for close examination and further research into production. In conclusion, from being able to trace Kashan tile production through the four generations of workers coming from the same families, and the many layered methods of production, to how these tiles made their way halfway across the world, it became clear after listening to Sheila Blair's presentation that the luster tiles from Medieval Iran, will still provide many interesting topics for research in the future.
|The Six-Mark Tea-Pot|
Aesthetic Bridegroom: "it is quite consummate, Is it not!"
Intense Bride, "It is, Indeed! Oh, Algernon, Let us live up to it!"
The cartoons from Punch magazine Dr. Carey included in her presentation brought into sharp focus the "unpretentious and unintellectual" ideals of 19th century collecting "art for art's sake." Islamic as well as Asian art was supposed to be "highly collectible for domestic display" and incorporated into the western architectural interior with carpets, wall paper, tilework and even window grills. The Arab hall in Sir Frederic Leighton's house in Holland Park, "Salon of Trophy Heads" as Mona Carey refers to it, with it's collection of tileworks from Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, is cited as the "Palace vision of the Orient" that could have only existed in West London.
|Madrasah-i Shah, Isfahan, Iran|
|Panel of ten tiles, Damascus, late 16th early 17th c.|
(The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK)
The last speaker on the panel was Rebecca Bridgman from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I found her paper, From Damascus to Cambridge: William Morris and the Iznik Tile Panels at the Fitzwilliam Museum, especially interesting since her approach to making Islamic art accessible to a museum going British audience comes very close to my heart in its cross-cultural context. Dr. Bridgman mentioned the challenge of displaying Islamic art, basically a culture that their audience is less familiar with, in the traditional manner, chronologically and by style which left these artifacts without a context or contextual interpretation. I applaud her solution of displaying Islamic tiles alongside designs and objects from the more familiar Arts and Crafts movement in which the effects of Islamic art can be seen, in her new institution, Birmingham Museum, to allow their visitors to make the associations between the two and garner a deeper understanding of their significance.
|Fritware painted tile (Ottoman, Iznik style) late 16th century, Damascus|
(The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK)
|William de Morgan, Two handled vase with eagle design, Victorian, 1888-1889|
(The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK)
Furthermore, Rebecca Bridgman's paper revealed the links between Sir Sydney Cockerell, "one of the most important directors the museum has ever seen," and William Morris and his family that led to the establishment of an Islamic art collection at the Fitzwillam Museum in the first place. Dr. Bridgman made the connection of not only how the four ceramic tile panels made in Damascus in the Iznik style in the late 16th early 17th century came to be in the museum collection but also how Sir Cockerell came to be exposed to and interested in Islamic art due to his associations with William Morris in his youth. Owen Jones and Lord Leighton were mentioned as the most influential figures in 19th century Islamic art collecting in Britain who provided the impetus for the gentleman scholars whose collection would eventually end up in the museums according to Dr. Bridgman. The aesthetic interior of Lord Frederick Leighton's London studio home decorated with beautiful objects including his large selection of Iznik style tiles from Damascus that he displayed in the "Arab Hall," along with Owen Jones and his influential publication, Grammar of Ornament, recording the developments in non-Western art and focusing heavily on Islamic art, were cited as the visual evidence of these gentlemen's fascination with Islamic art. William Morris, one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement who was a contemporary of these men apparently also had a large collection of Islamic art including textiles, metalworks and manuscripts. This collection also seems to have been dispersed throughout the museums of Britain including the V & A and the Fitzwilliam.
In conclusion, this engrossing panel addressed many issues relating to Islamic objects residing in Western museums today. The decontextualizing of Islamic artifacts that had been collected mostly in the 19th century both with a scholarly ideal of discovery and education as well as following the fashionable pursuits of the day and the response of modern day viewers to these "foreign" objects are complex issues without a single correct solution unfortunately. The question and answer period after the presentations were just as lively as the papers themselves where subjects ranging from the acceptable way to utilize replicas in a museum setting, to the advantage of having these objects which had been in safekeeping in the West in order to use in the conservation of the originals were discussed. Finally, Jonathan Bloom concluded by observing that in the past, scholars of Islamic culture and art had to know everything in a wast geography, over a very long period of time but now it turns out they needed to add 19th century collectors into this mix as well to answer the questions that still need to be answered.
On a personal note, I must thank my good friend and fellow blogger, Hasan, from 3pipe.net who showed his generosity as he always does in providing me with the press pass that was offered to him in order to cover the conference. The conference provided me with the opportunity to not only broaden my horizons intellectually but also to connect with other bloggers that are part of a wonderful online community. I hope this will be the harbinger of new trends where the online community of art historians can become part of an organization that serves the whole of the arts community.