Saturday, March 2, 2013

Historians of Islamic Art Association at #CAA 2013

Post made possible thanks to the support of 

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)
The first speaker on the panel was Yuka Kaido from University of Edinburg discussing two window grills from Iran, Remonumentalizing Islamic Tilework:  A New Biography of Window Grilles from Islamic Iran. One of the Window Grills was in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and the other in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. According to Dr. Kaido, the two window grills which both entered the collections of these institutions in the 1930's, and published in small museum journals are attributed as discoveries of  Arthur Upham Pope. The Berlin window was supposed to be displayed at the 1931 International exhibition of Persian Art in London. Unfortunately, Yuka Kaido revealed that the panel was damaged in transport and had to be sent to Paris for restoration. As a consequence of this, she argues that this window grill was not included in Pope's master narrative of Persian art and was not featured in the major art history of Islamic Iran.

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
There was a discussion at the end of the presentation about the date of production which cannot be ascertained - they are not sure if it is 15th century or a later copy. When one scholar from the audience suggested studying the back of the tiles for dating the adhesive used, it became clear this wouldn't be plausible for the Berlin window since it had been restored in early 20th century using the restoration techniques of the time period.  Yuka Kaido included the many dealers of Persian art including Hagop Kevorkian who had helped to cultivate westerner's taste for the arts of the near east and made these available to collectors and museums. So the two window grills that were taken from some random building in Iran sit in western museums serving as beautiful objects for their audience who, in all likelihood  might not be privy to their original intent as useful architectural elements that provided air circulation or privacy. (The photograph on the right shows a facade with a window grill in situ)

Ali b. Muhammad Mihrab, from the Tomb of Imamzade Yahya, Kashan, Iran, 1265
(Doris Duke Foundation of Islamic Art, Honolulu)
Sheila Blair's paper, Shining Bright:  Luster Mihrabs from Medieval Iran, included six mihrabs constructed using the extremely difficult and expensive lusterware technique produced in  Kashan in late 12th to the early 14th centuries by the members of only a few families. For the mihrabs, shrines and prayer niches an abundance of tiles were used as well as layers of applied decorations requiring numerous firings and special kilns according to Dr. Blair. Of the six surviving mihrabs, Dr. Blair's paper concentrated on the Ali b. Muhammad Mihrab at the Doris Duke Foundation at Shangri La which is supposed to be the most important due to its size, composition of seventy tiles and decoration. There is a short video from a previous lecture by Dr. Blair which actually includes the six mihrabs with their photographs as she showed them at this presentation.
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!"
After these papers reporting on specific objects from Iran, the next two speakers touched upon the presentation of, as well as collecting Islamic art in the 19th century.  Mona Carey's paper, "In the Absence of Originals":  Replicating the Tilework of Safavid Isfahan for the Victoria and Albert Museum, introduced fascinating revelations about the objects in the collections of the V & A that are still unphotographed and unpublished.   The combination of the ban of Christians from the sacred spaces and ancient mosques of Iran in 1875 and the high demand for Islamic artifacts by western collectors in 19th century seems to have resulted in some innovative solutions by the dedicated Major-General Robert Murdoch Smith, the director of the Persian telegraph company in Tehran (basically reporting on and acquiring Iranian artifacts for the South Kensington Museum.)

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
According to Dr. Carey, Murdoch Smith was despondent about collectors transporting these works of art to the drawing rooms of Europe which he perceived as consigning them to oblivion. In order to bypass the commodification of art Murdoch Smith came up with a brilliant solution that would meet the educational objectives of the South Kensington Museum. When he was unable to acquire originals due to the exceptionally high prices that had been driven by the avid collectors, Murdoch Smith had exact color copies made to scale, tempera on paper, of the Safavid monuments by local artists. Since the museum was founded as the Museum of Manufactures with the aim of 'Improvement of public taste in Design' and the 'application of fine art to objects of utility'1 this project would have served the purpose of providing craftsmen with inspiration for commercial and industrial design perfectly.  Dr. Carey shared the photographs taken when the drawings had been taken out for the process of rolling them out, documenting the condition and rerolling them again. Unfortunately, it seems the drawings have never been displayed and will not be in the near future either. Their monumental size and being replicas as opposed to original works of art keeps these wonderful works from being shown to the public.  I am hoping Dr. Carey will publish them soon so that at least they can be utilized as the valuable resource they are.

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 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.



  1. Thank for this wondrously written, and lavishly illustrated summary Sedef.

    When one is truly passionate about a subject, what is more delightful than being in a room full of kindred spirits?! Even with the debate and sometimes disagreement that may ensue(!), the benefits of being around such "deep knowledge" is always tangible, and resonant.

    kind regards, and keep up the wonderful work

    1. You are so right Hasan, being witness to such invigorating and enlightening conversations was truly remarkable. I am just happy that I could share my experience with an appreciative audience.

      Thanks for your kind words.


  2. Hi Sedef - How did I miss this post? You've done such a nice job of summarizing this discussion - wish I could have gone! I often struggle with a lot of these issues, personally - I'm glad I can see Islamic objects on display in a museum, because I won't be going to Iran, for example, any time soon. But when they're taken completely out of their context and become art on the wall rather than functional objects that were part of an entire composition, such as the window grilles, so much is lost. A conversation that will be ongoing for years to come, I'm sure!
    Thanks for another great one!


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