From Peace to Discovery

John Haber
in New York City

The Met's Islamic Galleries

Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India

What one thinks of the Met's new Islamic wing naturally depends on what one thought of the old one. Clear, bright, airy, and open, it has to come as a joy to anyone who remembers a dreary, dark, forbidding maze. Larger in area and scope, from Spain to Pakistan and from Egypt to India, it will dispel nightmares and illusions of a closed, monolithic Arab world. It extends for that matter beyond Islam.

For me, nothing can quite recapture memories of the old wing. I recall a very special respite from the rest of the museum, a place of peace and discovery. Then again, memories are like that, and who is to say if they were ever true? Most people, though, will have no memories of the old wing at all, for they were never there. At most, they remember a time when Islam was less a source of fear or perplexity than a gap in experience. They deserve to have the last word, and the expansion delivers. The Islamic galleries, Damascus Room (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1707)

At least we can all agree on something: the Met also delivers "Wonder of the Age," master painters of India. The exhibition opened before the Islamic galleries, as a kind of teaser. Like the new wing, it tries to say everything, but this time through a mere handful of artists. Just to describe them is to imagine what else must have come in between. It is a wonder.

The fullness of Islam

The Islamic wing offers a gorgeous succession of objects, places, empires, and cultures, but what was it like before? I remember a pillared architecture and a carpet that scrolled down from wall to floor, like passages beyond experience. I remember a somber carpet that almost filled a room, as if to empty it of distractions. I remember the Damascus Room from 1707, a reception chamber transformed into an image of ease and self-reflection. Most of all, I remember manuscripts from the early sixteenth century, as a dizzying parallel universe to the Renaissance. I spent most of my time with their designs and colors.

They are all there, too, except perhaps for the peace. Nothing is going to bring back a time, not so very long ago, when one could have galleries and museum galleries almost to oneself. Then, too, the memories probably say more about me than about the collection. No doubt it was as cramped and confusing as people say. Now, with fifteen rooms for twelve hundred objects, the discoveries will keep coming for anyone. A museum today does more to aid them, too, with pointers to the requisite political history.

The Met insists on the fullness of this history, starting with the awkward new name of "The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia." One could invent something a bit shorter and easier to remember, like "Mostly Islamic Art" (MIA) or maybe "Islam Near Asia and the Near East" (oh, never mind). The MIA has been MIA for a long time now, since 2003. It is just coincidence that the eight years correspond to the Iraq war, with the disastrous turn of a response to 9/11 and to disaster into a new crusade. It is just coincidence that the reopening comes so soon after a September 11 Memorial or the Arab spring. It is just coincidence, too, that it is now perfectly okay to make art about 9/11—or to admire Islam and art of the Arab lands today.

It is welcome all the same—and a recovery of history. That history still starts with the spread of Islam in the late 1600s and still ends with the encounter of eastern empire and western Imperialism. It is also still in the domain of the Met's Islamic department, which has commissioned new recreations like a luxuriant inlaid ceiling of wood and tiling. It tracks the succession of empires through an early capital in Baghdad, Tamerlane and those years around the High Renaissance in Europe, the Ottomans further West, and the Mughals in south Asia. Daggers and depictions of war appear almost as often as places for learning and for prayer. Yet the sense of continuity in the art remains.

The mostly large, strongly lit rooms hold out a welcome of their own. They start with new mosque lamps out front to guide one in. They proceed as a simple rectangle back to where one began, with additional rooms flanking two sides of the rectangle—one mostly for the Ottomans and the carpets, one for later centuries in the art of Iran and India. Smaller rooms at the corners contain special exhibitions and an excavation from the 1930s and 1940s, each planned down to the flooring to represent its culture. The pillars and arches now frame a room for Spain and North Africa. The Damascus Room is renovated in the name of accuracy, but also for the flood of simulated sunlight into the subdued light of the interior.

The welcome extends to a refusal to close the wing off from the rest of the museum. A window grille in the first room looks down onto the court for Roman art, although I doubt many will peer hard enough to find out. A side door allows a sudden exit to the nineteenth-century wing, by way of European views of North Africa. If the openness can dilute the experience, it looks downright intimate after the last thirty years of renovations. It sure beats the schlocky hall leading to Impressionism, the wasted space of the Robert Lehman wing, the blustery sculpture court connecting European art to Modernism, and more, with the new American wing about to reopen. It beats the entirety of MoMA since 2004 or the boxy new home for the New Museum on the Bowery.

Joy in myth and nature

The welcome shows, too, in an Islamic wing in miniature, as an opening room. If anything aims for a public with no memories of the past, this does admirably. It holds that window grill and a weighty inlaid door from around 1325. Later one will meet an inlay in which every tile is distinct. A vase introduces the blue that will explode later in Syrian polychrome and ceramic prayer niches. Later too in Iran, the blue will become translucent.

A dagger introduces not the art of war, along with an emphasis on decorative arts as not just a relief from life, but as the embodiment of life itself. The first centuries will turn out to concern mostly household objects, like coins and drinking vessels, some in the form of humans or animals. A chess set from around 1100 will be all but abstract. In fine art after the fifteenth century, illustration will turn more and more to domestic life, like a couple together—all the more so given the reticence of much of Islam to introduce images into worship. Not that art stops serving royalty. In the Damascus Room, a volume stands alone on a shelf, as much for display as for study.

The first room also has the first carpet, and its patterning a bestiary surrounded by a fringe of birds. Islamic art, it announces, has room for joy, and nature and myth blend together. Art in Egypt includes mythical birds, and the pillared arches have animal carvings known as oliphants. The final room for Indian art includes a great fruit bat from around 1780, with one wing held out. The ink shading lends it realism but also drama. Audubon might have stumbled upon a miniature caped gentleman.

The first room naturally introduces the Koran, the one universal signifier. Its elongated script decorates a bowl, although that style of writing did not develop all at once. At first, the book was meant to be read, by force if need be, and with a wider literacy it would be read again. A book stand, also in the first room, plays decorative carving against the simplicity of an X, with two slats for legs. It takes shape from an open book. On the page, calligraphy moves over time to free-floating blocks as part of the overall design.

And the first room has illuminated manuscript at its peak, from Sultan Muhammad in Herat around 1525. I remember more of it in the past—perhaps because it fell more together, more likely because it was my personal discovery. I relished the slippage between fantasy and realism, where enemies can be demons and people can disport on the grass while angels descend on the roof. I relished even more the shifting role of diagonals, as everything from perspective to architecture to decoration to margins for text to drawing itself. They create stories within stories, like sidewise glances between soldiers in war. They allow for shifts in emotional register, like swimmers beside mystics or a funeral as a scene of joy.

That first Persian miniature has it all. It illustrates an angel of mercy who snatched away a reveling cup and brought instead the gift of water. One would never know it, though, not when angels feed one another and a playful hero on a balcony dangles the ewer by a knotted rope two stories below. Others sleep, rage, play music, or hastily slip away. Islamic art is mostly a man's world, with women as temptations away from battle and as accessories. Still, at least this once everyone has a part, and it will take more than a few visits to the new wing to remember them all.

A passage to India

After all that, can the Met sum up eight centuries in India, from 1100 to 1900, even with more than two hundred works? Is it appropriate for a show to try? Just imagine a survey of that entire period in Europe. Can an exhibition represent diverse traditions and so vast a geography? Does it have the right loans and the right choice of barely forty artists to succeed? Does it describe them accurately and fairly?

And am I better off not knowing? I am less familiar with the art of India than of many fewer centuries in China, Japan, or the Middle East—much less of Europe and America. I also do not have the background in politics, religions, culture, and personal histories that I try to bring to Western art. I would be reduced to reciting the press release. And, I have argued, that is what too many critics do whenever they step out of contemporary art. Good criticism makes art fresher and more interesting, rather than just votes it up and down.

So there, and it frees me up for a change for a few words of giddy and uninformed praise. I shall rush through the experience without so much as a name, although so few artists make for a finer and more informative experience. For starters, the Met argues, those are the centuries that matter. It sees the origin of Indian art in manuscript illumination, with rectangular bursts of color and gold like thumbnails in pages of text. Then it sees an endpoint in not just the dissolution of a culture, but in the incursion of photography. That would not make much sense for Europe, where the artistic impact and status of photography continue to engage critics and scholars, but it allows the show to end with some fascinating examples—with photos of painters and overlaid by painters.

Before long, painting has broken out of the text, although a small scale and watercolor dominate well into the show's last century. One who thinks of Indian art as static will be surprised. So will one whose first mental image is a gentleman with a turban and robust skirt. Gold and distinct fields of colors slowly lose their primacy, before reasserting themselves around 1800, but they animate scenes from the first. Profiles hardly preclude a fascination with individual psychology, and a horizon line opens onto skies deepened by stars.

Later centuries gracefully extend that format. Early work has mostly Jain and Hindu themes, although secular and religious narratives co-exist more than one may expect from Christian art. The final two hundred years glorify what one might call lifestyles of the rich and famous, in a Mughal culture depicted as leisurely and luxuriant. Those final compositions may also become more crowded and yet formally restrained. In between comes perhaps the greatest naturalism and subtlety, from tumbling animals to human action. Color brightens and softens into gradations of light and shade that can suggest deep space or a gentle mist.

In between, too, come encounters with other arts and empires, starting roughly at the time of the Renaissance in Europe. First is the precision of Islamic art from its own representational years. That includes diagonals to represent at a given moment surfaces, architecture, or perspective. Next is the West, including prints by Albrecht Dürer and others. A painter rather improves on Dürer's intellectualism, giving the interior more space for precious objects and for solitude—and giving a head emotional poignancy where the German's Saint John had mostly piety. Still, I admired most the colors, the mist, the luxury, and the animals.

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The Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened November 1, 2011. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India" ran through January 8, 2012. Additional examples of Islamic art ran at The Morgan Library through January 29, including Persian script and illuminated manuscript with an emphasis on Sufi mysticism. A related review looks at the Met's 2013 installation of its galleries for European paintings.


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