The Art of Islam

stlukesguild

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The Art of Islam

Islam's Vast Contributions to Art

We've probably all heard or read the comments of some ignorant individual asking, "What has Islam ever given the world?" These two videos offer a marvelous introduction to the Art of Islam.

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Islamic Art is a vast world as large and diverse as that of Europe. It spreads from the Arabian Penninsula through Persia in present-day Iran and Iraq, to the Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Turkey, and all the way west to the Moors in North Africa and the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain. As an admirer of decorative art, pattern, mosaics, and the use of gold it is unsurprising that I have long loved Islamic Art. My admiration was only increased through my exposure to Islamic and Persian literature including the Arabian Nights, Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, the Poems of Arab Andalusia, Omar Kayyam, Hafez, Nizami, etc...

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I was especially struck by the Rostan Pashir (or Pasha) Mosque in Istanbul designed by Mimar Sinan, the Imperial Court Architect for the Grand Vizier, Rustam Pashir, the husband of one of the daughters of Suleiman the Magnificent. In this mosque, Sinan surpassed himself, covering nearly the entire interior with the most gorgeous Ottoman tile designs:

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The contemporary artist, Robert Kushner traveled throughout the Middle-East in his youth and later traveled throughout the Far East (Japan, Korea, China...). He was especially struck by the respect the art forms such as calligraphy and pattern had wheras in the West these were often dismissed as merely decorative and minor art forms in contrast to painting. My own artistic philosophy was undoubtedly influenced by Islamic Art as well as the "decorative" arts of Japan, the Byzantines, the Early Italian Renaissance... and later Klimt, Mucha, Matisse, Bonnard, etc...

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The closing comments in the second video were quite thought-provoking IMO:

"The Qur'an is many things; an instruction book, a history, a guide to life. But it's also an architectural manual. Any one who reads it properly must be struck by the similarities between the descriptions of paradise given in the Qur'an and the gorgeous worlds constructed by the Mughals.

Sura 55 details the pleasures of paradise:

"There will be two gardens, dark green in color from plentiful watering. In them will be springs pouring forth water in continuous abundance... and fruits, and dates, and pomegranates. They will recline on carpets whose inner-linings will be of rich brocades like rubies and coral. Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?"

The gorgeous world of the Mughals isn't just a display of spending. It's never godless or merely greedy. Fountain for fountain, palace for palace, garden for garden all of it is an attempt to imagine the Islamic Paradise... and an effort to fulfill the Islamic obligation to build that Paradise on Earth.

You never see ugliness in Islamic Art... or neurosis... or personal problems... or any of that dark stuff that so obsesses Western artists. Islamic Art always, always tries to look as beautiful as it can. Why? Because it recognizes that the problems of the artist are just storms in a tea-cup... utterly irrelevant in the wider scheme of things."

I remember reading similar comments expressed by the contemporary painter, Sean Scully. He spoke of his experience of coming upon the paintings of Mark Rothko and thought of his paintings as almost religious... a sort of non-denominational religious art. This was what Scully suggests he was striving for in his art. He admits that he had no use for the common Western notion of "self-expression" because he felt there were far more interesting things in the universe than himself and his own feelings.
 
Arab Andalusia was IMO one of the great cultures of history. They brought together the Muslims, Jews, and Christians and produced an incredible wealth of poetry, architecture, decorative arts, and music. The arts of that culture continued to impact art, music, and literature in Spain... and throughout Europe into the 20th century.
 

Saw that one some months ago, when I downloaded and watched that entire series about the Dark Ages. It did give a new perspective on the entire era.


Will download and watch this one too. :)

You never see ugliness in Islamic Art... or neurosis... or personal problems... or any of that dark stuff that so obsesses Western artists. Islamic Art always, always tries to look as beautiful as it can. Why? Because it recognizes that the problems of the artist are just storms in a tea-cup... utterly irrelevant in the wider scheme of things."

I remember reading similar comments expressed by the contemporary painter, Sean Scully. He spoke of his experience of coming upon the paintings of Mark Rothko and thought of his paintings as almost religious... a sort of non-denominational religious art. This was what Scully suggests he was striving for in his art. He admits that he had no use for the common Western notion of "self-expression" because he felt there were far more interesting things in the universe than himself and his own feelings.

Indeed an interesting perspective. One sees the equivalent in music, e.g. the restrained elegance of Classical music versus the self-indulgence of the Romantic era.

Islamic tiling patterns are often quite bewildering in their complexity, and that's partly why they're endlessly fascinating.
 
Indeed an interesting perspective. One sees the equivalent in music, e.g. the restrained elegance of Classical music versus the self-indulgence of the Romantic era.

Yes, and as you remember from our time on the music forum there were more than a few Beethoven/Romantic fanboys who were continually dismissive of Mozart because he wasn't a Romantic composer. What I found particularly comic is that in many ways it simply came down to the fact that he didn't use the minor keys enough.
 
Among the most fascinating works of Islamic Art are the exquisite manuscripts illuminating the most illustrious work of Persian poetry: Nezami (Nezami-ye Ganjavi),Omar Khayyám, Attar (Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm), Shams (Shams-e-Tabrīzī Ab'ul Hasan Yamīn al-Dīn Khusrow), Saadi (Saadi-Muslih-ud-Din Mushrif ibn Abdullah), Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi), Hafez (Khwāja Šams ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī). These enchanting illuminated miniatures, gilded and spectacularly patterned, teeming with tiny, elegant figures and staged in the most sumptuous bedecked interiors or the most sensuous and idyllic garden settings immediately brought to life the whole resplendent, exotic, and sensual atmosphere of the Arabian Nights… the exotic Middle-east as a Westerner might dream it. These were the most fabulous and magical of visual faerie tale dreamscapes in which one might lose oneself for hours.

Persian culture is ancient, and Persia had existed as a stable empire for some 1300 years, far outlasting its great rivals, Greece and Rome, but from 643-650 AD, the Persian Empire under the Sasanian rulers suffered a series of devastating defeats at the hands of the Byzantine Empire which so weakened them as to result in their subsequent subjugation by the small and numerically inferior Islamic Arab forces... and much later by invading Mongols. It isn’t until the 11th century and the rise of the great classical Persian poets, especially Abolqasem Ferdowsi, whose Shahnameh is the epic poem of Persia/Iran, that Persian culture once again began to assert itself.

Persia had accepted the Arab religion of Islam, but contrary to Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari’s iconoclastic strictures as put forth in his Life of the Prophet, (the al-Jaami al-Sahih), and the influence of the rise of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire beginning in the 8th century under the emperor, Leo II, the tradition of figurative imagery and visual narrative was deeply ingrained in Persian culture.

With the rise to power of the Safavid rulers in 1501, and a growing awareness of their own Persian history and culture, Persian poetry and art entered a “golden age”. Manuscript illumination became thought of as the highest form of art, combining calligraphy...

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... magnificent endsheets...

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... marvelous and magical landscapes...

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... and poetic narrative:

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Under the Safavid rulers, there was a brilliant synthesis of the achievements of previous Persian miniature painting that would result in what is arguably THE masterwork of Persian painting, the so-called Shahnameh of Tabriz (or the “Houghton Shahnameh”). Entire workshops of calligraphers, painters, gilders, leather workers, bookbinders, etc… were employed under the oversight of several master artists. The format for each individual illustration was conceived of independently and involved the input of many different hands… some with quite dissimilar methods of working, and so for a book to maintain any sense of continuity and coherence demanded clear thinking, planning, and foresight on the part of the masters. This must have been especially challenging considering the fact the text and paintings could not always be completed in sequence. In order to maintain a degree of continuity of style, the artists in the workshops employed scrapbook collections or anthologies of calligraphy styles, painting styles for rendering various flora, fauna, or figures as models in creating work as complex as an illuminated manuscript. Something similar to these examples of calligraphy and imagery collaged into compositions may have even served as a rough mock-up or proto-codex in preparation for the final book... not unlike the production boards used in film-making.

The Shahnameh of Tabriz is the most brilliant realization of the Persian book arts. No other book comes near to its level of polish, refinement, and decorativeness. The work is the most stunning merger of painting, design, and calligraphy in the service of the singular masterwork of Persian poetry. Any number of the individual folio miniatures certainly rank among the finest examples of Persian painting… of painting in general. Among the most splendid miniatures one might wish to look particularly to The Court of Gayumars:

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The Court of Gayumars is considered by many to be the greatest of Persian manuscript paintings. The painting represents Gayumars, the first king of Persia, who ruled from the mountaintops and in whose presence the wild beasts became meek as lambs. Gayumars is seen sitting atop his mountain before a backdrop of flowering trees silhouetted against a gilded sky. He looks down mournfully at his son, Siyamak, who will be killed in battle with the Black Div. Beneath him his courtiers stand organized in a circular manner around a center of leafy, luxuriant vegetation. This painting is unmatched in its vigorous portrayal of sensuous flora and fauna... certainly influenced by examples of Chinese painting brought by the Mongols.

The magical faerie-tale details of The Court of Gayumars generously reward long and repeated viewing... and yet the painting is but one of literally hundreds of paintings within the Shahnameh of Tabriz. I am especially fond of the manner in which the artists daringly allowed landscape elements and other details to break outside of the unifying framing element:

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(continued...)
 
Indeed an interesting perspective. One sees the equivalent in music, e.g. the restrained elegance of Classical music versus the self-indulgence of the Romantic era.

Yes, and as you remember from our time on the music forum there were more than a few Beethoven/Romantic fanboys who were continually dismissive of Mozart because he wasn't a Romantic composer. What I found particularly comic is that in many ways it simply came down to the fact that he didn't use the minor keys enough.

The proper way to respond to that is to be dismissive of Beethoven because he didn't use the twelve-tone system enough. :D
 
what a marvel. it is wonderful what you have posted.
in my small way I agree with what you have written.
I did not know anything about oriental art until a few years ago, the western renaissance, the Florentine masters,and more .., have their counterparts in the Arab world, that is, those centuries and beyond have seen it flourish in the Islamic world as in our absolute wonders, I fell in love with their art and culture (number etc ) of the time through the mentioned documentaries (conducted by the Polish art critic whose name I don't remember but the beautiful programs do)

Brianvds, the documentary is beautiful, the series you mentioned, you will like it so much, both were the first series I have seen with art in recent years, they are fantastic. 'art and thanks to these then I have seen others,
 
The Shahnameh (The "Book of Kings") is an epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is considered the national epic of Persia/Iran. It is one of the world's longest epic poems. It tells mainly the mythical and to some extent the historical past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. It ranks along with the Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Dante's Comedia as one of the greatest achievements of world literature. Some critics have compared the work to the Hebrew Bible due to the manner in which the Shahnameh attempts to establish a history for a culture in captivity.

The creation of the Shahnameh of Tabriz dates from c. 1520 until its completion in 1568. This places it in history at the time of the High Renaissance in Europe. The illuminations in the Shahnameh of Tabriz build upon two great Persian traditions of painting: the dynamic, fervid, “Dionysian” approach of Sultan Muhammad, the leading painter of the free, organic Turkoman school...

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-Sleeping Rostam, Sultar Muhammad

... and the more cultured and urbane style of the artist Bihzad, with his emphasis on balance, harmony, and geometry:

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-Joseph and Zulaykha (the Hebrew Joseph and Potipher’s Wife), Bizhad

Some of the paintings within the Shahnameh of Tabriz combine elements of both the lush Turkoman manner with the more rigorous structures of Bizhad...

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Some paintings remain within the unifying framing elements:

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Others, like The Court of Gayumars, freely break out of these frames:

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I especially admire these last two examples in which the paintings remain framed within the geometric structure to the left and then bust out of this on the right.
 
The Shahnameh of Tabriz makes exquisite use of color.

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There are passages of lush saturated colors... oranges, reds, and blues... contrasted with passages of delicate pastel colors... lavenders, rose, & teal...

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The paintings also make extensive use of gold leaf...

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Unfortunately, the story of the Shahnameh of Tabriz is also a tragedy... one of the worst examples of cultural vandalism in the history of art.

The Shahnameh of Tabriz remained intact and in near-perfect condition well into the 20th century. The calligraphy remained crisp, the paper flawless and the brilliant colors remained virtually unchanged, due in part, no doubt, to the fact that the book had seldom been opened for reading thanks to a lack of understanding of the Persian language (Farsi) and only upon rare occasions for the display of the paintings to honored visitors.

In 1959 the owner at that time, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, sold the intact book to the American collector, Arthur Houghton. Rothschild, who had taken special care to ensure that the miniatures were always well-protected had initially turned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the belief that a work of such importance deserved to be housed in an appropriate institution. The Met, however, rejected the offer to purchase the book on the recommendation of the board of trustees (headed by Houghton!), at which time Houghton snatched it up it for himself. :mad:

Initially, Houghton placed the book at Harvard with the understanding that an elegant and scholarly facsimile would be published by the university’s academic press. It was thought that Houghton might eventually donate the work to his alma mater. Harvard’s Fogg Museum contained a renowned collection of Islamic art, an ideal setting for the work. In 1972, however, Houghton became “piqued” with the university’s delay in the production of the book and he pulled the Shahnameh and brought it to New York.

At that time, after remaining intact for over 400 years, Houghton inexplicably tore 78 of the finest paintings from the book and presented them as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 😡

Thomas Hoving, then director of the Met states, “I was flatly opposed to the breaking up of the book in any fashion. I confronted Arthur physically, personally on the matter, but he was determined to do this, and he was the chairman of our board of trustees, after all.” On the other hand, Hoving also admitted that Houghton’s gift “was like getting a whole bunch of Michelangelo paintings from out of the blue.”

As the museum held non-profit status Houghton sought to claim a sizable tax reduction. Unfortunately, the bequest came at a point in which the government was becoming increasingly suspicious of deductions claimed for the donation of art. A gift this size was enough to trigger an audit by the IRS, who disallowed Houghton’s claim. Houghton became terrified that the government would eventually begin to investigate all of his business dealings… especially his various charitable foundations which had acted as fronts for the CIA during the Cold War.

Houghton’s fears (“unbelievably paranoid” according to Hoving) led him to the irrational decision to dispose of the remains of the Shahnameh. He initially offered it to the Shah of Iran, but the $20 million asking price was rejected. At this point he began to consign a few pieces at a time (prudently to avoid “flooding the market”) to Christie’s of London for public auction. The £785,000 realized by the sale of the first seven folio pages should certainly have proved to the IRS that Houghton’s claim as to the monetary value of his donation to the Met was in no way inflated.

Over the next decade or so Houghton continued to remove further folios from the Shahnameh and consign them to the auction block. This wholesale pillage of one of the greatest masterpieces of world art only came to a halt when Houghton died in 1990. (Good riddance!)

By that time only 120 of the plates remained. All that exists today to suggest the coherent magnificence of the book as it originally existed is the scholarly limited edition facsimile eventually published by Harvard.

In spite of the irreparable vandalism that the Shahnameh had suffered, the Iranians were still more than eager to get what remained of their cultural patrimony. The estimated $20-million price tag, however, was impossible to justify for a work of art, especially following the prolonged and devastating war with Iraq. Eventually, an ingenious barter was worked out between Houghton’s estate and the Iranian government.

The Iranians had been attempting to get rid of certain “decadent” paintings that were “unsuitable” for public exhibition under the Islamic rule. Among these was the painting, Woman III, by Willem de Kooning, to which a value of $20 million had been arbitrarily assigned. The trade took place under clandestine conditions upon the neutral turf of the Vienna airport. The remains of the Shahnameh were returned to in Iran in triumph and proudly put upon public display in Tehran, in the Museum of Contemporary Art which had sacrificed the De Kooning. The De Kooning, on the other hand, was privately sold for an undisclosed sum to the media executive, David Geffen, and immediately disappeared from public view.

The great British art critic, David Sylvester, a champion of Modernism and admitted admirer of De Kooning, was quoted as saying that “the Shahnameh was worth at least 20 paintings by De Kooning, and that the Houghton Foundation had been the loser in exchanging the work for one painting by De Kooning. He further suggested that the Iranian government had actually "recovered the Shahnameh gratis.” One cannot easily question Sylvester’s claim, considering the fact that in 2006 just a single folio painting of the Shahnameh was auctioned off for $1.7 million, making it the 7th most-expensive book or part of a book sold that year… in spite of it being but a single page.

The parts of the Shahnameh can be found in collections around the world, including not only the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but also The State Hermitage Museum in Russia and, obviously, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran. The book was a entire art gallery between two covers and almost every individual painting is worthy of careful examination. It was one of the most magical works of art ever created; a virtual visual fairy-tale. Looking at the paintings one can easily see why artists as diverse as Ingres, Delacroix, Gauguin, Matisse, Klee, Beckmann, Kandinsky, etc… were greatly impressed with and inspired by Persian painting.
 
No, I've never heard or read anyone asking that question, personally.

Art isn't the only accomplishment, but thanks for showing us some of the most lovely.
 
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