Islamic exhibit at Walters Gallery is study in cross-cultural traditions

December 06, 1990|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

The battle line is drawn along the Saudi border with Kuwait, and now all the world waits to see if war erupts. With that being the tense case, you could hardly imagine a more topical exhibit than the one of Islamic art from a royal collection in Kuwait opening Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery.

Although this exhibit was planned many months ago to draw attention to purely aesthetic lines and not battle lines, looking at these art objects is nevertheless a constant reminder of the current political situation in Kuwait. Happily this touring exhibit was on view at the Hermitage in Leningrad at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, and happily the show will go from Baltimore on a scheduled tour lasting at least until May, 1992. But not so happily, almost all the rest of the 7,000-piece Al-Sabah collection from which the 114 exhibited pieces were culled is now in Iraqi hands.

The exhibit was organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington in cooperation with the Walters.

Esin Atil, Historian of Islamic Art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, who guest curated this exhibit has an ambitious agenda: to survey Islamic art from the eighth through the 18th centuries in the many countries of the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia where Islam spread. Although the Islamic arts of Indonesia, China and Central Africa are not represented in the Al-Sabah collection, there is so much cultural material to deal with that one almost breathes a sigh of relief at not having yet more cultural traditions to absorb. The show's organization into four general chronological sections is clearly handled, even if such an exhibit is inevitably more a quick sampler than the last word on the subject.

Because of the rapid spread of Islam, one approach to walking through the exhibit is to note how this new religion incorporated the artistic styles of the lands in which it took hold. A marble capital at the beginning of the exhibit, for instance, was among the hundreds that once topped the columns of a Spanish palace in 972-973. This capital represents a merger of design elements: the carved acanthus leaves resemble those of the Greco-Roman tradition, while the carved Arabic inscriptions pay tribute to the Islamic patron who commissioned the columns.

Near the end of the exhibit is another such culture-combining object. It's a ceramic plate made in Iran in the 17th century. This piece of blue and white pottery, with its central scene of a meditative figure in a stylized landscape, was strongly influenced by Chinese art.

And yet if there are Islamic objects that incorporate motifs from various national cultures, there are far more in which we see how a distinctively Islamic design sensibility evolved. A carved wood TTC panel that was once part of a frieze in an 11th century palace in Cairo depicts two gazelles flanking a central palmette. The flowing lines used to convey how these gazelles are moving are hardly the only flowing lines in the panel. In fact, there is a deft interlocking of the animal figures with the decorative lines surrounding them like so much vegetation; this interconnection is dramatized by the mouths of the gazelles actually chomping on the vegetal lines.

Another distinctive Islamic trait is the close integration of decorative motifs and the no less skillfully written word, since both were crucial in spreading the word of Allah. The exhibited Quran (Koran) texts, at their most elaborate in the Mughal empire of the 16th and 17th centuries, are impressive proof of how calligraphy itself functioned as both adornment and enlightenment.

"Islamic Art and Patronage: Selections From Kuwait" will be at B The Walters Art Gallery, at 600 N. Charles St., Sunday through ? Feb. 17. There is an education gallery in which children can try A Islamic-invented games and calligraphy. For details, call : 547-9000.

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