The dramatically -- but not harshly -- lighted column capital that greets visitors to the Walters Art Gallery's exhibit of Islamic art is both familiar and foreign. The volutes at its four corners and the acanthus leaves below them remind us of classical columns, but the floral motifs that cover the surface do not.
The Arabic inscriptions may be in an unknown language, but they announce the name of the patron (Caliph Al-Hakam II), the maker (Falih), the project supervisor (Taled) and the date (362, the Islamic equivalent of 972-973 A.D.); rather like a plaque on a public building giving the name of the mayor, the architect and the contractor.
This 10th century capital provides a fitting introduction t"Islamic Art and Patronage: Selections from Kuwait," opening today (through Feb. 17). The capital's place of origin, Spain, gives an indication of the extent of the Islamic world, which at one time or another has reached Austria and Spain, across the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.
The capital's form indicates that Islamic art was not a monolithicimmutable and insular art; indeed, it appropriated elements of other arts from Western classicism to Chinese. Its inscriptions indicate the importance of both the patron and the maker. And its decoration announces that, whatever uses the artists of Islam made of other art forms, they created an original art of great elegance and delicacy.
Those themes, among others, are carried through this beautiful and beautifully presented exhibit of 107 treasures from the al-Sabah collection, covering more than a thousand years of Islamic art, a subject too many of us know too little about.
The al-Sabah collection consists of some 7,000 items assembled by Sheik Nasir al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Sheika Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, members of Kuwait's ruling family. Except for the works in this exhibit and a half-dozen others on loan outside the country, the collection was in the Kuwait National Museum when Iraq invaded the country in August. Its fate is not known, but there are indications that it has been removed to Iraq.
Fortunately, the current exhibit was in Leningrad at the time of the invasion, prior to the beginning of its American tour, organized by the Walters and the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington. According to curator Esin Atil, who selected the exhibit, the works represent not only highlights of the collection but examples of the highest quality Islamic arts of their times and places.
From the fresh products of the early Islamic period to the exquisite ornamentations of the late, imperial period, they constitute a succession of treasures presented in a simple, effective manner to support, not overwhelm, their delicate beauty. The softly lighted rooms and the clear didactics provide just the right background. With 107 pieces to cover more than 1,000 years, of course nothing can be dealt with in depth; but the visitor does get a succinct introduction to Islamic art and is soothed as well by the combination of luxury and serenity these objects impart. The result is an experience of the sort of refined pleasure not every art exhibit provides.
The chronological organization begins with early Islam (622-1050), when forms, designs and techniques were developed. Here also we are introduced to the variety of types of object presented, including metalware, ivory, glass, jewelry and, course, manuscripts.
The importance of calligraphy in Islamic art is illustrated by leaves from Koran manuscripts (Tunisia, ninth-10th centuries) showing the development of varying scripts, which act not only to transmit language but as designs on the pages. Inscriptions also appear on all manner of other objects, from the intro
ductory column capital to textiles, metalworks and ceramics, the latter often based on Chinese forms but with Islamic decoration.
One bowl of utmost simplicity (Iraq, ninth century) has a white glaze and a single off-center inscription meaning "blessing." Another bowl (Iran, 10th century) is decorated with a bold script that perfectly matches its frank proverb: "He who talks much, errs much." Lusterware was introduced in this early period, as were certain design elements which continued, including acanthus leaves and palmettes.
In the subsequent classical period (1050-1250), one of prosperity in spite of invasions and changes in rulers, there was a flourishing of figural ornament, especially depicting animals. On an 11th century Egyptian carved wooden panel in high relief, gazelles seem to form themselves out of the surrounding motifs, and a carved ivory hunting horn from 11th-12th century Sicily is covered with animals and birds.
Flashes of humor now and then appear; an Egyptian 12th century luster bowl shows a lion looking appropriately leonine but apparently unaware of the rabbit jumping over its back. The decoration inside a 13th century Iranian luster bowl consists of fat birds flying amid foliage with equally fat leaves.