BYZANTIUM AND ISLAM:
A DISSENTING REVIEW FROM A HISTORIAN OF ISLAMIC ART
Exhibition: Byzantium and Islam, Age of Transition, 7th-9th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 14th – July 8th, 2012.
Book: Byzantium and Islam, Age of Transition, 7th-9th century, ed. by Helen C. Evans with Brandie Ratliff: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2012, 332 pp. ISBN 978 0 300 17950 7
On walking into this exhibition one gained an immediate impression of restraint. The first object that met the eye was a sober topographical mosaic dating from before the Arab conquest, showing the cities of Memphis and Alexandria. But first impressions are misleading: this factual approach did not last long and we were soon gazing at a gallery of Byzantine treasures. Silver plates and chalice, spot-lit to increase the effect of the sort of thing the public traditionally expects in a Byzantine show, goggle-eyed saints, emotive infants and heavy gilding. The characteristics of Byzantine art make it a shoo-in for museums. Icons, vessels and reliquaries, conveniently portable, studded with jewels and wafting a vague metaphysical odour of sanctity, will dazzle the eye irrespective of artistic merit.
It is unsurprising therefore that the Metropolitan Museum’s two previous recent exhibitions, covering the art of Byzantium from the ninth to sixteenth centuries between them, were universally acknowledged successes. The third, dealing with collapsing Byzantine and emergent Islamic power in outposts of the empire governed from Constantinople, was always likely to prove difficult to mount. The main danger foreseen by prescient critics was that it would present an epigonic view of artistic achievement declining as it abandoned an imagery centred on the presumption that god had once appeared in human form for a cultural perspective where the divine had never possessed any such physical habitation and was emphatically unrepresentable. Iconophobic doubts and arguments were in fact common to all three Abrahamic religions during the period as text panels in the exhibition stated, though the information should have told us something of the distrust of supernatural powers considered inherent in an icon itself, an argument separable from objections to figural representation of any kind.
Prophets of doom might also have pointed out that the main surviving material achievements of early Islam are architectural and that an object-based museum culture would need a radical re-think to present them to the public, especially since loans from the Middle East are usually subject to political difficulties even without the current turmoil. The Middle Eastern contributors in the event were mainly America’s ‘client states’ of Israel and Jordan. The Met’s reliance on objects from the Benaki Museum in Athens skewed the balance of this exhibition heavily to the Byzantine side – and unfortunately, it did have definite ‘sides’. Instead of taking the line that there were certain aspects common to both the victors and the vanquished, lack of nerve opted for an essentially sectarian basis, dividing the show into ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Islam’ with an uneasy category of ‘Commerce’ hanging between, implying exchange rather than mutuality. In those areas which would have been able to cross the religious divisions and show practices continuing through the period of transition, such as pilgrimage and eremitical asceticism, we saw only the Byzantine or Coptic aspects. The carving of a monk precariously climbing up a ladder with supplies for the stylite hermit atop a pillar is irresistibly charming, but the mysticism of the desert is not confined to Christian experience as was implied here. The section devoted to pilgrimage treated this activity as a Christian phenomenon with no mention of the significance of Jerusalem for Muslim pilgrims, in spite of the accompanying photograph in which the golden hemisphere of the Dome of the Rock dominated the city. With another continuing common experience, female seclusion, we found this practice, which was general in all three monotheistic religions, scarcely addressed in the tiny section entitled ‘Women’. The same is true of the animal world: motifs and symbolism appeared throughout the Middle East, and indeed could be spotted here and there throughout the exhibition but this wide-embracing subject was given only cursory examination.
Apart from the obvious case of intrinsically valuable coinage, textiles provided perhaps the only really mutual ground. A gorgeous red wool hanging with images of abundance, dating from the period of the Arab conquest, and silks woven in Egypt reminded us of the enormous wealth invested in the cloth industry, and perhaps gave a glimpse of what Lisa Golombek has called ‘the draped universe of Islam’, that almost-vanished world of rich tents, garments and carpets. Animated little figures on deep crimson grounds continued to tell both classical and Christian stories. On an immediately personal level, a child’s tunic from just before the Arab conquest provided a touching note, and a highly desirable duck-egg blue Persian riding coat, faded from a deeper turquoise, survived from the same period.
As for major artistic work after the Islamic conquests, the exhibition gave little idea of the glorious mosaics of the early Islamic buildings in Syria. It was interesting and mildly amusing to see small pieces where animal bodies had been replaced by foliage in order to reduce figural representation, but we gained no notion of the great artistic achievements under early Islam, such as the mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock. These are not just transitional: like all great works of art, they are transformational, but they were not represented, although excellent videos and photographs are obtainable. The same was true of the ‘Desert Palaces’, those luxurious villas which in antiquity were centres of large estates and which were taken over by early Moslem leaders. They were illustrated mainly by small pieces of carving and a few site photographs, whereas at the palatial construction of Khirbat al-Mafjar, for example, exuberant decorative human figures from eastern traditions burst out of walls and ceilings, exploiting the sensual plumpness of stucco.
In this regard, I found this exhibition dismayingly outdated. Recent shows have provided pointers in new methods of display, weaning visitors away from dislocated objects and exploiting the new generation’s familiarity with electronic technology. In 2009 -2010 ‘De Byzance à Islam’ at the Grand-Palais in Paris used projections and lighting effects to recreate such illusions as the walls of Constantinople under siege and the interior decoration of an Ottoman ceiling. Under such treatment, even heaps of broken pottery sherds became evocative of the heritage of a city. In ‘Shah Abbas, the Remaking of Iran’ at the British Museum in 2009, the particular glory of Persian tiled architecture was given recognition by displaying extremely effective shifting projections of the blue and green domes of Isfahan. Visitors to this show at the Met could sit and watch an impressively professional film of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt, but the use of modern techniques could have also been effective to show Islamic architectural decoration. But the Met generally followed its old-fashioned glass-case traditions regardless of the ensuing problems. The result was inevitably too much emphasis given to portable minority culture, such as that of the Copts in Egypt, and little emphasis on the grander achievements of Islam. A few larger pieces gave some idea of the richness of Islamic courtly culture: an imposing and graceful ewer from eighth or ninth century Basra and a reed mat from tenth-century Tiberias with the soft amber gleam of undyed fibre suggested elegance and restraint. And one comes up against a pair of intricately carved doors, two and a half metres high, from eighth century Iraq, with a delighted shock of respect for these battered and evocative survivors.
The result of this unbalanced approach was scantily represented through dreary conventional photographs of old excavations or bits of low-skilled pottery. A few tiny and exquisite pieces such as glass lustre cups could not redeem this scrappy impression in the later stages of the exhibition: they appeared as chance survivors rather than participants in a rich and complex culture. It was not till right at the end of the show, with two magnificent folios from the ‘Blue Koran’, written in gold on indigo-coloured parchment, probably in tenth- century Tunisia, that I really sensed the Islamic achievement coming through.
The accompanying volume, especially the excellent essays on Islam by Finbarr Barry Flood, gives a much better balanced picture, as do the Met’s recently re-opened Islamic galleries, now entitled ‘Galleries for the Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia’. In spite of this absurd title, they are superbly arranged and convey the heart of Islamic culture, sadly missing from the exhibition.