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March 28, 2008

Art Review | 'Re-Orientations'

When the Islamic World Was Inspired by the West


Sometimes in the history of art everything seems to be happening everywhere, all at once. The 16th century was like that. It was a grand global burst of lights. The Ming dynasty in China; the Renaissance in Europe; Islamic empires in India, Iran and Turkey were all burning at high incandescence. Visitors traveled from one to another, buying, selling, making plans, taking notes, amazed.

Then, as also happens, there were slowdowns; dimmings, even blackouts here and there. Such shifts in energy form the background to “Re-Orientations: Islamic Art and the West in the 18th and 19th Centuries,” a superb small scholarly show, one as revealing of the past as it is germane to the present, at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College.

The show is notable for several reasons. First, it tackles a little-studied subject. We’ve had major exhibitions on the influence of Islamic culture on Europe. We’ve had relatively few that trace influence the other way, Occident to Orient. (“Royal Persian Painting: the Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925” at the Brooklyn Museum a decade ago was a stellar exception.)

Possibly because “Occidentalized” sounds unexotic, 18th- and 19th-century Islamic art has been largely ignored. Few of the 30 small decorative objects at Hunter have been exhibited before, though all are from the collection of a major museum.

Which brings us to another — some might say the primary — attraction of the show. The owning institution is the Metropolitan Museum, where the Islamic galleries are closed for renovation. This Hunter show, unassuming as it is, is by default the largest display of the Met’s Islamic collection in the city.

“Re-Orientations” is actually the offshoot of a larger project: a yearlong seminar led by Ulku U. Bates, professor of Islamic art at Hunter, using material in the Met holdings to examine the early effects of Western modernism on Islamic cultures, its impact kicking in at different times in different places.

Western art styles were current in the Mughal court of India in the 16th century, through the circulation of European prints brought by Christian missionaries. Similar influences took root in Iran. A late-17th-century lacquered pen box, the show’s earliest piece, is painted with Persian roses on the outside and a European-style landscape under the lid. And by this time Ottoman Turkey had also come under the aggressive spell of Western culture.

The Ottoman empire was a superpower, controlling world trade, claiming European land as its own, and as late as 1683, sending an army to the very gates of Vienna. Europe, meanwhile, though nervous, was not passive. In the fields of science, economics and industry, it was surging ahead, becoming modern, while Islamic powers were falling behind.

Among other things, the ancient machinery of Islamic imperial government had become a lead weight. Secular and religious impulses were in stalemate. By comparison Europe was light on its feet, adaptable to quick, opportunistic change. Gradually, through a combination of dazzle and muscle, it gained the upper hand, and then pressed down hard, and kept pressing down, with a demeaning colonial force that remains a bitter memory in the Islamic world.

On the positive side, though, there was the refreshment of aesthetic exchange. Europeans were hungry for Islamic objects and styles. Islamic cultures welcomed input from Europe. The lure of exoticism pulled in both directions.

This is immediately evident in the adoption of oil painting, a European invention, by Islamic artists. Qajar court painters of Persia made spectacular use of it in life-size royal portraits. The sloe-eyed, androgynous youth holding a wine glass in a painting in the show may or may not be royalty, but he is a fine example of a Qajar type.

Islamic artists borrowed themes and styles in addition to Western art mediums. The flowers and birds on a double-page 19th-century album cover from India are Islamic in their patterning, European in their naturalism. A cobalt-blue cut-glass beaker was probably exported from Europe to Iran, then customized on arrival with the addition of a calligraphic inscription in gold.

An elaborate Qajar miniature, one in quasi-Baroque style, of Abraham sacrificing Isaac would appear to be geared to a Western market, but not necessarily. This biblical episode depicted is also in the Koran. In a 19th-century Qajar album painting of two lovers in a landscape, the figure of the reclining woman, her body exposed, may well derive from a Western image — possibly photographic — of a Persian odalisque, here recast for Persian eyes. Orientalism meets Occidentalism, in twisty ways.

Most of the show is about exactly such blending. And even when the objects are less than spectacular — Hunter could borrow only modest items, nothing requiring special climate control or heavy insurance — they are rich with information. And it is information of continuing pertinence. The tensions that modernism produced in the Islamic world — between tradition and innovation, sacred and profane — have been pushed to the point of explosion by the aggressive marketing of Western values globally in the present. Seen in that perspective, every object in the show seems to tick with a volatile history.

The lineaments of that history are laid out in superb essays by Ms. Bates and Stefano Carboni, curator of Islamic art at the Met, in a catalog that makes a signal contribution to the field of Islamic studies and enhanced by contributions from the 15 students from Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who worked on the project.

Three of them — Mitra M. Abbaspour, Stéphanie Fabre and Karen Zonis — are doctoral candidates. I will be on the lookout for their names in future projects. If they take this quiet but intensely charged show as a template, and Ms. Bates as a scholarly model, they can only do brilliantly.

“Re-Orientations: Islamic Art and the West in the 18th and 19th Centuries” is at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College, 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, through April 26. (212) 772-4991,

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