Interest in mathematical art reawakens
Lucien de Guise
Islamic art had some truly inventive aspects.
Most of the impression comes down to geometry. No other culture has ever used
maths to such effect
THE mainstream news media don't
always have that much more credibility than a blog for UFO spotters. It was
therefore with some doubts that I approached an article in the Daily Mail.
Apparently, Islamic traditions and values are to be taught at state schools in
Britain. Whether this is true or not, what is almost certain is that Islamic
art appreciation won't be part of the curriculum.
is one of those areas that have been of marginal interest in the West for a
long time. It was probably never in demand at any school, but at least it was
noticed by a few individuals in the past. Nowadays, this is the aspect of Islam
that generates the least excitement, especially among Western politicians.
A new exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia shows how much things have
changed. "Beyond Orientalism: How the West was won over by Islamic
art" tells a story that has been told before, but for once the action is
not set entirely in Venice. Great though it is, there has always been more to
Europe than that city. In this retelling of how Islamic art made an impression
on the Western world, the exhibition has taken a wider view over a longer time
On the must-have checklist of the distant past, there are always big ticks next
to Islamic science and philosophy. If it hadn't been for the continuation of
this work in the Islamic world, Greece would be better known for beach resorts
than the improvement of mankind. The names of the leading Muslim scientists and
philo- sophers are prominent in the pantheon of greatness. The artists are not.
This is partly because we don't know who many of the artists were, which
doesn't make it any fairer because their contribution is in many ways more
original than the philosophers and scientists who mostly handed on ancient
Greek knowledge rather than being innovators.
art had some truly inventive aspects, and it was these that once made a quiet
impression on the West. This is now completely silent. Most of the impression
comes down to geometry. No culture has ever used maths to such effect. When the
20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that "Mathematics,
rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty", he could
have been talking about geometrical art. But he was really just talking about
You might imagine that pared-down art would appeal to the modern world, filled
as it is with clutter. Most contemporary art is on a scale that requires a
gallery or hedge-fund manager's home to display it. Big installations are
considerably less viable than a tile panel and they don't often serve such a
Islamic art has generally been useful. This was part of its appeal to
Renaissance and other admirers whose worlds were beginning to fill up with as
much worthless junk as the planet is now. Shedding some of those unwanted
creative kilogrammes is one of the benefits of Islamic art. You need walls and
floors, so why not have them looking good and lasting long? You need an astrolabe,
so why not do the same? Well, maybe the demand for astrolabes is down these
days, but it would appear from the advertisements that instead you need a slim
handphone that will do everything up to Global Positioning System (GPS).
The ads don't often mention long lasting, or something to pass down the
generations. Technology has changed. It's only meant to look good for a while,
and then be discarded.
"Beyond Orientalism" looks at how much more positive the Western
awareness of its Middle Eastern neighbours was in the past than it is now.
Elements of Islamic art were incorporated into everything from mediaeval
Christian paintings to flapper-era cigarette cases. There has never been a
greater non-Western influence on Western art. Chinese, Japanese and African
works have all had an effect, but art from the Islamic world worked its magic
for over a thousand years, and in a wide variety of media.
This is a debt that is not often discussed these days. The era of maximum
exposure was the 19th century. Those who think of grim but eminent Victorians
should read Queen Victoria's diaries. Even after substantial editing by a
protective daughter, the queen was clearly a more sensual woman than most
people realised or, looking at her later photos, would have wanted her to be.
"Beyond Orientalism" shows the vibrant side of the Victorians,
without the simpering sentimentality of its oil painters. Decorative artists
are what the show is all about, providing a useful reminder that artists who
worked with glass and ceramics were once given rather more respect than they
are now. The most famous glassmaker of the moment (Dale Chihuly) is known
mainly for his assertive behaviour and piratical eye patch. The most famous
potter (the Turner Prize winning Grayson Perry) is admired for wearing girls'
The decorative arts were once held in higher regard, whether they were Western
or Islamic. At least there is a reawakening of interest in the mathematical
side of art. One of the surprise bestsellers of the year is Marcus du Sautoy's
Finding Moonshine. After a long search within the Islamic palace of the
Alhambra, du Sautoy managed to find every one of the 17 types of possible
symmetrical transformation in two dimensions. He conveys this discovery with
the excitement of a Bertrand Russell, albeit with a different writing style:
"Mathematics has beauty and romance ... It's not a boring place to be, the
mathematical world. It's an extraordinary place; it's worth spending time
He might also want to spend time at an exhibition in which geometry plays an
important part. There aren't many shows like that around.
("Beyond Orientalism: How the West was won over by Islamic art" at
the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from July 25 to Oct 25.)
The writer is curator of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. This column will
be moving to the New Sunday Times' Sunday People section from Aug 10