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A timeless exhibition with exquisite timing

Special to The Times

In an era when American newspapers and television bristle with images of Islamic terrorism, another side of Islam is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington -- a show devoted to the calm and mesmerizing beauty of Islamic art.

The exhibition, “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria & Albert Museum,” was not put together for political reasons. It has a more mundane genesis. The Victoria & Albert in London has closed its Islamic rooms for reconstruction. While the revamping goes on, the museum has agreed to send a small but exquisite portion of its 10,000 Middle Eastern objects on a worldwide tour. The first stop is Washington, where the exhibition opened July 18 and will close Feb. 6.

The 150 pieces in the Washington show include some of the Victoria & Albert’s finest holdings, including a 15th century minbar or pulpit from Egypt, an 18th century ceramic fireplace from Turkey, wonderful 17th century miniature drawings from Iran, delicately enameled glassware from several countries, ivory carvings from 10th century Muslim Spain, and a large sampling of extraordinary calligraphy on paper, tiles and other materials.

Although the show owes its life to the happenstance of reconstruction in London, the political importance of the timing is not lost on its organizers and sponsors. “We’re not out to make a political point,” said Tim Stanley of the Victoria & Albert, curator of the traveling exhibition. “But we have a mission to educate. Will the exhibition help people understand Islamic culture? I hope so.”

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It is surely no accident that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, is contributing funds to pay part of the expenses of the exhibition in Washington. Saudi officials have long been embarrassed by the Saudi nationalities of Osama bin Laden and many of the 9/11 terrorists.

“Now, more than ever,” Prince Bandar said in a statement before the exhibition opened, “we need to work to build bridges of understanding between our societies and cultures.”

The show highlights works of Islamic art from the rise of the religion in the 7th century to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I in 1918. The area covered, reflecting the extent of Arab domination of the world centuries ago, stretches from Spain across the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Uzbekistan in central Asia.

Although this history and geography created a variety of styles, the exhibition makes clear that a few characteristics dominate Islamic art. The most important stems from the prohibition of the use of images of humans and other living creatures in the decoration of mosques and religious books and objects. As Stanley puts it, this prohibition, a strict interpretation of the Koran’s ban on idolatry, “has made Islamic artists more creative.” As a result, nonfigurative decoration dominates Islamic art. The artists relied mainly on two kinds of patterns. The first featured entwined tendrils, vines and other vegetation; we now call these “arabesques.” The second pattern displayed an array of fanciful geometric forms. These patterns are repeated relentlessly in much of Islamic art until finally broken, often by a dash of calligraphy quoting verses from the Koran. The continual repetition is so soothing that it encourages an onlooker to linger and meditate.

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Both patterns are used in the exhibition’s most spectacular piece, the 20-foot-high minbar from which sermons were delivered in a mosque in Cairo during the long rein of Sultan Qa’itbay from 1468 to 1496. Craftsmen fit strips of wood into the surface of the minbar in a wild geometric pattern. Medallion-like ivory pieces, each covered in arabesques, were then placed into the gaps left by the crisscrossing strips of wood. The result is an intriguing mosaic of wood and ivory. Calligraphy on top of the pulpit extols the virtues of the sultan.

In another extraordinary piece in the show, the colorful, arabesque patterns on the ceramic tiles of an early 18th century Turkish fireplace are broken both by the curves that shape the structure and by its calligraphy.

There is an astonishing variety of calligraphy in the exhibition. Since the Koran represents the revelations God made to the prophet Mohammed, it has always been vital to the religion for the Koran’s contents to be set down in writing and passed on to others. This was accomplished in the main by handwritten and decorated books much like the illuminated Christian manuscripts of the European Middle Ages except for a complete absence of people and animals. The written teachings were spread in other ways as well, inscribed on ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, ivory, enameled glass bottles and lamps, and even the blade of swords.

Arabic writing became an art form as calligraphers strove to create ever more magnificent script. Often the writing is so beautiful that it morphs into decoration and even takes on a life of its own. Pictures form in the mind of an onlooker. To someone who cannot read Arabic, for example, the white lettering against the green background of a 14th century ceramic frieze in the show looks from afar like a gaggle of geese. But the frieze has nothing to do with geese. It comes from the tomb of Buyanquli Khan in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and the writing is a Koranic verse urging Muslims to prepare for the afterlife by performing good deeds.

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The ban on Islamic figurative art extended only to religious decoration. When artists produced works for the home, they could portray people and animals and often did so. Some of the most delightful figurative works came from Iran. The exhibition displays a couple of hand-painted illustrations from an early 17th century book that relates the ancient Persian story of King Khusraw and his love for the Armenian Princess Shirin. The paintings have a joyful innocence even when Khushaw attacks a lion to protect his princess. The king is determined, the lion is more cuddly than fierce, and the princess is sighing with admiration.

Islamic artists did not work in isolation. The Islamic countries traded with Europe, Africa and Asia for centuries, and there was a lively exchange of products and techniques. The sophisticated Islamic technique of adding luster or a metal sheen to ceramics, for example, was highly prized elsewhere. The exhibition includes a large, 15th century luster bowl with the striking image of a Portuguese sailing ship. Made by an Arab workshop in the Spanish city of Malaga, the bowl was probably commissioned by a Portuguese merchant. After 1496, when the Spanish Christians conquered Malaga, the luster ware industry shifted to Valencia in Christian Spain and eventually to Venice in Italy.

A storied (and well-traveled) beaker

On the other hand, Chinese porcelain and other ceramics became popular in the Middle East. Struggling for centuries to catch up, Islamic artists developed new techniques, experimented with color, and engaged in unabashed imitation of Chinese designs.

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An enameled and gilded glass beaker, featured in a special case at the exhibition, illustrates how far Islamic art traveled centuries ago. The beaker, decorated in arabesques of blue, green, red and white, was made in either Egypt or Syria in the 13th century. A hundred years later, an Englishman, perhaps a crusader, brought the piece to a house known as Edenhall in the most northern part of England. The fragile-looking beaker must have astounded the English, for the technique of making glass like that was then unknown in northern Europe.

The origin of the beaker, probably used as a chalice in church services, was forgotten over the centuries, and a fanciful legend grew that the piece had been left behind at a nearby well by frightened fairies running away from intruders. As the fairies fled, one shouted out, “If this cup should break or fall, farewell the luck of Edenhall.” The story was so engaging that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow repeated it in a 19th century poem. The glass beaker has lasted for 700 years without a break or a fall, but that did not help Edenhall. The house was demolished in 1926.

The Victoria & Albert itself is a good example of the influence of Islamic design on Europe. The museum was founded in 1852 because the British realized that the design of their wares was too lackluster to keep up with chic products from France and other competitors in Europe. They hoped that the museum would serve as a showcase inspiring British designers. Owen Jones, a critic and architect who had studied the Alhambra in Spain, persuaded the curators to start collecting Islamic art as one of the museum’s specialties. British design soon flourished with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, and the echoes of Islamic patterns within the new designs are obvious.

The venerable Victoria & Albert is a crowded museum with galleries that often seem cramped and cluttered. But the National Gallery of Art’s superlative design team led by Mark Leithauser placed the pieces of the exhibition in spacious and subdued rooms surrounded by high cutouts that resemble the turrets of an Islamic palace. “It’s been a revelation to me,” Mark A. Jones, director of the Victoria & Albert, said after looking at the show in Washington. “The objects look far more wonderful than I have ever seen them before.” Far less clutter has been promised when the Islamic rooms at the Victoria & Albert are renovated, and the touring exhibition returns in 2006 after its stops in Washington, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo, and the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield, England.

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