Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands at the Hermitage Rooms

Given the state of geopolitics at this moment, it is perhaps inevitable that any exhibition of Islamic art — no matter how immaculately scholarly and coolly elegant the presentation — must somehow end up commenting, however indirectly, on matters far removed from issues of decorative art. Thus it is that Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands, currently on show at the Hermitage Rooms, is given an extra edge by events taking place a world away from those quiet, civilised spaces, their soothingly regular enfilades punctuated by cut-crystal chandeliers and a tastefully limited amount of gilding, their curatorial interventions calm and understated, the treasures on show largely left to speak their own truths to the receptive viewer.

As with all exhibitions at the Hermitage Rooms, Heaven on Earth opts for quality over quantity. (Last year’s exhibition of Rubens’ drawings was one of the greatest delights of 2003 — an unforgettable little show which should not have been missed by anyone with any interest in paint, patronage or the processes by which a whirlwind sketch develops over time to become a full-scale masterpiece.) In this case, works from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg have been augmented by works from the Khalili Collection. The result is a small compendium of masterpieces, mostly from Persian-speaking areas — interleaved here and there with the odd all-out curiosity. Since the Hermitage presently lacks the resources to put much of its collection on show, and since the magnificent Khalili Collection, although admirably generous in its loans, is a private one, many of the artefacts included in Heaven on Earth have not been seen in London before, and are unlikely to turn up here again any time soon.

Indeed, it appears — although this seems scarcely credible — that the last major exhibition of Islamic art in London took place at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. Obviously the V&A has a reasonable Islamic Art Collection, as does the British Museum. Why on earth this lacuna in London’s cultural offerings? Presumably, for more or less the same reason why the excellent Islamic rooms at the Louvre are always underpopulated — which boils down, I suppose, to a combination of ignorance, misunderstanding and generalised distrust. There are still, I can promise you, plenty of people out there who believe that Islamic art is all about rugs and religious texts, that Islam forbids image-making, and that since the Crusades it has, basically, been a matter of us-versus-them, with the Islamic world very much the loser when it comes to the visual arts — a failure reflecting, presumably, a lack of humanity, sophistication and respect for the individual lurking at the heart of the Islamic world. Thus one of the best things about Heaven on Earth is its curators’ serene unwillingness to raise their voices in shouting down the casual but serious mistakes made so often, all around us, by people who ought to know better.

Of course, one would be disappointed by an exhibition of Islamic art that didn’t give a fair amount of attention to — well, rugs and religious texts. These occupy much of the first room of Heaven on Earth, which focuses on devotional art. There is, for instance, a magnificent series of early copies of the Qur’an. Apparently early Muslims preferred their copies of the Qur’an to be executed in a heavy, strong, self-consciously archaic script that emphasised the timeless nature of the book’s content, and in the same way that the massive forms of, say, early Norman ecclesiastical architecture can signal even to non-believers a particular vision of God, these stunning texts project a forceful, serious, militant sense of spirituality. Later on, the texts become more richly ornamented, with an eye for abstract lyricism reminiscent of the Book of Kells or the Lindesfarne Gospels — an abstract sensibility that probably reaches its climax in an eighteenth-century cloth on which the name of Allah has been painted, again and again, to create a pattern that has the hypnotic, trance-inducing effect of repetitive prayer. Yet there are also copies of the Qur’an from different periods that are decorated with delicate miniatures of foliage, birds, flowers. Trying to stereotype the art of Islam is as foolish and ineffectual as trying to make a single, simple description of the art of Christianity. Instead, what comes insistently out of this exhibition, despite its small size, is the breadth of Islamic cultures — the geographical and historical breadth, and also the susceptibility to influence by other cultures, past and present, that gives this work so much of its variety and interest. No matter how good Islamic pattern-making may have been, there was always more to Islamic visual culture than that.

This becomes increasingly evident in the second gallery, which displays a tiny collection of masterpieces — ninth to twelfth century court art, made for Persian princes and their families. Perhaps the most eye-catching are a series of animal-shaped bronze and ceramic vessels, where linear poetry is married to naturalistic fidelity. There are eagles, lynxes, water-buffalo nursing their young, and fat little pet quail. Here the surprise is perhaps how much at home any of these works would have looked in the Western Europe of their day. Yet the craftsmen who made them apparently drew inspiration from the pre-Islamic art of the Sasanian kings. The centrepiece of this room is, however, undoubtedly the so-called Bobrinsky Bucket — a finely-worked vessel, inlaid with copper and silver, originally used for transferring soap — which depicts scenes of court life in lavish detail. By the 13th century the Mongol invasions put a stop to this particular metal-working tradition. Still, the effect of this gallery is to underscore how comfortably Islam was able to coexist with a particularly lavish, sophisticated sort of naturalism — very much as Christianity, pace its more ascetic doctrines, was doing in the contemporary West.

The third and fourth rooms are all about cultural interchange, and bring us up against one of the most interesting issues raised by this fascinating exhibition. How did so much Islamic art end up in the Hermitage in the first place? For centuries, Persian nobles were willing to trade all sorts of items — silver vessels, rich textiles — with their barbaric neighbours to the Siberian north in order to obtain the furs they needed both for ornamentation and for warmth. This is why, oddly enough, old ice-deposits in Siberia turn out to be a major source of early Islamic silver. Later came a showy series of diplomatic gifts, booty seized through conquest, and artefacts gained as the Russian empire continued to expand throughout so much of southern Asia. In the course of all these reciprocal exchanges some oddly cross-cultural items were created, including the marvellous Russian Orthodox vestments made out of richly-embroidered Persian textiles, or the rock-crystal lamp from tenth century Mesopotamia ornamented with late sixteenth century Northern Italian enamels, in order to form a reliquary that eventually ended up in Russian imperial hands. Others are simply the stuff of fairy-tale. The gold vessels sent up by Nadir Shah from the Mughal treasury in Delhi in 1739 are so richly inlaid with emerald and big plump rubies as to look, in the pleasing phrase of one of the curators, like pomegranate seeds, and radiate Thousand And One Nights exoticism. Again, it is all a long way removed from the joyless and grim austerity so often ascribed to Islam these days, and a salutary reminder of the diversity of Islamic cultural life.

It is also, of course, a reminder that Islamic cultures could and did learn a great deal from the West. In the late eighteenth century, when Russia, the French and the British were competing for control of land routes to India, Fath ‘Ali Shah went out of his way to adopt as much of the trappings of Western monarchy as possible, but always with a self-consciously exotic Eastern twist — designing himself a crown and a uniform studded with jewels, creating various decorations with which to honour visiting dignitaries, and sending his artists off to Paris to finish their educations where they were, in a strangely sub-Said sort of convolution, deeply attracted to early Orientalist tendencies in French painting. Almost certainly the oddest work on show here is a pair of female portraits where the beauties depicted are shown in very Western poses and in a very French style — but with heavy brows, sinuous limbs and dressed in transparent fabric from the waist up. Surprising? Perhaps it should not be. To this day, Iran holds one of the better collections of contemporary Western art in the world, as well as producing plenty of strong contemporary art of its own. Iranian film-makers are famously progressive and innovative. Beruit, which has perhaps seen more cultural interchange over the past few decades than its inhabitants might have wished, is frequently held up as one of the most cutting-edge, exciting, vibrant cities anywhere — rather as Alexandria was not so very long ago, or as Cordoba was in the tenth century. Islam has, like Christianity, always had its moments of cosmopolitan self-confidence and curiosity, alongside moments of self-doubt and anxious fundamentalism.

The final great delight of Heaven on Earth lies in the central corridor, which is lined with framed Persian and Mughal miniatures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Those on display at present are from the State Hermitage Collection, but from 9 June will be replaced for conservation reasons by works from the Khalili Collection.) The impact of such miniatures on Western art are, or at least ought to be, well-known by now. The delicacy of handling, the imaginative treatment of space and the evocation of an harmonious, balanced vision have attracted artists from Gentile Bellini to Howard Hodgkin. But what that simple statement cannot begin to convey is the sheer beauty of some of these images — a beauty not a million miles removed from that of, say, a Nicholas Hilliard image of an Elizabethan poet-courtier framed by some elaborate, enclosed garden — a beauty never enslaved to naturalism but always willing to draw sustenance from it. Standing in the slightly darkened corridor, one has the sense of glimpsing some distant, impossibly elegant, unreachable other world. These are, in the main, marvellous works, and would be worth the journey to Somerset House even if they were accompanied by nothing else. As it is, this is a brilliant little exhibition, aptly timed and intelligently curated. And if one comes away with a sense of Islam and Christianity not so much locked in a perpetual state of mutual siege, but instead, negotiating their way through a much more complicated and complimentary set of transactions — transactions involving gifts and trades as much as thefts and conquests — this is perhaps, in itself, no bad thing.
Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands runs at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House, London from 25th March – 22nd August 2004.


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