Art – Islamic vibes
The Louvre, a museum which has been a beacon for art lovers for centuries (it opened in 1793 and today has more than 35.000 objects on display) has had a Muslim Art section since 1893. The collection grew in time and occupied different areas of the large museum and changed its name into the Islamic Collection. The material on display in 1987 occupied a space so small as to be almost clandestine. When the museum reorganized its content in eight different departments, the Islamic Art section had to be redesigned from scratch.
“We did not have a computerized database; we also received thousands of objects from other collections on permanent loan. Each piece had to be classified, and a computerised inventory created. Then we had to face a restoration project without precedent”, says Sophie Makariou, director of the Department of Islamic Art. Once the database was completed, it became apparent that the department needed a larger space to put even a fraction of its objects on display. It is thus that the Louvre’s boldest development in a generation was born. After 11 years of work, the new section was opened to the public earlier this year; at a time when the Islamic world and the West seem to be headed towards a violent clash. Louvre curators say it offers a highbrow and respectful counterpart to the recent unflattering depictions of Islam in Western media.
The exhibition opens on the ground floor built within an inner court. The glass and steel canopy allows the light to flood the area and create shifting reflections on the ceramic on display. The visitor is then taken to the main exposition area downstairs, where he continues his journey in time and place in a vast open space. Objects are arranged by geographical origin and by thematic periods. The lack of partition walls well gives the idea of interdependency both between the diverse cultural areas of the Islamic world and the different historic eras.
The new exhibition tries to convey the depth and width of Islamic art. This means to fight the many prejudices that non Muslim often share. For instance, some of the objects on display are the creation of Jewish and Christian artists. This fact is noted, but perhaps it could be better explained. In fact, these artists were clearly influenced by the Muslim faith and culture surrounding them. The question if their creations should be considered Islamic remains unanswered.
Another easy mistake is to equate Muslim with Arab. The exhibition clearly shows that Islamic means much more. There are clear geographical data next to each theca and the pieces displayed obviously come from such diverse places like Spain and India, which do not share cultural or linguistic ties with the Arab world, were it not for the Kuran.
The long held opinion that Islam imposes an absolute ban on the representation of living beings is also challenged by the many images presented to the visitor. A multimedia device alerts visitors at the beginning of the display and makes it quite clear that figural images were created throughout the Islamic world from the 10th to the 18th century. Witnesses are all the architectural decorations, ceramics, metal objects, manuscripts and illuminated pages from Spain, Iraq, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India. The evidence is undeniable. It is true that in the Middle Ages Islam condemned the worship of images, tolerating their veneration only among Christian minorities. There were a number of iconophobe rulers, swayed by severe theologians, but they were a minority. At the princely courts of the Islamic world, figurative painters were more often consecrated than cursed.
The presence of living being images is clearly established by hundreds of paintings, ceramics and bronze figures. Among them, the Monzon lion, a cast and engraved lion from 13th century Spain, and thousands of Ottoman tiles neatly arranged on a long wall at the end of the exhibition. Of particular impact are portraits on paper, cloth and indeed ceramic coming from far apart regions like Asia Minor, Persia and India.
Among the bronzes, there is the ‘Baptistery of Saint Louis’. The name of this bowl seems anachronistic. Its name derives from the fact that it was used for the baptism of Louis XIII in 1601, and then linked to Saint Luis to add some glamour. This bowl would appear to be rather untypical of Mamluk objects in inlaid metal, with its rich figurative decoration, of pictorial quality, running over its entire surface. On the outside, we see a procession of emirs, each carrying an attribute of their function; on the inside, hunting and battle scenes; on the bottom, a dense ballet of aquatic animals. There is no monumental inscription indicating who commissioned the piece, as found in similar works, which are prestige objects par excellence. Unusually, the artist – Muhammad ibn al-Zayn – recorded his name six times with varying degrees of discretion.
The newly opened Islamic Art section of the Louvre will certainly help visitors to reshape their vision of Islam and its relationship with art and communication. While some types of Islamic art, such as Kuran manuscripts, mosque lamps or carved wooden pulpits, are directly concerned with the faith and practice of Islam, the majority of objects considered to be “Islamic art” are called so simply because they were made in societies where Islam was the dominant religion. In short, “Islamic art” encompasses much more than religious art for Islam.
Visitors will do well to read the museum labels, and listen to the multimedia explanations. Yet, to get a real feeling of the meaning of each object, they should also go beyond these explanatory notes and confront the object directly with practical questions: What is it? What is it made of? Who used it? In fact, what we now consider artworks, were made first of all for practical purposes. Unlocking the function and the persons behind the manufacturing is the best way to understand the real message these objects convey; and certainly a good way to appreciate the artistic power of Islamic culture.