Cosmophilia figures to shed light on the artistic side of political debate

By Leif Johnson

Behind me, paintings by both obscure and famous artists populated a number of winding galleries. Purely decorative and useless in a practical sense, such objects have served as the core of Western art for centuries. In stark contrast, before me stood four comparatively ordinary displays: a doorknocker, a piece of cloth, a pair of astragals, and the only obvious religious piece, a mihrab, used to indicate the direction of Mecca while in prayer. Each had been made by artists whom time and perhaps choice have left to anonymity. However ostensibly ordinary, further inspection revealed that they glistened with the efforts of painstaking handiwork, inviting in a manner foreign to their Western neighbors. This simple visual dichotomy, whether intentional or not, does much to underscore the fundamental differences between what is known as “Islamic” art and what is known as Western art. Humble yet majestic, the pieces served as the appropriate entrance to the Smart Museum’s new exhibition Cosmophilia: Islamic Art From the David Collection, Copenhagen, featuring one of the largest collections of classical Islamic art existing beyond the Muslim world.

As the exhibition’s title, literally translated as “love of ornament,” implies, much of Islamic art is devoted to decorating the utilitarian objects of everyday life. In addition, with such a wide range of objects on display, the exhibit establishes the difficulty in identifying what exactly Islamic art is. Unlike, say, Western art, with its depictions of religious scenes and its frequent placement, aptly, in houses of worship, Islamic art is often better described as cultural rather than religious, and its expression is often found in even the most mundane of objects.

As the word “Islam” regularly makes the front page of major papers, it is perhaps not surprising that the exhibit’s opening reception last Thursday was well attended. Perhaps even less surprising is that there was a faint but perceptible political charge to the conversation. An amble through the crowd revealed everything from condemnation of the damage during the Iraq war to Islamic treasures and dissatisfaction with the American public’s perceived ignorance of Islam to simple admiration of the beauty of the pieces.

Indeed, the organizers of Cosmophilia have not ignored the political implications of the exhibit, although their approach is, thankfully, understated and metaphorical. Rather than arranging the pieces by period or geography, curators Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom of Boston College, have placed them in four different categories that they identify as central to Islamic art: figures, writing, geometry, and vegetation. Each section is full of its own wonders. The figures collection, for instance, contradicts the belief that Islamic art contains no figures, while also illustrating the strong feelings some Muslims do, in fact, harbor against them. In one notable example, an unknown reader has “decapitated” the exquisitely delineated figures in a gilded manuscript with a slash of red ink, signifying his aversion.

The writing collection features some fascinating examples of Islamic calligraphy and contains such historical wonders as an eighth-century Syrian copy of the Koran, which demonstrates how early Muslims had begun to decorate the written word, and a page from the gigantic 15th-century Koran of Timur-e Lang. As is demonstrated again and again throughout the exhibit, calligraphy was and remains the dominant form of Islamic art. Different styles can be found in each of the exhibit’s sections.

The organizers have devoted considerable attention to the vegetative and arabesque forms, which, like calligraphy, can be found on virtually all the pieces in the exhibition. Visitors can trace the more natural forms of vegetative ornament to intricate examples of the arabesque. In the latter, the vegetative form embraced abstraction and the stems and leaves grew unfolded across pages, panels, and rugs according to geometric law. Elsewhere, geometric forms grace capitals and textiles, revealing the wonders that can be conceived in the absence of figures.

These four categories culminate in a section called “hybrids,” which features pieces that combine four or more characteristics of Islamic art. Here one encounters some of the true wonders of the exhibit. One particularly beautiful piece is a calligram. Hidden in a corner, the work depicts a lion drawn from Arabic calligraphy against a background of vegetative and geometric design crouching in wait to surprise the passing visitor. Elsewhere, a 16th-century copper basin from Iran seamlessly melds a number of forms. The intricacy of the object draws the viewer closer and closer, and with each layer there is a new level of appreciation.

Cosmophilia is a demonstration of the establishment of unity within rich diversity. After leading the visitor through displays of each of the forms separately, the exhibit concludes with examples of how artists combined the forms in reverential harmony. Ultimately, therefore, in an age during which the world is striving to reconcile so many different faiths and practices, the most powerful feeling that one may feel after a walk through the Smart’s newest exhibit is not just awe at the beauty of the craftsmanship, but a palpable and welcome impression of hope.