Works of elegance and refinement

Worked with patience and decorated with refinement and elegance, some of the most rare works of Islamic art are awaiting art lovers at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

Refinement and elegance are the two terms most frequently used by the director of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette, to describe the art of the Islamic countries. And indeed it is these two words that first spring to mind when we look at a Kuran penned in calligraphy in which the characters and prayers seem literally to dance, and adorned with floral and foliate motifs, gilded, and displaying blue rumi’s in the margins around the text. The same holds when looking at a miniature in which everything at first appears fixed, in which, unlike in western painting, perspective is not used and figures acquire no volume in a play of chiaroscuro. Not only that but the painting reveals itself to you layer by layer, indeed occasionally presenting details so fine as to be unnoticeable to the naked eye. The embroidery on an Ottoman officer’s uniform, for example, or a motif in the carpet on which a sultan is seated, illustrating not only the way this miniaturist drew and colored his painting but also the limits of his patience, and the richness of detail he was able to pack into those limits. This of course holds as well for a tile or ceramic object. A monumental process in which knowledge and creativity based on intricate formulae are inextricably intertwined in every phase.

The exhibition, ‘The Three Imperial Capitals of Islamic Art', currently on at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, consists of 220 works from the Louvre’s Islamic Art Collection with contributions by the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts. Such is the essence of this exhibition that as we look at the miniatures, carpets, fabrics, tiles and ceramics, and other objects which constitute the finest examples of Ottoman Turkish, Safavid Persian, and Baburid Indian art, the dictionary definitions of the terms elegance and refinement take on deeper meaning. Indeed you realize that these two words have a special resonance with the East, a resonance to which idea of ‘being patient’ is fundamental. Nor is this limited merely to the fact that these works took years to produce; it can also be an invitation to today’s modern person in a hurry to slow down and be patient. For you cannot look at a miniature or a tile plate the same way you would look at a Western painting or object. You have to move all around it, decipher the intricate details of its ‘language', and ‘read’ the story it depicts or the figures abstracted in it. Only in this way can you appreciate why the cheeks of the young man or woman in the miniature have a pinkish hue, or notice the nuances between the color or composition of two tile plates. Isn’t the ability of miniaturists to inscribe a story on even a grain of rice the stuff of novels, even of legends? No wonder it’s not unusual to hear a visitor to the exhibition saying, “I wish I’d brought along a magnifying glass.”

The Louvre first made the acquaintance of the Ottoman tile in 1856 through a dish in the ‘şükûfe (blossom) style'. Only in 1884 was the collection further enriched by a donation, and although it occasionally lost momentum it continued grow through both donations and purchases. The last famous piece to be added to the collection was a plate in the ‘saz (reed) style’ which came to the museum in 1994. A ‘Baba Nakkaş’ bowl purchased for the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1889 and a blue and white dish with geometric patterns purchased in 1894 are regarded as some of the finest examples of Ottoman art. These pieces can be seen today at Istanbul’s Sakıp Sabancı Museum. Also in the exhibition is the ‘Peacock Plate’ which is considered to be the most famous of the Iznik ceramics.

Every famous work of art has a story. Coming from a well-to-do family, Raymond Koechlin (1860-1931) was curator of the Louvre and Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Central Union of Decorative Arts. He had seen the ‘Peacock Plate’ for the first time in a Paris shop window. But he had to go out of town, so he asked a friend of his to purchase it for him. When he returned, he learned that his friend had failed to carry out his wishes and that the plate had in the meantime gone astray, upon which he began to search for it. His quest would end in London. Here, the plate was in the hands of a gallery owner. Sizing up Koechlin’s intentions immediately, the gallery owner was not about to let this opportunity slip through his hands. He would sell the plate, but he had a condition: Koechlin had to purchase other items from him as well. And so this passionate art lover was united with his plate and donated it to the Louvre in memory of his young wife whom he had lost years earlier.

At the exhibition in Istanbul today you can see many more works purchased and donated to the museum by Koechlin, among them a large Iranian ceramic plate with a rosette pattern which he donated in 1905.

The pieces in the exhibition are of course not limited merely to ceramics and tiles. There is, for example, a two-page miniature taken from the Divan of Ali Shir Nevai. A childhood friend of the late-period Timurid ruler Sultan Hüseyin Baykara (1469-1506), Mir Ali Shir Nevai (1441-1501) was a famous poet whose name would go down in history like that of his prominent contemporary and statesman of the period. Yet another famous piece that combines literature and painting in the exhibition is a page from the ‘Shahname’ of the Iranian poet Ferdowsi. Included here are the opening couplets of this work which tells the story of the creation, the sun and the moon and man in an illustrated and illuminated manuscript.

As you can appreciate from these examples, Islamic painting tells a story. Not unlike the video clips of our day. We observe a similar approach in the textile arts. Here too every design and figure is a symbol or symbols that have evolved over the years, as in the ‘Bellini Carpet’. The experts tell us that the mihrab motif symbolizes the kıble or wall facing Mecca in mosques, and the flowers dangling from the point of the arch an oil lamp connoting Allah. But each one has a different interpretation of the tiny octagonal keyhole motif below. While some say it is based on a legendary mountain in China, others perceive it as a road leading to a mausoleum. Who knows? Perhaps these motifs symbolize more than one thing, and new interpretations can even be added to the old.

Isn’t that in any case a little bit what art is all about? That an object, a tree, a color, a scent, a picture, a piece of cloth we thought we knew and had seen reinvents itself? Not only that, it’s reciprocal. As you interpret a work of art, in fact it is yourself that you are reinterpreting thanks to it.
This is precisely the experience that the exhibition, ‘The Three Imperial Capitals of Islamic Art', gives Istanbul’s residents. For this exhibition has revealed to us once again characteristics about ourselves and our history of which we were not even aware or had taken for granted as ordinary. And that is already more than enough for a new interpretation.