Drawn In by Details

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Is it possible that some of the world's most colorful, exquisitely crafted pictures were barely meant to be seen? That absolutely gorgeous art could have been conceived without concern for human eyes?

"Muraqqa' : Imperial Mughal Albums From the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin," the show that opened recently at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery for Asian art, suggests such strange possibilities.

More about that strangeness in a minute. First, a bit about the show and its objects.

The exhibition presents 86 finely decorated sheets, made for the Mughal courts of northern India between about 1600 and 1650. They were collected early last century by Beatty -- in full, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty -- an American mining tycoon, philanthropist, collector and Anglophile. He emigrated to England in 1911, fell out of love with that country after World War II and eventually moved his collection to Ireland, where it recently found a grand new home in Dublin Castle.

The word "muraqqa' " in the title is Persian and means something like "patchwork." It was used to refer to the signature patched robes of Islam's Sufi mystics, favorites of the Mughal emperors. And also, as a kind of compliment, to the sort of deluxe albums on view in this show, whose pages are often "patched together" like scrapbooks.

On one side of each page (known in the trade as a "folio") you'd usually find an exquisite work of calligraphy -- a 13th-century poem, say, copied out by the famous 16th-century Persian calligrapher Mir Ali and then invisibly inserted into a decorative border. That ultra-prestigious script work was the heart of these albums. But sandwiched onto the flip side of the writing, within similarly ornate borders, you might also find another sheet that bore a freshly painted portrait of the Mughal emperor or one of his ministers. Or perhaps a famous scene from Mughal history or legend. Or you might even find, as on one page in this show, a collage of three different pictures drawn in Persia by three different artists of three different eras, joined by a fanciful European engraving of the moon.

A single album might be built around a few loose themes. But mostly a muraqqa' seemed to function as a treasure chest for collected and commissioned texts and imagery.

This exhibition is also a kind of muraqqa'. It is a one-museum "treasures" show, without much of an argument to it. It presents the best of whatever Mughal folios Beatty happened to acquire at the time that he was buying. That means it doesn't have the substance, or pay the dividends, of the Sackler's stunning "Hamzanama" show from 2002, which borrowed pages from all over to explore one illustrated volume of a great Mughal epic. (The comprehensive catalogue for "Muraqqa' " makes clear that a scholarly loan show is badly needed to untie its topic's knots. That makes it even stranger that, of the 18 fine pages the Smithsonian owns from these same albums, only two are included in the current exhibition.)

But maybe "Muraqqa' " does succeed, on its own terms, in coming close to the loose-limbed spirit of the six albums it anthologizes.

It's almost impossible to absorb the overload of separate little details included in these albums: a dime-size image of a pair of mating birds; an almost photographic portrait of a warrior or sage; scene after scene of silk-robed courtiers lounging on absurdly luscious carpets set down in luxuriant gardens; an interlaced border of snaking red arabesques and flowing black letterforms set inside another frame of gold flowers on blue.

Even on a single page, roughly 11 inches by 16, there's often too much detail to take in, as your eye first takes in a story line, then fastens on its separate episodes, then moves on to the single actors in them, then to their various items of clothing, each of which has its own patternings, in turn made up of the tiniest features, all enclosed in lavish ornamental borders with more incident than you could ever study.

The deeper you dig into the show, then into an album, then into a folio, then into its component parts, the more information there is to unpack. You go from standing a pace away, to arm's length, to nose up to the picture, to peering through one of the Sackler's magnifying glasses, to depending on the high-magnification lens set into each glass -- and still there's always more you hope to see.

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