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Pages With Tales Worth Foretelling

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

To prepare to write about "Falnama: The Book of Omens," the big fall show at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, which opens Oct. 24, I could, of course, read the catalogue. I could also head to the Library of Congress and see what scholars have been saying lately about Islamic miniatures from Iran and Turkey, circa 1600. I could even (editors, stop reading here) Google some Wiki thoughts.

But what I really need to do is consult the tarot. Or throw some divination bones. Or cast a horoscope or two.

"Oh, Ouija, will Blake Gopnik manage to say something meaningful about artworks whose powers he doubts?"

There's the rub. (Rubbing your crystal ball apparently helps it see.)

The best art reviews get right inside their subjects. They don't just try to figure out how an artwork speaks to modern viewers -- let alone to one single, benighted critic. They try to take the object on the terms it was made for, partly because that's the best way to make it speak to us. One way to avoid looking and thinking according to the cliches of our era is to look through the eyes of another. But what if you can't buy the view those bygone eyes reveal?

Which brings us back to the manuscripts on view in "Falnama." The Sackler says that they were once used "by sultans, shahs and commoners to explore the unknown." Cheap ones were used for divination in the streets of Isfahan and Istanbul, but scholars know of four huge deluxe volumes created for courtly fortunetelling. Three of them will be on view in this show, in the "first exhibition ever to be devoted to these rare works," according to the news release.

"Falnama" gathers pages from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Louvre and the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery. Their illuminations are a tangle of garish colors, wild detail and extravagant imagery of every kind. In addition to the expected planets and constellations, they show everything from Adam and Eve riding on a serpent to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, mounted on a bird.

A shah or sultan or vizier, about to embark on some new conquest or major policy campaign (health care, anyone?) would first perform ritual ablutions, then open the divination book at random to an image and the writing that went with it. If properly read, the page he chose would yield signs and portents of the future of his project. "Bibliomancy," it's called.

And I don't believe in it, for a second.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from thinking and reading about it, anthropologist style, and using my thoughts and findings as a lens for looking at the art. And it certainly doesn't stop me going the "aesthetic" route, commenting on the beauty of the colors and forms, the brilliance of the renderings, the way each page is put together, the fine craft involved. But all these options risk turning these objects into a kind of "found art" for modern eyes, like when Max Ernst glued old advertising into artful collages, or when Robert Rauschenberg took beautiful junk and turned it into sculpture. It's even closer to what Picasso did, when he presented the imagery of African rituals as a new kind of modern art. How to recapture the real force and import of these objects, when the whole thought-world they once worked in no longer exists, and has so little leverage on a contemporary critic?

Oh, Mighty Ba'al, reveal it unto me. Abraxas!

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