BALTIMORE -- Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the current military standoff in the desert lend an unhappy topicality to the exhibition "Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures From Kuwait," on view at the Walters Art Gallery here.
The 107 objects in the show, plus six others in an exhibition now on tour, may be all that is left intact of the private collection from which they were borrowed (before the invasion, obviously), a collection of some 7,000 artifacts amassed during the past 15 years by two members of the Kuwaiti royal family and housed in the Kuwait National Museum. There have been eyewitness post-invasion reports of systematic removal of objects from the museum by the conquerors.
But the subject of the show is irresistibly topical in itself: the artistic legacy of Islam across a great temporal and geographic sweep. If an art exhibition such as this -- a high-quality mix spanning a millennium -- has next to nothing to teach concerning the conflicts of the moment, its subtle lessons nonetheless deflate the accusatory norms of international discourse at a time of impending war. Besides that, it is very beautiful, and moving.
The show opens and closes with architectural fragments, a stone column capital made in Umayyad, Spain, in the 10th century and an inlaid marble frieze made in Mughal, India in the 18th century. Between these splendid bookends is arrayed an assortment of utilitarian objects -- of metal, glass, stone, fired clay, fiber, gemstones, wood, parchment, paper -- attesting not only to power, wealth, artistic inspiration and superb craftsmanship, but also to the persistence of a comprehensive worldview.
As expert commentators always point out, and as even a casual visitor to this show will discover, there is a tremendous variety of style, technique and expression in Islamic art. Still, it is the consistency that first and last impresses non-Moslems: Despite the differences, there is nothing here that one would not immediately identify as the product of Islam. Defining the qualities that make it so is another, far trickier matter, but one can proceed empirically, from piece to piece.
Sensibly and conventionally arranged by chronology into four sections -- early Islam (622-1050), classical (1050-1250), post-classical (1250-1500) and late (1500-1800) -- the exhibition encourages this approach, although, I must say, that show opener is very nearly a show stopper. Big, bold, but delicate all the same, the column capital from a Cordova palace grips the imagination and commands attention. It's a lesson at once in military expansionism -- how rapid was the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula! -- and cultural dynamism -- how bending was the new aesthetic, and yet how sure!
This is most definitely a Corinthian capital, its stylized acanthus leaves rooted in the power that was Rome. But it's a freeze frame: The piece allows our eyes to follow carved tendrils as they embrace the acanthus leaves and architectonic scrolls, entice and envelop them, and as the tendrils move so is Rome transformed into something vastly different -- abstract, evanescent, sinuous, sensuous -- by a convincing artistic logic. Similarly, one witnesses in a 9th-century Iraqi vessel the adept swallowing of a technique and a style imported along the trade routes from T'ang dynasty China.
Decorative abstraction followed to mathematically complex and spiritually spellbinding lengths is of course one of the overarching characteristics of mature Islamic art, and there are plenty of compelling examples here, but one's eyes early on come to rest upon objects of the utmost simplicity and elegance. A ceramic bowl, also from 9th-century Iraq, is wondrously decorated in a Kufic script -- the inscription fits the lip of the little bowl to perfection, as it stretchingly spells out a message: "Blessing."
Wow. When wondering how different my responses to Islamic art would be had I a command of Arabic, I usually conclude not all that much. Enriched, to be sure. Islamic art, following the most profound impulses of the religion, is above all an art of the written word. But unlike the inscription on the bowl, the usual sayings (as translated) in architecture and the decorative arts are repetitive to the point of mesmerizing dullness, and that, I've supposed, is preeminently the point. The repetition of the word, woven into designs of such beauty, reaffirms the belief of the believer. Does not this repetition create and reaffirm a state of mind in the nonliterate viewer?
There's always the good chance that in such musings a non-believing non-expert will reveal his utter stupidity. In any case, it is characteristic of the art that more than half of the objects in this show involve writing, and it's a fact that one does not have to decode the literal meaning to feel much of its spiritual, as well as aesthetic, effect. It's also characteristic of the art -- and this fact is less well known -- that much of it is not directly related to the religion.
This explains, for those who imagined that the Koranic invocations against idolatry were total, the presence here of so many images of living creatures, including human beings, in the secular arts. Other animals are more prevalent; gazelles, lions, all manner of birds are organized into all-consuming arabesques and yet retain their lifelike and life-enhancing attributes.
Witness the gazelles from a wooden decoration made for a Fatimid palace in 11th-century Egypt. This anonymous artist knew gazelles, their grace in action, their stately souls -- or he knew exactly how to convince us that he did, and where's the critical difference? Yet he also knew how to place such images into supremely logical, overall decorative schemes. (One can well imagine the effect of this fragment as multiplied in its original setting.) Such naturalism, incorporated so securely into "anti-naturalistic" patterns, is a recurring miracle of Islamic art.
As for humans, well, they appear intermittently across the centuries and continents, most famously in the so-called miniature paintings of Iran and India. These are of course among the most beautiful of all the world's figurative arts, precious in color, rigorous in observation, precise in line. They hint, sometimes, at the philosophical depths of the religion, or its mystical flights. See, in this show, a 16th-century Iranian illustration of a love affair symbolizing the soul's passage through seven stages, or a 16th-century Uzbekistanian rendering of a 13th-century poet in ecstasy. These provide visual delight as always, and weighty matter to ponder for days, weeks -- hey, years.
The exhibition was selected from the collection of Sheika Hussah Salem Sabah and her husband, Sheik Nasser Sabah Ahmad Sabah, by Esin Atil, historian of Islamic art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries and nonpareil connoisseur. Atil loves the idiosyncratic human touch -- here the accidental drip of turquoise glaze on the shoulder of a jar, there a calligrapher's sense of fun and pride shown in an out-of-border phrase upon the page of an otherwise correct and elegant Koran manuscript.
Organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington in cooperation with the Walters, the show will remain on view in Baltimore through Feb. 17, after which it will depart for museums in Fort Worth, Atlanta, Richmond and St. Louis. The Walters, at 600 N. Charles St., is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.