Monday, September 18, 2006

"Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty"

Inna Allah jameel wa yuhibbu al-jamaal
Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty

I checked out the V&A's newly commissioned Jameel gallery (the result of a three-year-long renovation and re-design of the V&A's Islamic Gallery) recently and the splendour of the diverse artistic manifestations that surrounded me was overwhelming. The above saying of the Prophet neatly encapsulates the aesthetic ideal that underlies much of 'Islamic art' (the limitations of the term are beyond this brief entry).

The expression of this vision relies on a distinct and threefold visual structure, to which a series of panels in the gallery is very usefully dedicated. The first of these is calligraphy: for the faithful, the graceful ciphers of the Arabic script transmit the voice of the Divine, and are the substance of revelation made visible. In no other art form has the written word taken on such an exalted role; sultans and peasants alike strove to learn its many styles, which became disciplines in themselves, and around which an entire science of numerological symbolism evolved. The second is geometric design, brilliantly exploited in endless variations - intellectually enticing and puzzling at the same time. The third panel offers examples of idealised plant shapes drawn from the natural world: tendrils, vines, buds and flowers, all alluding to the fecundity and abundance of nature, and symbolically linked to the Qur'anic evocation of paradise as a luxuriant garden.

At the simplest level, these elements comprise the fundamental repertoire of the traditional artist; at a profounder level, they celebrate the relationship between God, man and nature. They are to some extent mutable - geometric patterns can form letters, and letters can be used to create pictures - and are combined in almost infinite and sophisticated variations of immense beauty. Great art, according to Ruskin, "is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together"; it is precisely this insight that was so well understood by the traditional Muslim artist, whose finest works simultaneously appeal to the devotional, intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities of the onlooker. The most refined expressions of this exacting discipline - whether carved on to a paper-thin dried leaf or stretched across a monumental facade - are thus transformed from objects of mere visual delight into powerful focuses of spiritual contemplation.
The gallery is housed in the Middle East section of the museum and as such it focuses on Arab (including Andalusian), Persian, Turkish and central Asian artforms. You can stroll past dazzling Uzbek tile-work, admire Mamluk Qur'anic calligraphy, stare into the mesmerising blues of Turkish ceramics but your attention will always return to the centrepiece of the gallery - the Ardabil carpet - a 16th century wonder.

Rebuilding the entire gallery around the 50-square-metre marvel imposed multiple challenges on designers. The greatest of these was to allow the carpet to be viewed horizontally, but to protect it from undue levels of light and dust. The innovative solution has been to surround it with an enclosure of non-reflective glass (be careful - it's almost invisible), free of structural supports. This is made possible by a giant protective canopy above the glass walls, fitted with fibre-optic lighting and suspended by steel cables from the ceiling joists overhead. At long last, the delicate colours and intricacy of the carpet's pattern - created from a staggering 30m hand-tied knots - may now be appreciated at close quarters.

The Ardabil carpet is also a reminder of the days when the appreciation of things Islamic was less eclipsed by political issues. To William Morris, who in 1893 petitioned for its purchase from a London dealer, the "singular perfection" of the Ardabil carpet was an inspiration: "To us pattern-designers," he wrote, "Persia has become a holy land."
My own trip happened to coincide with the 'Iranian Weekend - Poetry, Picnics and Persian Pastimes' which promised much but proved to be a spectacular anti-climax, exacerbated by the free-flowing fizzy dugh - an Iranian carbonated-milk-based form of gastronomic torture.

For those of you planning to visit the exhibition, the challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to discover the tribute to the Seven Sleepers and for bonus points, to determine the name of their canine companion.

For lots more detail including some stunning video presentations of architectural styles from across the Islamic world visit the V&A's site here.

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