When you attend an exhibition, you look at two things concurrently: the work presented by the show and the show itself. One influences how you see the other. Great art can be diminished by a show’s treatment, just as great display can make mediocre art look better.

Most exhibitions at Chicago’s art museums have work that is more distinguished than its presentation or vice versa. In fact, seldom are both equal. But one exhibition brings us closer to parity than any other, and that is “Cosmophilia: Islamic Art From the David Collection, Copenhagen,” which has come to the Smart Museum of Art on the second, final stop of a North American tour.

The David Collection is, in the words of the exhibition catalog, “Denmark’s unofficial ‘Museum of Islamic Art,'” holding nearly 2,600 pieces in all media. Although the number is comparatively small and the pieces are known outside the country mainly by specialists, quality is high enough so anyone attracted to repositories of Islamic art should relish the opportunity of seeing a representative selection from this one.

Collector Christian Ludvig David (1878-1960) was not a historian or ethnographer or archeologist, so he did not form the nucleus of the museum’s holdings to familiarize himself with aspects of Islamic culture. He, like many in the late 19th Century, was interested in art for art’s sake and gave priority to the aesthetics of the works he collected. The professionals who followed, tending and expanding the collection, maintained much the same emphasis, and this responsibility to beautifully executed objects has, in turn, given direction — and distinction — to the present show.

“Cosmophilia,” which means a love of ornament, is one of the first exhibitions of Islamic art to be organized not according to the objects’ historic or cultural contexts but visually, emphasizing formal and aesthetic qualities. In time and geography, it runs from the 7th to the 19th Centuries, from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. And the range of its 123 objects encompasses textiles, ceramics, metal, ivory, wood, crystal, stone, parchment and paper. (MORE)

“Cosmophilia: Islamic Art From the David Collection, Copenhagen” will continue at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., through May 20. 773-702-0200.


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