SMALLER, MORE narrowly focused and with less of a sense of humor than the
Baltimore Museum of Art’s 1997 “A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and
Albert Museum” (a lavish smorgasbord of stuff that included a pair of
silly-looking shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood), the National Gallery of
Art’s “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art From the Victoria and Albert Museum”
could not have come at a better time. Sent out from its home museum for an
extended world tour while the V&A develops a new gallery in which to
display items from its 10,000-object collection of Islamic art of the
Middle East, this traveling show of 106 objects has a none-too-subtle PR
subtext that is worth noting.

With significant financial support from Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi
Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, “Palace and Mosque” seems mainly
to want to make one quiet but plain point among others. It’s about
tolerance, something that occasionally seems to be in short supply between
the West and the Middle East these days.

To wit, one of the show’s themes is that Islam is a religion known for its
historically peaceful coexistence with Christianity and Judaism. This is
illustrated by such artifacts as a Turkish plate from the 18th century made
for an Armenian priest, and by a church vestment dating from the early 17th
century depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion. Made,
obviously, for practitioners of a non-Muslim faith, such objects are, at
least from the standpoint of this exhibition, culturally “Islamic” (in the
sense that they were created for communities under Muslim rule).

This message is clear, and clearly meant as a kind of antidote to the news
reports we’ve been hearing about violence against Western “infidels” — and
vice versa. Whether it will work to defuse tension, prejudice and
misunderstanding, in either direction, is another matter.

It wouldn’t be the first time, at any rate, that beauty has been placed in
the service of cultural diplomacy.

And there’s no short supply of beauty here. Drawn from two worlds — the
secular world of the palace and the somewhat more somber one of the mosque
(with shrines and churches thrown in as a kind of goodwill gesture), the
exhibition is visually splendid, if somewhat less ostentatious than many
decorative arts shows, by virtue of its heavy emphasis on religious
artifacts. Nevertheless, it debunks one commonly held myth about the Muslim
prohibition against representations of the figure in art. While it’s true
that the vast majority of Islamic objects (and here I mean Islamic in the
religious sense) involve mainly calligraphy and non-figurative design,
“Palace and Mosque” makes a point that this taboo was far from hard and fast.

As with any show that’s half devoted to courtly arts and half to faith, as
much here is meant to advertise power, wealth and prestige as devotion.
Carved ivories, rich textiles and, in a particularly stunning example of
if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it, a 16th-century gold-inlaid steel sword
belonging to Shah Tahmasp I of Iran are all basically status symbols.
They’re beautiful examples of craftsmanship and design, yet as with other
shows of this sort, where the works of art exist to reinforce class
distinctions, they’re somewhat unsubtle reminders of inequality”¦


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