Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, and the Grassi Museum, Leipzig

Having visited many fine museums throughout the world and being an avid student of art history, I enjoy venturing beyond the usual Eurocentric and Asian collections to investigate Islamic Art. I also like to pair my interest in art with world history and Silk Road civilizations. I am currently reading The Silk Roads, A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. It was recommended to us by Oxford scholar Craig Clunis. It turns traditional thinking about world history on its head and is a fascinating read.

My quest for understanding the Silk Road was initiated a few years ago during my first world journey in 2014 through Northwest China and the relatively untouristic path from Dunhuang through Turfan and Urumqi to Uzbekistan (See World Travels 2014 Page). My current personal research on Iran at the opposite end of my initial travels on the Silk Road  (originally named Seidene Strasse by a German academic) will hopefully culminate in a trip to Persia in the near future.

I couldn’t resist a stop at the Metropolitan Museum’s expanded and comprehensive collection of Near Eastern Artwork.  I two-timed the Michelangelo exhibit, the primary purpose of my visit,  that I saw with my sister in New York last month. The section includes an entire room with a soothing trickling water fountain and narrowly proportioned, elegant tracery windows made to simulate a traditional courtyard. Selected items in the collection are below, some with captions (but not all) .

As a design major in my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, I learned Western calligraphy styles, such as Carolingian, Uncial, and Gothic. I couldn’t help but want to master the Islamic calligraphic style that now suddenly appeared so beautiful and balanced to me. Of course, learning how to read it would be part of the goal, a simple feat…

My earliest curiosity over the wide stretches between Asia and Europe came from specific designs of “Oriental” carpets, such as Bokhara, Tabriz, Caucasian, and Isfahan. I had no idea what they meant. Lo and behold, the places where they were made exist, or once did.  It was exciting for me to discover that Bokhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan were also UNESCO world heritage sites.

Below are a representative collection of carpets in the Near East Gallery at the MET. The weavers of the Anhalt Medallion carpet (2nd from the left below) followed a paper cartoon in creating the design.  The carpet is derived from the Anhalt prince of Dessau, whose ancestors may have acquired it through military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks in the late 17th C.

Porcelain was a coveted item from China. In addition to silk, these goods pwere transported along what became the Silk Road. The Sogdian traders based in Samarkand were the kings of the highway, and were adept at managing, bargaining and anticipating desirable goods along the route. In turn, cobalt and copper were brought from the Near to the Far. The beautiful calligraphy and inscription to the bowl below reads “Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well being”.

There were only a few sculptural ceramics but I particularly liked the whimsical and creative “bird woman” shown below.

I’m including a few of the beautiful floral-themed beauties that I discovered at the Grassi Museum in Leipzig (descriptions are in German) below, to compare with those from the MET.

The featured map above also comes from the Grassi. I could stare at maps like these forever, to contemplate and realize how little we know about the vast array of significant dots between Europe and Asia. You can’t really study the Silk Road without knowing the key place names that put them in time and order!

2 thoughts on “Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, and the Grassi Museum, Leipzig”

    1. Islamic Art is so little known and underappreciated, yet it is some of the most beautifil and original. I make a point to see whatever is available in Western museums, but like all others, nothing compares to those pieces that reside in their original locations. We hope to visit Iran next month!

      Liked by 1 person

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