It’s really impossible to say enough good things about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s revitalized and reopened Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia, an astonishingly rich journey through the centuries and a cornucopia of artistic influences and achievements. I spent three hours at the exhibit, a meandering walk around a central courtyard, full of screens and deep chairs that let you better examine gorgeous manuscripts, before Thanksgiving. And I came away from it with a powerful sense not just that I’d seen something beautiful, but that the exhibit provides a striking sense of the long arc of history.
The galleries are a reminder that constraints can be a help, rather than a hindrance, in the production of astonishing art. It’s unfortunate that so much of the contemporary discussion around Islam and art ends up involving things like prohibitions on depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (a trend that some Muslims have exacerbated by reacting to free speech with violence), rather than the alternative ways Muslim artists have found to depict the divine. One of the things that struck me most strongly was the way that artists, in forms ranging from pottery, to weaving, to stone-carving, to competitions to create enormous, tiny, and innovative versions of the Koran, bring language to life. This isn’t just a matter of illuminating manuscripts. The language itself is alive, and stunning. In some pieces, the words literally grow into plant life on the page. In others, they spin off into geometry, languidly circling the rim of a bowl or packed tight into woven patterns. The signature of Suleyman the Magnificent isn’t just some colonial-style assertion of will through flourishes and scale: it’s gilded with the weight of his authority. Taken together, the galleries are a stunning testament to the sense that language carries divine power with it.
The show also provides an astonishing sense of scale — and of impermanence. It’s exciting to see the Chinese influence on Syrian Islamic figurative art, and to get a sense that the world was a more connected place than we imagine it to be in a book of constellations with deities who look more Chinese than Persian or Turkish. Similarly, there are beautiful pieces by Iraqi potters who were mashing up Chinese stoneware traditions and Islamic calligraphy. But as big, and as far-reaching as the Muslim-ruled world was, it didn’t last as a coherent whole: the juxtapositions of influences and assimilated styles are striking precisely because they seem out of such a distant past. The show includes a style of carpet known as Bellini Carpets not because that’s the name of the artist who made them, but because the Venetian painter Giovani Bellini painted his 16th-century Madonnas standing on carpets with their distinctive keyholes: Christianity takes Islam’s place on the world stage even in art history.
But it’s a useful reminder not to assume that any dominant power will persevere. Madonnas striding across Persian carpets may seem like a revelation in a couple of centuries, rather than the norm. As they present old art in a fresh and exciting new way, the revitalized galleries accomplish a rare trifecta, giving us a sense of and context for “what is past, or passing, or to come.”