ISLAMIC ART BEYOND THE PALACE WALLS: ISLAMIC ART FROM THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM EDITED BY MIKHAIL B. PIOTROVSKY AND ANTON D. PRITULA [National Museums of Scotland, 238 pages, 2006]
RUSSIA rarely wins marks for its sensitivity to Muslim issues. In recent years, Chechnya has been one of the low points. In the 1 9th and early 20th centuries, Imperial expansion in Central Asia did lasting harm to Russo-Muslim relations. Despite this, there is a long history of Russian interest in Islamic art. One of the finest collections is housed at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Rather than keeping its treasures hidden from the world, this is a museum that likes to share. In 2004 the Hermitage participated in a major exhibition at Somerset House in London, combining its collection with that of the sometimes controversial collector Nasser D. Khalili.
Two years later there was a new exhibition, this time at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, accompanied by a new catalogue. The show ended in November 2006, but the catalogue lives on. In some respects it is similar to the earlier exhibition Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands. However, Beyond the Palace Walls is subtitled Islamic Art in a World Context. The emphasis is quite different, although many of the artefacts are the same. The Hermitage has some of the definitive relics of the Islamic world, so nobody could blame them for bringing out, once again, a fabulous 13th-century Iranian brass vessel in the shape of zebu. There are a few other old favourites that will seem quite familiar to enthusiasts of Islamic metalwork; fortunately the authors have found new things to say about them.
The greatest contribution made by the new catalogue is its determination to link the Islamic world with the rest of the planet. So often, Islam is seen as a culture in isolation. It never was, of course, although there are forces at work today that would like to return to some mythical, untainted time in the distant past. From the beginning, Islam has been tied to trade. Beyond the Palace Walls takes a look at all the influences flying in different directions and is not afraid to display some of the humbler, but more illuminating parts of the Hermitage collection. Trousers and slippers from 19th-century Central Asia have as important a tale to tell as the museum’s priceless medieval metalwork.
The catalogue manages to pack in plenty of history, especially where the transfer of ideas and commodities is involved. This is backed up by photographs and detailed descriptions of more than 200 exhibits. The geographical emphasis is on Asia. Spain makes a brief showing, and then it is back to the area in which the Hermitage is strongest – neighbouring Asian countries from which it has made acquisitions over the centuries. This inevitably includes a large amount of material from Iran. More exciting is the inclusion of China, a vital influence on Islamic art of all regions. Going further than the usual tribute paid to Chinese design and techniques for the impression they made on the Islamic world, this book takes the unusual step of including Chinese objects made for the Chinese market. This is groundbreaking work. The “China and Islam” chapter may be shorter than most, but it’s a welcome addition. As the authors frequently like to point out, more research is needed in almost every aspect of Islamic art.
Apart from the importance given to China, the most original contribution of this catalogue is its Russian perspective. Having had a part to play for many centuries, it is interesting to sec Russia’s role described by Russians. Most of the great collections of Islamic art are housed in countries such as France and the United Kingdom, which tended to be onlookers. Russia has been more of a participant since the days when the Mongol Golden Horde dominated their lands.
It is reassuring to see serious scholarship still coming out of Russia. A glance at the bibliography reveals plenty of Russian sources, and these are scattered throughout the book, along with the names of other important Islamic-art historians – almost none of whom are Muslim. There are, perhaps, too many references to arcane research by earlier authorities, although this is compensated for by frequent references to the definitive work of James Allan and AS Melikian-Chirvani.
As well as having lots of text, the book’s designers have crammed in a large number of pictures. These are not displayed as fancy details or blowups. The aim is to illustrate as many artefacts as possible, which has been achieved in an attractive and legible manner. Only one item (a 1 5thcentury door) appears to be upside down.
The term “Islamic art” is used freely in this book, despite losing popularity elsewhere. Its use is justified in the introduction by the editor himself, who calls it “ambiguous and sometimes contentious.” Showing the level of harmony at which Islamic-art historians operate, there are numerous artefacts representing Christian themes. There are two representations of St George and the dragon and many more of the Madonna and Child. Perhaps to avoid any really serious hostility, there are no images of the Qur’an on display.