ART PALACE AND MOSQUE: ISLAMIC ART FROM THE VICTORIAL AND ALBERT MUSEUM By TIM STANLEY [V&A Publications, London, 144pp., 2005]
Palace and Mosque is the catalogue of an exhibition that has been bringing the good news about Islamic art to an international audience. Having just visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas and the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo, its final desti- nation is the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield. The motives behind the world tour are practical as well praise-worthy. The Islamic gallery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is closed until mid-2006, when it will re-emerge as the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, thanks to the generosity of the Abdul Jameel Latif Group. In the meantime, the V&A has a world-beating collection with no display space.
London’s (temporary) loss is the rest of the world’s gain. Art lovers from Sheffield to Fort Worth have had an opportunity to view works that they might not have known existed. At the same time, the V&A has also produced an outstanding catalogue. The full title is Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and even this does not a full impression of how wide-ranging the book is. Although intended as an exhibition catalogue, it turns out to be a matchless introduction to Islamic art. The standard reference works are, in comparison, a bit dull and lifeless. This could partly be the fault of the typical format, which is paperback size, while the V&A book breathes life into artefacts by giving them enough space to impress the viewer. Fully illustrated in colour, the quality of the images and printing is very high.
Another marvel of Palace and Mosque is that it does not tackle architecture. This comes as a surprise, given the architectural emphasis of the title. What a relief, though. Architecture is perhaps the greatest glory of Islamic art, and yet is something almost impossible to convey on the printed page. By excluding squinches and quoins, this book is able to look in more detail at real life in the Islamic world over a twelve-hundred year period. The only failing is not the range of material covered; rather, it is about geography. The exhibition title fails to give any clue that, once again, ‘Islamic art’ is going to be limited to the Middle East. At the V&A there are some acceptable reasons for this, one of which is that its Islamic-art holdings are actually divided into two – one department for the Middle East and another for South and Southeast Asia. The latter lost out on this occasion. One also wonders where the V&A squeezes in such important parts of the Islamic world as China and sub-Saharan Africa.
Given this one geographical limitation, the book is still essential reading, partly because it is so much more readable than most introductions to the subject. The principal author, Tim Stanley, writes with absolute authority and an occasional sense of mischief. He is not afraid to make suppositions. Other specialists have been called upon for some of the additional mini-chapters that give the catalogue such a vigorous feel. Even the V&A’s director, Mark Jones, has made a contribution that goes far beyond the usual museum-management platitudes. The reader senses that Islamic art is important once again, although not necessarily for reasons of aesthetics.
The book is also made more readable by its thematic approach. Chronology and material typology have been replaced by topics such as “The Issue of Images” and “The Poetic Environment”. Stanley is not afraid to get into the politics of the past. Especially where images are concerned, he makes important points about compromises between Muslim rulers and their subjects. The extent to which rulers could satisfy their thirst for luxury and status was tempered by dialogue with the people. There are modern resonances which he avoids, but there is still plenty to set the imagination racing and to remind the reader that Islamic art is a record of a living culture. The only betrayal of a fascinating argument is the author’s use of the word “ordinary”, as in “ordinary people”. His writing is of a quality that would rarely be encountered in an American publication, but he lets himself down with the vocabulary of Tony Blair or the BBC. Readers may wonder why townspeople are “ordinary” while villagers are not.
The subject of patronage is dealt with in as entertaining a manner as the topic of poetry. The role of the maker is explained clearly, and above all the importance of markets is emphasised. Instead of treating the Islamic world as a curiosity situated between Europe and China, Stanley explores Islam’s centrality to the world. Rather than wheeling out the usual references to science, philosophy and preserving the works of the Greeks, he looks at Islam’s economic significance. The world was a far more global entity in the pre-industrial era than protestors at Live Eight would believe possible. The Islamic world was central to this cosmopolitanism. Islamic art embodies a civilisation that led, rather than followed, and as late as the 19th century was sufficiently respected for the Victoria and Albert Museum to seek out its products as an inspiration for the dreary manufacturers of Britain’s industrial revolution. This book is about far more than palaces and mosques.