Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, & Architecture in Medieval Islam

Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, & Architecture in Medieval Islam
Margaret S. Graves
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
x + 339 pp.; 125 ills.
Cloth £55.00 / $85.00
ISBN: 978-0-1906-9591-0

This book can be described as an extended essay on perception and mentality in the medieval Islamic world in relationship to objects. Highly ambitious and widely researched, it ranges across topics including, but far from limited to, medieval Arabic poetics, modern theories of perception and ornament, and medieval Islamic theology, science, philosophy, and literature. The author’s field of inquiry encompasses a geography that is vast as well: it entertains textual and artifactual evidence from Spain in the west to Central Asia in the east. While its period and area of focus are the eastern Islamic world in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the book also includes substantial sections on works from eleventh- and twelfth-century Egypt as well as medieval Spain. From its medieval Islamic center, it dips forward into theories of art history from sixteenth-century Iran and backward to aspects of Roman and late antique art, the relationship of Greek to Arabic philosophy, and seventh- and eighth-century Umayyad art and architecture.

The book is divided into five chapters, entitled, in order, “The Intellect of the Hand,” “Building Ornament,” “Occupied Objects,” “Material Metaphors,” and “The Poetics of Ornament,” fronted by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. The copious and scrupulously documented notes are, alas, at the end of the book. The chapter titles and many turns of phrase in the book point to a self-conscious and confident style. The book is clearly written, although it employs theoretical terminology the meaning of which only became clear to this reader once connections were attempted between concepts outlined at the beginning of each chapter and works of art and architecture in the middle section. Rare in this age of outsourced or nonexistent copy-editing and hurried and harried academic authors, the text, notes, and bibliography are almost entirely without orthographic error. The author cites secondary literature in many modern European languages and a more limited range of medieval Islamic primary sources both in translation and in the original.

A couple of examples serve to give the reader a flavor of the author’s wide field of reference and method of argumentation. This reviewer had to hold on tight in a number of places, as the author moved between an eclectic series of sources. In a particularly eventful few pages, Graves uses the etymology of an Arabic word to “demonstrate the centrality of ornament to aesthetics within the Arabic speaking world,” quotes sixteenth-century Persian texts concerning styles of ornamentation, refers to Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament, Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen, and Ernst Kühnel’s Die Arabesque, all followed by a mini-disquisition on the word “skeuomorphism” (63–66). A less momentous but still large leap takes place on page 55, where passages from the oft-quoted tenth-century encyclopedic work Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of the brethren of purity) are followed immediately by references to the Muqaddima (Prologomena) of the fourteenth-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun. It is true that at times the author demonstrates connections between medieval Muslim authors separated from each other by vast stretches of time and space, by referring to the popularity of earlier works in later centuries. Nonetheless this reviewer wonders if the size of the field of play and the scale of generalization would not have been questioned had this book concerned a more mainstream art-historical region of study.

One of the differences between archaeology and art history is an interest in context. Careful documentation and analysis of artifacts found during excavation not only help with traditional concerns of both disciplines in dating and manufacture but also with larger social and economic concerns of the settlement and region in which they were found. In Art and Allusion, the author’s interests circle around other kinds of contexts: the place of artistic production in medieval Islamic societies, the connection between artistic production and intellectual concerns, ways of looking based on categorical structures of theories of perception, the intelligence involved in manufacture, and the way these frameworks might better help us understand the form and decoration of objects from the far-flung regions listed above. On page 216, this is called a “plausible network of reciprocities” between works of art, works of architecture, their makers, and the social, aesthetic, and intellectual concerns of the time. The context, then, is an intellectual one, shaping mentalities (a word not used by the author) that, in turn, affected form and decoration of objects. The author references Gülru Necipoğlu’s 1995 The Topkapı Scroll, among other reasons, for its discussion of links between geometry and building, that is to say, between theory and practice. Certainly it contributed to her interest in proposing links between categories of rhetorical classification, ways of looking and thinking, and works of art in medieval Islamic societies.

The ambition of this book lies precisely in its proposed use of perceptual and rhetorical theories and tropes better to understand the shape and decoration of a wide-ranging set of objects, from molded ceramic storage jars to marble water jug stands called kilgas, to inlaid metalwork objects, like incense burners, ink wells, ewers, basins, and other containers. In bringing quotes from prominent Islamic authors to bear on the relationships between theories of literary production and the production of artifacts, the author proposes “a mutable visuospatial poetics of allusion” (2) and to recover previously undervalued object categories from art-historical neglect, one based on Western art-historical priorities and hierarchies.

The starting point for the book as well as for the author is a resemblance between certain medieval Islamic objects and buildings, one that was noted by Islamic art historians many decades ago but that has not been examined or prioritized since. This resemblance between small objects and large buildings helps to link otherwise disconnected passages with theoretical or literary generalities introduced at the beginning and ends of chapters, sandwiching extended investigation of certain artifact types and their decoration. Thus, on pages 83 and following, the author uses the resemblance between the decoration of medieval monuments in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and objects made in the region, especially storage jars with applied decoration called habbs, effectively to argue for a shared aesthetic in the region and an interplay between architecture and object.

Underneath a lot of the introduction and first chapters of the book is an extended dialogue between the author and the work of her former teacher, Robert Hillenbrand, as well as the oeuvre of the late Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar, especially his The Mediation of Ornament (1992). The former connection is most evident in the author’s interest in the art of the Persianate Islamic world. It is evident in her linking of architectural and artifactual shape, most notable the tent and the tomb tower, with the shape of various objects, especially two late twelfth-century ewers likely from Herat in today’s western Afghanistan (3–10), but Graves’s interest also extends to Umayyad architecture and the arcade in chapter 2. An alleged relationship between tents and objects and buildings is found in other sections of the book, also drawing on the work of Hillenbrand and earlier scholars. The interrogation of Grabar’s work concerns the relationship of architecture to ornament: the author argues plausibly that we cannot think of ornament without thinking of form, and she offers examples of their mutual conceptualization (67–68).

Oxford University Press presents Arts of Allusion as an art history book: it has attempted to give the book some of the design distinction usually associated with other presses’ art history series, and the book, while not notably large in format, is well-illustrated, largely with images in color, that are keyed to the text. In this way, it complements the book’s concerns with the art of making artifacts and engaging text and image, this conjunction aided by the shoveling of the notes to the back of the book. That said, as readers can divine from what they have read so far, this is far from a book of traditional art history. While discussing objects, their shapes, and their decoration, the author appears to be more engaged with theoretical issues, be they in medieval Islamic or in modern art-historical and philosophical writings, than larger points derived from visual analysis. In each chapter, these issues are certainly related loosely (allusively) to the many artifacts illustrated, but those aspects of individual works of art chosen to be discussed relate directly to the author’s argument, leaving startlingly many, sometimes including major points relating to those works, undiscussed. In this respect, this book is not for beginners interested in learning more about the medieval Islamic art of the object.

This reviewer finds that Art and Allusion, in claiming that art historians have neglected the study of objects due to Western hierarchies of artistic importance privileging painting, exaggerates in order to accentuate the novelty of approach essayed in the book. The author cites some of the stimulating recent studies of Islamic metalwork, like those of Ruba Kana’an and Hanna Taragan, among many others: studies that belie the dead hand of Western canons of art-historical investigation. Similarly, observations about the ways museum displays of objects deracinate them and the need to reconnect with the materiality of their manufacture, rather than being revelatory, strike an old-fashioned nineteenth-century chord, one that carries through in the use of terms such as craft and craftsman as much or more than art and artist—and indeed the phrase the intellect of the hand, which the author uses as the title of the first chapter and returns to on several occasions.

This last interest in manufacture brings this reviewer back to the issue of context. Why would a ewer, a receptacle for liquid used in connection with dining, be manufactured so as to bear resemblance to a tomb tower, a receptacle for a dead body? Reasons for this seemingly stark and improbable opposition may lie in connections between objects and modalities of perception and interpretation proposed by the author. But by stripping bare the objects presented or, at least, by only focusing on those aspects that fit larger arguments, the author misses—or is not interested in engaging with—the more traditional art-historical graft of drawing webs of allusion based on visual and cultural similarities with other object categories, in this case, in my opinion, ones like coins and textiles, and of utilizing historical and other sources different from the ones on which she places great store. In this, the author, whose allusion to wide ranges of sources indicates years of reading and thinking, seems to this reviewer to be quick to pass judgment and move on. To give just two examples of objects discussed in this book: immobile objects like habbs (storage jars) or kilgas (water jug stands) can certainly, as they are here, be related to larger intellectual concerns expressed in contemporaneous architecture and in aesthetic and perceptual categories. But, largely immobile as they were, they could perhaps be more easily be related to actual architectural settings where they stood as a way more directly to understand the relationship of objects and architecture.

Arts of Allusion will be welcomed by many in the field of art history, as the book brings mainstream Western art-historical literature to bear on series of artifacts, many of which are deserving of a wider audience and as worthy of study as much as other kinds of better-known Islamic art. It partakes of another current concern of Islamic art historians and those interested in Islamic aesthetics, which is the search for attitudes to the production of works of art used by Muslim writers in the medieval Islamic world and for ways they conceptualized the creation of material works of art. In this reviewer’s opinion, this perceptual turn would have been more effective had it integrated better scale and kind of argumentation.

Scott Redford is Nasser D Khalili Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


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