Empire of the Sultans: Ottoman Art From the Khalili Collection
Through Aug. 10
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat. (open until 8 p.m. Thurs.); 1-5 p.m. Sun.
For information, call 244-3340
Tucked away among the rooms of “Empire of the Sultans,” currently showing at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, is the reading room, a standard feature of big shows at the Frist. The room is always stocked with exhibition catalogs and related materials and decorated in an appropriate style. Right now, it has the flavor of a Turkish coffeehouse, with gold velvet cubes providing seating, an oriental carpet on the floor and silk lamps hanging over low, square tables. While the light here is too subdued for serious reading, the space is a nice place to pause and reflect when taking in the enchanting pieces from the Khalili Collection of Islamic art.
Dr. Nasser D. Khalili, a U.S.-educated Iranian, began acquiring Islamic art in the early 1970s. His collection of 20,000 artifacts doesn’t have a museum of its own, making it perfect for lending out. This touring exhibit of more than 200 items focuses specifically on the Ottoman Empire and marks the first time pieces from the collection have been seen in this country. The dynasty lasted for 600 years or so, sweeping over the map to encompass Vienna, Istanbul (previously Constantinople), Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo. Under Süleyman the Magnificent, the empire reached its zenith between 1522 and 1566.
There are many familiar patterns and designs in the show, which shouldn’t be surprising given the scope of the empire. Through trade and diplomatic exchanges, Ottoman styles and motifs were introduced into Western aesthetics and vice versa. “Turkish”-inspired architecture, furnishings and textiles went in and out of fashion in Europe over the span of the Ottoman Empire. Inner-empire cross-pollination went on as well, resulting in both similarities and regional variations on themes in pottery, tiles and metalwork.
There is a lot of gold in this show, starting with the gold leaf on the richly illuminated pages of Kur’ans found in the “In the Service of God” section. (The exhibit is arranged into four parts, each presenting a different view of life in the Ottoman Empire.) Some of the holy books predate the Middle Ages, while others are from the 19th century; all are astonishingly beautiful. This section also includes heavy brass candlesticks, golden doorknobs, roundels and cenotaph covers. Particularly striking are the Ka’bah door coverings hanging on the walls, large pieces of black silk adorned with puffy, oversized calligraphy in black and gold satin.
Calligraphy is all over “Empire of the Sultans”on paper, fabric, pottery and architectural piecesreflecting its traditional importance within Islamic culture. Calligraphy was crucial for conducting business, preserving history and passing on the tenets of the Kur’an. It was even part of the royal education, though master calligraphers were called in to create lasting documents and decrees. The most intricate uses are found in the “Books, Paintings and Scripts” section of the show. Exquisitely delicate and fragile 19th century calligraphic leavesleaf skeletons with a phrase centered over the gilded veins and outline of the leafhang on one wall. Paper scripts with calligraphic phrases “superimposed” over elaborately cut-out patterns of squares and diamonds hang on the adjacent wall. Both the leaves and scripts were created by teams comprised of a calligrapher and a cutout artist as a means of demonstrating their skill.
Calligraphers also created tugra, or monograms for sultans. Highly stylized versions of the ruler’s name, tugra were usually rendered in gold ink and served the same purpose as royal seals on decrees, scrolls and other official documents. Examples of these are on display in the “Sultans, Soldiers and Scribes” section. Maps, calendars, quadrants and astrolabes dating from the mid-1700s are also featured in this part of the exhibition. As talented as they were in the decorative arts, the Ottomans were also scientists. Keeping track of place and time was important to followers of a religion that bade them to kneel in the direction of Mecca at prescribed times of the day. For this reasonnot to mention that the empire at times included Egyptians and other accomplished stargazersthe Ottomans were well acquainted with astronomy.
Over in the “Arts and Crafts” area, a simple set of pottery seems at odds with the many colorful items on display. Milky white with brownish rims, blue calligraphy near the spouts and a black inscription inside, these pieces date from 1860. Their simplicity was probably appreciated by the man for whom they were created, as the inscription translates to, “a gift for His Excellency Abraham Lincoln.”
President Lincoln and the Ottoman Empire? “Empire of the Sultans” does have its surprisesand a lot of familiarity as well. The blue and green tiles and deep-red floral-covered carpets of the “Arts and Crafts” area bring to mind William Morris and England’s 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. During a walk-through of the show, Khalili Collection curator Nahla Nassar agreed, mentioning an exhibition held last fall at London’s Leighton House Museum. That show, “Islamic Patterns in 19th Century Europe,” examined the connection between Islamic art and the works of Morris and his followers, who are believed to have been inspired by the many exhibitions held in London during the 19th century, including the 1861 Great Exhibition, which featured a display of Persian carpets.
Expressive use of patterns and ornamentation was not limited to books and textiles in the Ottoman Empire, as evidenced by the items in what might be thought of as the “tack room” of the show. Everything here is richly detailed, including the armor for horses, engraved and dot-punched with intricate swirls. Wooden guns are decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl and colored glass; helmets have rounded tops that mimic the domes of empire buildings.
As with any far-flung empire, the Ottomans left traces of their reign over vast parts of their former territory in Europe, Asia and Africa. The empire ended in 1922 with Turkey’s independence, so the newest works on display at the Frist date from the early 20th century. Still, many of these pieces seem timeless, either because they are examples of traditions so old that they’re hard to date, or because their influence is so pervasive that it has become part of the visual lexicon. Yet there will always be something uniquely intriguing about the Ottoman Empire, and “Empire of the Sultans” offers a chance to explore this realm.
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