November 27, 2011

At the Met: Ceramics in the New Islamic Wing

Bowl with Green Splashes; Iraq, 9th century; earthenware, splash painted on opaque white glaze.

Walking through the new wing at the Met, officially titled "New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia" is as overwhelming an experience as the name sounds. I arrived at the entrance to the galleries feeling full of excitement after weeks of beautiful teases. I had my camera out, ready to start photographing, but there was too too much to look at and too many beautiful objects to think of singling any one of them out. So I walked slowly through the galleries, trying to absorb some of what I saw – architectural elements, pottery, textiles, paintings, metalwork – all bright and fresh and demanding attention. Then I decided that for this visit I would concentrate on photographing ceramics, which are some of my favorite objects at the Met, and on metalwork (for a second blog post), which I found very compelling in their shape and intricate design.

I love the very simple, modern looking, design of the ancient bowl above, with wide green lines dripping from its edge toward the central calligraphy, which states "Blessing and good fortune".

Bowl with Arabic Inscription; Iran, 10th century; earthenware, white slip with black slip decoration under transparent glaze.

The elegantly footed lines reaching into the center of this bowl descend from lines drawn about the top, pattern so abstract that it is difficult to see as language. I wonder how this appears to a reader of Arabic: do they see the words or the design first? The words say "Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace."

Jar; Syria, late 12th-early 13th century; stonepaste, underglaze painted under transparent turquoise glaze.

The shape of this jar, from straight narrow neck into a wide shoulder and narrowing again at the base, has a sensuality asking for a flowing caress. But it's the color that heightens this feeling, the rich deep turquoise glowing like a jewel behind the black teardrops.

Rooster-headed Ewer; Iran, 13th century; stonepaste, molded and applied decoration, underglaze painted under transparent glaze.

Topped by a open-mouthed rooster, a form popular in Islamic art, this vessel has great charm. It's bulging shape is emphasized by the pattern of cobalt blue lines, narrowing and widening.

Turquoise bowl with Carved Rim; Iran, 12th century; stonepaste, monochrome glazed.

The edge of this simple bowl is carved in a pattern that seems like the rising and falling of letters in Arabic calligraphy. It is another of several turquoise colored objects that I fell in love with. I don't know if the color turquoise has any particular meaning in Islamic culture or if it was just prized for its beauty, but there was a a good deal of it in the objects in this new installation.

Architectural Tile with Partial Inscription; present day Uzbekistan, 14th century; stonepaste, carved and glazed.

This tile was part of a decorative facade on a building, possibly over a window because of the curving top. One of the great joys of art of the Arab lands, seen in this and the pieces below, is the intricate weaving of pattern on objects and on walls. It is pattern that comes from calligraphy, .....

Tile from a Squinch; present day Uzbekistan, 14th century; stonepaste, carved and glazed.

or from natural forms; here interlacing leaves or blossoms and vining branches decorate a deeply carved tile. If you were wondering what a squinch is, as I was, it's an architectural element forming a base for a dome.

Ceramic Mosaic Panel; Spain, 14th century; earthenware, glazed.

Sometimes the pattern comes from geometry, as in this complexly woven lines bending and moving in an almost impossible to follow way, leaving stars and other shapes in their wake.

Carved Wall Tile; Iran, 13th century; stonepaste, carved and partially glazed.

Finally, another beautiful architectural element, organized geometrically, inspired by the shapes of nature. The lovely sky blue lines curve and point as they join and flow over one another, arms entwined in a graceful circle dance. In his article in the NY Review of Books on the new wing at the Met, history professor Peter Brown points out the ideas on ornament of Islamic expert Professor Oleg Grabar: "Grabar showed that ornament was not trivial. It was never a mere mechanical patterning of the surface of things. Rather, he pointed out, ornament brings us back, with subliminal power, to the force of life itself."


  1. I'm so looking forward to visiting the new gallerie! They were closed sooo long. Thanks for the preview, Altoon. I'll get down late in winter, I think. I love the geometric patterns in clay. I've done some of these on paper, with compass and straight edge, and their complexity is amazing. Took all my wits and then some!

  2. Susan, I too am amazed at the complexity of the patterns. Such beautiful objects!