Saturday, May 30, 2015

Balinese Paintings - Tabing (Part II)

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Art inspired by a particular religious background has featured on this blog spot. For your convenience I have listed some posts on this topic below:
Islamic Art
Historical Israeli Batik Artworks
19th to 20th Century Australian Christian Embroidery

The Balinese are of Hindu faith and so many of their art cloths reflect on Hindu themes.

Balinese paintings fall into five categories: flags and banners; (ii) ceiling paintings; (iii) ider-ider (cloth painting in a horizontal strip format); (iv) langse (form of a cloth painting used as a curtain) and, (v) tabing (kind of cloth painting in a rectangular format hung on walls) – Part I, Part III and Part IV.

Today’s post is the second post on tabing. Tabings are roughly square and are put against the wood back of the raised bed, which is the center of all Balinese household rituals – forming a backdrop to the offerings laid out on such occasions. They are also used in a similar way in temple pavilions. The form covers not only illustrative scenes, but also various kinds of calendars, which are painted within the traditional style.

Tabing (or story cloth) - Depicting scenes from the Bima Swarga.
Early 20th Century.
Cotton with pigment.
Size: 50'' width x 64'' height.

Before we discuss the stories these tabings illustrate, we will digress into how Balinese identify such stories on viewing the tabings.

Identification of Paintings
Most adult Balinese can, using the face and headdress variations, identify the type of characters involved in any painting scene and hence, by their interactions, try to remember an episode from a story which has similar characters in the same situation. By these clues they triangulate in order to identify the story and name of the characters.

In Balinese paintings there are few characters, such as Bima, who are instantly identifiable as individuals. Most characters belong to types. For example, Arjuna is a type of the most refined Ksatria, of royal family but not a King. There is nothing in his depiction that separates him from Sutasoma, Lakasama or even his own brothers, Nakula and Sadewa, or many other nightly heroes. Having identified all the types of characters in a scene and their interactions, the next step is to remember a story in which such a scene takes place. In some cases the scenes themselves are so famous that they are as a whole immediately identifiable. Sita’s Ordeal is unique in its actions: Sita herself is indistinguishable from other queens, but her position, guarded by Agni in the pyre turned into a lotus pool, is unmistakable. In other cases, mistakes can be made – even for whole scenes. Probably the most popular scene in Balinese painting, the temptation of Arjuna by the seven heavenly nymphs, is not an absolutely certain identification, since an identical scene occurs in Sutasoma. To correctly identify the intended story one must have available some scenes after the actual temptation itself. Obviously, only people who can recognize the story can identify the scene and the characters portrayed; in this sense Balinese paintings are purely illustrative, entirely dependant on the beholder’s knowledge of the story to convey meaning. But the paintings can also communicate in other ways less simple than just the narrative form.

Tabing - Kamasan, Arjunawiwaha: The Temptation of Arjuna; before 1938; paint on cloth.
Size: 167 x 129 cm.
Collected by Charles Sayers, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.

Balinese Paintings – Tabing (Part II)

Tabing – Story of Kala.
Size: 144 x 146 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan work; Manku Mura (1973); Commissioned halus work (i.e. very fine workmanship).

The tale of Kala - a creation story classed as Adiparwa - is known in many versions and is closely connected with the exorcist functions of the wayang kulit (i.e. shadow puppet play). In all versions of the tale, a dalang (a puppeteer considered to be a priest with exorcist powers) saves Kala’s destined food from being caught by him, and thus has powers to protect other threatened people. This version by Manku Mura is somewhat idiosyncratic in that the offenders are anak buncing (i.e. male and female twins), rather than the more usual victim, who is another son of Siwa, born in the week wayang (i.e. theatre arts) of the 210-day year. At about the time Manku Mura painted this picture, the Gelgel ritual area of which Kamasan is a part, had a spate of anak buncing, which had interfered with the ritual life. This may explain why they appear in the Manku Mura’s version of this story.

Tabing – Ramayana: Kala Sungsang.
Size: 82 x 87 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan,; Pan Seken; 1920s. Halus work with very fine penmanship. European cloth. Dirty with some holes.

Right at the beginning of Ramayana, Rama is asked to go to protect the hermits in the forest, who are being attacked by raksasa. Accompanied by Laksamana, he clears out raksasa (i.e. demon), and then goes on to win Sita in an archery competition. Two episodes are shown here. At the top Rama and Laksamana, with Twalen and Morda, are jumped by a female raksasa - Tatakabia - who Rama shoots. Below, Rama and Laksamana turn over another attacking raksasa, thus creating Kala Sungsang – an inverted demon, who has an important part in Balinese cosmology and is the name of a constellation. In the background of both scenes, hermits and their servants watch the discomfiture of their enemies.

Tabing – Ramayana: Abduction of Sita.
Size: 85 x 88 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan, probably Kak Lui, early 1930s. From a family temple in Todjan. Halus style with innovation. Bad flaking.

This small tabing is an example of experiments that were made in Kamasan in the 1930s to the new style of painting that was growing in popularity in Ubud. The figures are totally traditional, but the importance of trees and other plants, and the use of a solid yellow background instead of the traditional wind and cloud motif, are innovations of the new style. By the 1940s Kamasan artists were back to the more traditional style.

At the bottom left, Laksamana finds Rama, who expresses deep emotion on realizing that Sita has been left alone. To the right, separated by a tree that looks like an overgrown flower, Rawana abducts Sita. In the top half of the painting, Jatayu intercepts Rawana who reaches for his kris (i.e. Indonesian and Malayian ceremonial dagger) while keeping Sita trapped in his other arm. Note: In all traditional versions of this scene, Twalen and Morda would have accompanied Rama, and Delem and Sangut would have accompanied Rawana.

Tabing – Ramayana: The Bridge to Langka.
Size: 127 x 150 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan work, on bark-cloth. Probably first half of the 19th Century. Obtained from the temple Jero Kapal, in Gelgel. Bark-cloth, usually imported from Sulawesi, has a good absorbent surface, which did not need a rice paste preparation that was essential for woven cloth, although it is less strong and tends to erode at the edges. This painting has been protected by a cloth strip sewn around its edges, probably in the 20th Century. The colors are all local Balinese ochres. The only imported colors used are kincu (Chinese vermilion) and black ink, which were imported from China. This suggests that the painting was completed before trade in European paints was established. The work is halus and extremely finely drawn and detailed. It is one of the finest and probably the oldest paintings in the Forge collection of the Australian Museum.

The episode shown here is the building of a causeway from the mainland (of India) to Langka (Ceylon). The monkeys’ work is supervised by Nala - in the center with a flaming headdress. Rocks are being passed along from both sides by lines of peluarga (i.e. animal-headed members of Rama’s army of supporters) and monkeys. The diverse animal origins of Rama’s peluarga allies are less well represented. In the top row of the right hand group for example, there is from left, a monkey face with a sun and moon headdress, a pig face, a deer, an elephant, and a snake. Below them at the extreme right is a man converted into a peluarga.

Tabing – Ramayana: Kumbakarna and Sugriwa.
Size: 95 x 81 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan, probably early 20th Century. Halus work but much flaking, tears, holes and general damage.

Kumbakarna, Rawana’s brother, is woken from his sleep to help defend Langka; he joins the battle and seizes Sugriwa (the monkey king) who swoons – as indicated by his closed eyes. Kumbakarna tries to carry Sugriwa away from the battle presumably to finish him off, but is prevented mainly by Hanoman. (Sugriwa eventually comes too, and bites off Kumbakarna’s nose and escapes.)

Tabing – Arjuna Wiwaha: Arjuna Metapa.
Size: 80 x 100 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan work. Thin European cloth; kasar work (i.e. crude workmanship).

This painting is the cheapest type of traditional painting, done at great speed.

The story is also treated with some freedom. At the top we see Arjuna in his cave, being tempted by two nymphs. But there seem to be no fewer than another eight nymphs outside (making a total of ten in all, whereas the story has very definitely only seven nymphs involved in the temptation). Nonetheless, many of the important iconographic elements are there: Arjuna’s kris is prominently displayed hanging up outside the cave; the girl immediately to the left holds a pudak (i.e. a pandanus fruit), a symbol that the Balinese recognize as expressing love and the begetting of children. Other girls hold flowers.

At the bottom, eight nymphs are shown preparing themselves (presumably before they reach Arjuna’s cave) washing, dressing, and inspecting themselves in a framed mirror. One girl here also holds a pudak, whereas another holds a piece of paper on which is written: ”reading and writing”. The temptation of Twalen and Morda by servant nymphs (which is usually prominent in Arjuna Metapa paintings) is in this case reduced to the temptation of Twalen by a servant nymph, who displays herself, to his obvious appreciation.

Tabing – Arjuna Wiwaha: Arjuna Metpa.
Size: 71 x 57 cm.
Courtesy of reference [1].
Comments[1]: Kamasan work. Thin European cloth; kasar work.

Another cheap and cheerful painting for the bottom end of the Balinese market. The drawing is a little more careful that that immediately above this tabing, but the coloring is equally as careless. In this case only two nymphs actually concentrate on Arjuna. Both Twalen and Morda are represented, each with their own nymph, whose temptations are not as explicit as in the preceding tabing. This tabing although extremely small, has a floral and ruled border of the type usually found on much larger and more expensive halus tabings from Kamasan.

[1] A. Forge, Balinese Traditional Paintings, The Australian Museum, Sydney (1978).
[2] The Australian Museum, Sydney, NSW.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

19th to 20th Century Australian Christian Embroidery[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The three religions that believe in the Old Testament are the Jewish, Islamic and of course the Christian religion. There have been and there will continue to be religious wars amongst all three of them. These three religions have managed to create wars even between factions within each of them. A sectarian war is currently occurring in Syria and Iraq (Shia versus Sunni). In the case of Christianity there was a sectarian war in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, which lasted until 2002. In the distant past there were sectarian wars between Jewish tribes. It is clear that the common thread – the Old Testament – is not necessarily a uniting force (nor for that matter is the New Testament).

Bible cover. Etbel Oates (Melbourne, Australia, 1962). Ecclesiastical embroidery traditionally uses gold and silver thread of various gauges.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of J. Millowick.

I cannot recall a war being fought over art. Certainly many rivers of critical words have meandered their way to icy seas, but no battle lines drawn, no artillery shells fired, no tanks or war planes or ships engaged, and certainly no multitude of lives have been lost because of conflicted opinions. Art - in its multitude of forms - is clearly uplifting to so many. It is what humans do that other animals are unable to do. Sure some animals attract the opposite sex in a myriad of exciting ways, but humans create art in order for it to be engaged without any other external motivation. We think, we create and then we visually engage ours or someone else’s creation - hence we are!

Tasmanian wildflowers by Elsie Maria Benjamin, Perth, Tasmania, Australia. The flowers were worked in heavy silk and chenille thread on silk material. They include the blue-berried Dianella species, Tasmanian banksia, yellow bottlebrush and Eucalyputs globulus (Tasmanian blue gum).
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

Australian Christian Embroidery
The art of ecclesiastical embroidery dates from the 4th Century and is of a rigidly conventional nature, the symbolism of forms and colors have been long fixed by tradition. Forms are limited almost entirely to the lily, the passionflower, open pomegranates, vines, the apple, the palm, the dove, crosses, circle, arrow and anchor and the sacred monogram, IHS.

IHS is a symbolic monogram of Christ used by the Roman Catholic Church. This monogram consists of the Greek letters - iota, eta, and sigma - the first three letters of the name Iesous (Greek for Jesus), the letters of which are also used to spell out the Latin phrase - “Iesous Hominem Salvator (Jesus, savior of man). It relates to the story of Constantine, whose vision of the Chi-Rho was recorded by Church Father Eusebius. In the vision, Constantine was reported to have heard a voice proclaim, “In this symbol, thou shalt conquer.” Therefore, IHS has also stood for “In Hoc Signo” (in this sign).

Priest’s stole. Heavily embroidered with heavy gold thread in traditional wheat (loaves) and grapes (wine) symbols.
Collection Sisters of St. Joseph, North Sydney.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

In the past, religion had a strong influence on Australian domestic life. In the beginning of the last Century, one of the central ways an Australian woman was judged by her peers and by the society at large was through her piety and devotion. She would express this in many aspects of domestic arts.

Lectern hanging embroidered by Miss Joyce Downing of Maryborough (Victoria, Australia, 1937) under instruction by Sister Minna of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name, Cheltenham, pomegranates and leaves were worked in pure silk and gold thread.
Courtesy of reference[1].

In Christian congregations, notably Anglican, groups of women participated in the mothers’ union and together they would embroider church banners. They would also combine their skills to embellish their churches with elegantly designed and stitched kneelers, sometimes commemorating aspects of local history or identities of note.

Kneelers worked for St Thomas’ Church, North Sydney Embroiderers Guild members for the Genevieve Fisher Memorial Chapel. Each commemorates a famous local identity associated with the church in the past.
Top Left: Elizabeth Berry and Rebecca Martens.
Top Right: Traditional symbols.
Bottom Left: Edgar Turton and Jane Martens.
Bottom Right: John Whitton and Suzannah Blue.

Ornate Bishops’ Copes were embroidered by groups of dedicated ladies throughout Australia. The ladies seated below were responsible for embroidering the Archbishop of Brisbane’s Cope in 1907.

From Left: Miss Bolton, Mrs Simmons, Miss Turner and Miss Wassell. The Archbishop is in the center of the second row.
Courtesy of The Queenslander, August 3 (1907).

Embroidery in gold using liturgical colors as an adjunct is one of the oldest forms of ecclesiastical embroidery. Records in the UK date from the 10th Century when embroidery was used on Church vestments. Its origin in Europe was centuries earlier.

Heavily embroidered vestments are now seldom worn by Catholic priests. Traditional sumptuous gold padded embroidery was made by hand as well as by ecclesiastical manufacturers.
Detail of embroidery on vestments belonging to the chapel, Sisters of St. Joseph, North Sydney.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

Many Australian churches were encouraging the contemporary use of Australian motifs such as wild flowers, in combination with traditional Christian symbols within the context of church art. In the Anglican church the stoles of St. Thomas’s, North Sydney, made by Mrs. Connie Hewson, offered motifs including waratahs (flowers) and other natives, which are delicate and small but precise and beautiful in execution.

Stoles embroidered by Mrs. Connie Hewson of Sydney incorporating innovative Australian motifs with traditional ecclesiastical symbols.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of M. Courtney.

The tradition of handwork on church banners was mainly developed in Australia in the Anglican and Catholic churches. From these early days, motherhood and the home as a pivot of a woman’s life were central to the principles of Christian life at the turn of the last Century.

Banner of the Guild Of Perseverence, embroidered by Ellen Elizabeth Green, Glenelg, from 1893 to 1904, 140 x 80 cm St. Peters Church, Glenelg, South Australia.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of S. Schrapel.

Temperance Unions were an immense social force at the turn of the last Century as women joined to fight the evils which alcohol wrought on the peace and sanctity of family life. They took to the streets and carried banners, often hand embroidered.

Embroidered flower wreath from a temperance banner.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of G. Morrissey.

In more upper class houses or estates, the elegant traditions of embroidery were used in numerous items, which had a religious purpose. These included the embroidered “prie-Dieu”, a chair with a high sloping back used in prayer.

Prie-dieu. Details of the gros point tapestry design in wool and beads. Made by Margaretta McLeod, ca. 1840s, for her sister Janetta McLeod who married Charles Marsh in 1842. The chair was in use for prayer at “Salisbury Court”, Uralla (NSW, Australia) from 1850 – 1887.
Courtesy of reference[1]. Photograph courtesy of M. Courtney.

In Australia, for a variety of reasons the modern day Christian churches have moved away from using elaborate arts within their churches. Thus, due to their past histories many elaborate traditional forms must now co-exist with more modern forms of worship.

[1] J. Isaacs, Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Sydney (1991).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Historical Israeli Batik ArtWorks[1-2]
Art Quilts

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Batik is a method of printing on cloth using a wax resist to control dyeing in controlled areas. One or more colors can be used, making possible many exotic designs and color combinations on cloth. Batik may be used in fine-art, to decorate clothing, wall hangings or to decorate anything made from cloth.

Els van Baarle, Nothing Is The Same (full view).
Technique: Batik, dyed, silkscreened, discharchged, stitched on cotton velvet.
Size of each artwork: 60 cm (width) x 350 cm (length).

Relatively few materials and tools are needed to produce batik articles. The basic components required are fabric, wax, dye and applicators (such as brushes or tjanting tools), and containers for dyes and waxes.

Tjanting tools (pronounced – “chantin”) used in making batik items.

The choice of fabric for batik is important. The material should be firm and smoothly woven, not coarse or with a pile. A thin cotton fabric, such as a bed sheet works well. Silk, linen and wool are also good materials. White cloth produces the most vivid colors, but a light pastel sometimes gives pleasing results. New materials should be washed and ironed to remove the sizing which is in all new cloth.

Textured, hand-painted batik paper lanterns.

Wax is as an important a component as the cloth for a batik project. Generally waxes such as soy or a mixture of 50% paraffin and 50% bees wax are often used. The wax is normally heated to between 300 and 350oF (149 to 176oC) on an electric hot plate. As wax is highly inflammable a box of baking soda is kept nearby to extinguish an accidental fire.

Hot batik wax ready to be applied.

Several different types of dyes are available for this technique. Generally, beginners use a multi-purpose or liquid instant dye that is readily available from most craft stores. These dyes are produced in a broad range of colors and will work on most fabrics. However, they have one disadvantage in that they have limited color-fastness.

Generally, cold-water dyes called “fiber reactive” dyes are employed. They have good color-fastness and so will withstand repeated washing. They are available in many colors but can only be used with natural fiber materials such as cotton, linen, jute and satin.

Dharma Trading Co. have an excellent tutorial titled - Batik Basics with Fiber Reactive Dyes.

The wax designs may be applied using a brush, tjanting or stamp tool. Brushes come in a range of different sizes, depending on the fineness of the design. The tjanting tool has a handle, reservoir and a small spout that enables a thin stream of wax to be poured from the tool to make fine lines and other delicate details. Batik stamps can be made from found or built objects. Brush and tjanting batik is usually performed with the material tightly stretched in a frame.

Horses gallop across fields as first waxing of a batik on a stretch frame - see Carol Law Conklin post.

Historical Israeli Batik ArtWorks
In the discoveries of the earliest civilizations there are traces of cloth that not only had functional use, but also served to decorate drab surroundings. To distinguish and set apart one’s clan or tribe or to introduce unique character into a household is not a modern idea, but rather a historical endeavor. At the dawn of the modern Israeli society the influx of new immigrants witness the introduction of wide ranging textile techniques such as batik that freely intermingled with more traditional Israeli textile modes that survived since ancient times.

Early Israeli batik on cloth was very narrative in the sense of depicting a story of sorts in a traditional folk art mode. This is in particular evident in the work of Laetitia Yalon. Later works became more symbolic within an expressionistic framework in design - see the wood and paper batik of Siona Shimshi.

Below is a small vignette of some historical Israeli batik artworks.

Shulamit Litan
Shulamit Litan is a Polish-Israeli textile designer, quilter and paper artist. She was born in Poland in 1924 but immigrated to Israel in 1936 with her parents. In the fifties she studied painting and weaving and in the course of her artistic journey, investigated many other media. After many years of creativity in textile media, she discovered paper-art as a fascinating new way of expression, acquiring skills which enabled her to develop her own personal techniques such as the use of shibori methods to create moulds for paper casts. She exhibited actively until only a few years ago.

Her work revealed an ongoing dialogue with the natural environment around her, the seasons of the year, reflecting memories and reminiscences a well as the here and now. She passed away on 7th May, 2011.

Shulamit Litan, hand-quilted batik on silk.
Quote from Psalms 122:6
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
they shall prosper that love thee.”

Laetitia Yalon
Laetitia Yalon comes from a Jewish family who emigrated in 1932 from Berlin to Granada and Spain. Two years later the family moved to Ibiza where Laetitia was born. In 1944 her father, a politically engaged activist, went to fight alongside the republican army in the Spanish Civil War but he was caught by the Nazis as he was trying to escape across the Pyrenees. He was deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Laetitia Yalon.

Her mother was a well-known explorer, travelling constantly around the world.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

At home she was always surrounded by poets and artists and as a child she met celebrities such as Cezanne and Yves Klein. As a young woman she followed her mother's footsteps and travelled extensively to many countries. At this time she began writing poetry and performing, as well as making jewellery and painting to make some money.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

In Paris she was involved with the "Beat Generation" and was friend of the poet Allen Ginsberg. She also met Axel Jensen and Leonard Cohen while she was in Hydra making ceramics.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

After a traumatic experience she moved to Israel, where she lived for a long period (1964-1971) in the artists village Ein-Hod, near Haifa. There she started making wax paintings (see below) and was recognized as “State Artist of Israel”.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

At the age of 40 she moved to Belgium where she concentrated her artistic practice in performance art. Together with an artists’ collective she founded the Stalker Arts Center, organizing performance and art events. She has collaborated with other artists such as Ideal Standard, Mauricio Kagel, Philippe Marranne and Jan Fabre. She was also a member of the “Non-existent Gallery” group, an alternative performance art venue where artists came together to experiment and develop works, but without inviting an audience or registering the results. She also performed with the group Factor 44 and the Patacycliste.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

More than just conventional performances, the works of Laetitia Yalon are free, spontaneous and ephemeral actions that remain unregistered, like the performances in the “Non-existent Gallery”.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

Batik made by Laetitia Yalon.

Siona Shimshi
Siona Shimshi was born in Tel Aviv in 1939 of Lithuanian parents. Siona studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tel Aviv and at Alfred University and Greenwich House Pottery in New York. She has worked as a painter, sculptor, and ceramist as well as a textile designer. In the latter capacity she has created carpets, batik and religious objects. She has shown her work in group and one person shows in New York, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Paris.

Siona Shimshi in her studio working on artwork.

In 1965, she was a co-founder of a group of artists called the "10+ Group" along with artists Buky Schwartz, Raffi Lavie and others.

Shimshi was head of the Ceramic Design Department and taught as a professor at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, from 1979–87. In 1979, she designed the set for a performance of "A Simple Story" by Shmuel Yosef Agnon for the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv.

Siona Shimshi's wooden batik.

In 1993–94, she was the curator of an exhibition of Dora Gad, in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Among her creations are a work in wood that is exhibited in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a wall hanging at the Tel Aviv Hilton, a 1998 sculpture for Israel's 50th anniversary that is exhibited in Holon, glass walls at Kennedy Airport in New York City, and a 2004 portrait painting of Natan Alterman that appears on the facade of Tel Aviv City Hall.

Siona Shimshi's paper batik - detailed view.

Shimshi was awarded the 1988 Arie El Hanani Prize by the Joshua Rabinowitz Foundation for Arts, for her sculpture in Goren Goldstein Park in Tel Aviv. In 2005 she was voted the 197th-greatest Israeli of all time, in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet to determine whom the general public considered the 200 Greatest Israelis.

[1] R. Dayan and W. Feinberg, Crafts of Israel, MacMillian Publishing Co. Inc., New York (1974).
[2] C. E. Kicklighter and R. J. Baird, Crafts, The GoodHeat-Willcox Company Inc., South Holland (1986).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Islamic Art – Part I[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Islamic Art is as varied as any religious based art. However, due to its beginnings and because of the tenets of its religion it is unique. It is produced against a highly complex backdrop of history, from lands that feature deserts, mountains, swamps and steppe. It encapsulates a plethora of dynasties that ruled these territories and so retells images of wars, rebellions, invasions and civil strife.

Just as we relate “pointillism of Dreamtime Art” to the Australian Aboriginals and art decorated by Chinese or Japanese characters coming from East Asia, so the presence of Arabic script invites us through a door in which the religion of Islam is predominant. Muhammad received God’s revelation in the early 7th Century. Since his death in 632 AD the 28-letter Arabic alphabet has been used by Arabic speakers across North Africa and the Middle East.

The second primary element in Islamic art is geometry. While geometric ornament can be found in Roman and Late Antique mosaics and textiles, it attains a much more dominant role in Islamic Art. Star shapes, knots and polygons appear in all forms of Art but in Islamic Art these architectural decorations appear to anchor the act of engagement in a highly versatile and extremely complicated manner.

Apart from the Arabic script, a type of vine scroll named “arabesque” is the mainstay of Islamic design. Developed from the late Antique scroll and acanthus leaf decorations of the Eastern Mediterranean regions (once controlled by the Romans), arabesque acquired its own distinctive forms in Islamic times. Based on the bindweed the defining characteristic of the arabesque is the infinite “return” of the vine, combined with the varied forms of its flowers and leaves, in pairs, either split or whole. Arabesque decoration appears in the gold illumination surrounding the chapter headings in the earliest Qur’ans.

There is no better book to instruct what constitutes Islamic Art than S.R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, The British Museum Press, London (2005) – a must buy for your library. Most on the images present below have been procured from this book.

Islamic Art
Arabic Script
Even in the 7th Century, the form of the Arabic script depended on its use. Squared and highly stylized letter shapes were employed in early Qur’ans and on coins called kufic. Although this style of writing was eventually superseded by scripts with rounded letters for copying Qur’ans, it continued to be used for inscription in stone on buildings, and tombstones, on wooden panels and in chapter headings of books as well as portable objects.

The two images below are details from the border of a Qur’an, Iran and India (?), 14th Century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

The phrase ”peace be upon him” from the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet) is written in kufic script. The Hadith inscription may be later than the Qur’anic text.

The majestic muhaqqaq script in which the words – “and God” – are copied is one of six styles of writing perfected by the 13th Century calligrapher Yacqut in Baghdad.

From the 14th Century onwards, each Ottoman sultan had an individualized monogram called a tughra, consisting of the names of the ruler and his ancestors at the foot of three tall shafts, with two ovals extending to the left. Tughras were placed at the head of the official Ottoman documents and letters. The two images below are from the tughra of the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

Tughra of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), Ottoman Turkey, mid-16th Century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

Detail from the tughra of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. This writing outside of the emblem itself, is in divani script, a style specifically used by scribes within the court administration.

Geometry lies at the heart of Islamic design. Just as the rhombic dot is the basic unit for determining the proportions of Arabic letters, so the form of plan geometry – circles, triangles, quadrilaterals and polygons, and their segments – underpin the non-figurative decoration of both objects and structures in Islamic Art and architecture. From the simple polygons and rectangles used as framing devices to the highly complex interlaces of stars and irregular polygons, geometry functions as an organizing principle on the surfaces of the whole range of media.

Infinite knot details from a Qur’an, Iran and India (?), 14th Century. Ink, opaque water color and gold on paper. The intersection of the red lines at the centre of the knot in the photograph above forms a rhombus, which is embellished by the angled loops above and below and tear-shaped extensions to the left and right.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. This dome, tiled with inscribed gold and green six-pointed stars and red hexagons, is a fanciful interpretation of geometric architectural ornament. Such tiles are more often employed on walls than on domes, and in Mughal India most domes are not tiled at all.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The latticework of these two windows consists of octagons and squares on the left and hexagons on the right. Each Polygon is bisected by horizontal and vertical lines.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The head of the large mace is decorated with an eight-pointed star with radiating outlines and encompasses irregular hexagons and octagons before resolving in more stars.

Like geometric ornament, the arabesque – a scroll with repeating and reciprocating leaf and floral elements attached to a vine – serves as a framing and filler device in Islamic Art. Developing from Late Antique acanthus and vine scrolls, the arabesque is characterized by its rhythmic undulation. Like geometric ornament, the arabesque can imply an infinite design with no defined beginning or end. Additionally, the reciprocal course of the vine in an arabesque is more geometric than natural. One of the contributing factors to the infinite pattern of the arabesque is the growth of leaves, flowers or other motifs generated from one another rather than from a single stem.

Detail of a pilgrim bottle, Syria, 1340-60. Gilded and enameled glass. The central portion of the bottle reveals that the glass blower has scratched veins into the leaves and has added three small red touches, echoing the red enamel of the border and “wings” that curl out to either side. The intertwining of the vine suggests an arabesque on two levels, with no starting or ending point. Surrounding the central trefoils, the spiral of an inhabited scroll endow it with a rhythm matched by the lively animal – bird – and human-headed leaves in this arabesque.

Pen box, Western Iran, signed by Mahmud ibn Sunqur, dated 1281. Cast brass inlaid with silver and gold. The arabesque on the sides of the pen box consists of animals and birds instead of leaves. Also, each section of the arabesque springs from a central knot based on a rhombus.

[1] S.R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, The British Museum Press, London (2005).