Beyond the Palace Walls: Islamic Art From the State Hermitage Museum
This article is from 2006.
Behind closed doors, in a dimly lit back room, The Royal Museum boasts a vast display of Islamic treasures running from 7th Century Early Islam up to the early 20th Century. All are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum, Russia. Many have never been seen outside Russia, so this is a rare viewing opportunity indeed.
The displays are coupled with dense informative wall texts which, though time consuming, greatly enhance the viewing experience so are worth wading through. Beginning with a careful description of the key principles of Islam, the exhibition opens out into a packed space exploring the many styles produced under the dynasties that occupied Islam through the centuries. Also explained in detail are the shifting boundaries of Islamic rule and the fluctuating cultural and political relationships between continents.
In the centre a striking green and red Ottoman Army tent dominates the room. Allegedly stolen from the
Turkish élite by Russian troops, it is one of the few works viewers can stand right up close to. The inside is constructed from patches of clashing intricate, linear embroideries which intentionally echoed the decadently adorned Ottoman palace walls; one can only wonder at their lavish lifestyles.
The exhibition follows Islamic tastes from desiring ‘all things Chinese’, particularly ceramics and textiles in the 8th century to the ‘Europeanisation’ of the 17th - 20th centuries. Examples of miniature paintings explore western theories of chiaroscuro and perspective including the exquisite 19th century Iranian watercolour, ‘Portrait of a man with a book’. 18th century pen cases coated in layers of Chinese style resin depict painted landscapes influenced by Jan van Eyck, displayed beside a similar set of adorned playing cards. Small paintings were later abandoned for western large portraits like those of extravagantly dressed 18th century Qajar leader Fath Ali Shah, hung on the back wall, whose luminous dark rimmed eyes follow you round the room.
This exhibition respectfully values the relationship between culture and artifact with explanatory texts for every single object. Though the historical information is exhaustive and more than one visit may be required to take it all in, this is a fascinating glimpse into the astounding workmanship and design produced by this opulent and intellectual culture.
The Royal Museum, Edinburgh, until Sun 5 Nov