The Walters Art Museum associate curator for Islamic and South Asian art, Amy Landau, is drawn in by a good story and knows that visitors are too.
So for “Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts,” Landau designed three distinct segments for the exhibition, each one focused on the work, achievements and public acts of an individual — a writer/historian, an artist and a patron — to create an access point for visitors and help make the 16th- and 17th-century Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman empires come to life. Set against the backdrop of “a world quickly changing through global movement of people, ideas and technology,” the exhibition documents and suggests, through artistic discipline, what is possible to achieve in a diverse society rich in religious and cultural traditions.
More than 120 works make up the exhibition and include paintings, calligraphy, textiles, ceramics and jeweled luxury objects created throughout the 16th to18th centuries in historic India (which included today’s Pakistan), Iran and Turkey.
“Pearls on a string is a metaphor found in Persian, Turkish and Arabic that refers to particulars within collections,” Landau said, citing words strung together that make a poem or people joined together that create a community as examples.
“Through different media, [the three featured individuals] actualize their ambitions, which had a dramatic impact on the visual arts,” said Landau, whose interest in the Jews of Iran in the 17th century led her to a master’s degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies from New York University and a Ph.D. in Islamic art from Oxford University. “Yes, they were visionaries, they were geniuses, but they could not have achieved their goals without a community of people.”
The first section of the exhibition is focused on the work of writer Abu’l Fazl (1551–1602) who is described as “sensitive and awkward, sometimes argumentative” with an “extraordinary education and a passionate sense of right and wrong.” One of his major life accomplishments was a biography of Emperor Akbar in 16th-century Mughal India (today India and Pakistan), called the “Akbarnama,” detailing the events and people of Akbar’s court.
The biography includes intimate details of an emperor who was known for establishing “universal peace among the religious communities of Mughal India,” which included Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Jains and Zoroastrians.
Illuminated pages from the biography cover the walls, rich with intricate details and vibrant colors. Teams of calligraphers, papermakers and painters were involved in the creation of each page — using opaque watercolor, inks and gold on paper or cloth — and replicas of the tools and materials used are on also on display, such as reed pens, stone burnishers and pigments derived from plants and minerals.
The work of painter Muhammad Zaman (circa 1650–1700) and his followers comprise the next section. Zaman, based in Isfahan, then capital of Persia, introduced the revolutionary painting technique farangi-sazi (Persian for European style). Farangi-sazi blends Persian artistic traditions with European iconography, and Zaman did this by using techniques not yet adopted by his in-country peers such as perspective and chiaroscuro — the use of contrasting light and shadow. Comparing the styles side by side (possible to do so in the exhibition), it is evident why his innovative approach was considered so groundbreaking.
Zaman’s works and those that emulated his style fill the space and seem to be representative of the evolution of this part of world at the time. The artists used different styles, materials and themes, and even the subjects’ clothing is reflective of the diverse population, which included Persian and Central Asian Muslims, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Later, during the 17th century, there was an influx of Europeans as well, as many artists, travelers and merchants gravitated toward the city.
The last section, dedicated to the life of Sultan Mahmud I (1696–1754), a patron of the arts and known for bringing peace to the Ottoman Empire, had a propensity toward “cleverly engineered objects,” Landau said. “He was fixated with bejeweled objects and those that could fit within one another.”
Case in point is Mahmud’s jaw-dropping jeweled gun, encrusted with hundreds of diamonds, emeralds and rubies and hiding a dagger and set of writing instruments that fit neatly into the gun’s design. (A video near the case demonstrates the removal and replacement of all the pieces.)
The collection is representative of Mahmud’s vast knowledge of and appreciation for art and architecture and his love of luxury goods — remarkable even by royal standards — as well as his influence in the creation and purchase of such goods.
The cases are filled with ornate cup and saucer sets, teapots, exquisite pocket watches, gold-encased and enamel-encased snuff boxes, silver and jewel pen boxes and many more beautifully designed firearms and writing instruments.
With more than 100 pieces and many with intricate detail that begs closer study, “Pearls on a String” visitors may be best served by choosing a few pieces in each section to examine closely and make multiple visits (admission is free).
Landau, who considers her role at the Walters “a dream position” since she arrived just over six years ago to catalogue its Islamic manuscripts collection, said she sees the role of a cultural institution as one that can help promote empathy and compassion in humanity by showcasing art that is representative of different worlds and views.
“Compassion could be just the willingness to hear someone else’s view point, just the ability to engage in what other people are saying,” Landau said. “I would like the visitor to take away that the Islamic world is not monolithic. There is a diversity of viewpoints. My hope is that people draw lessons from history. … These three [stories] are about human beings living in the Islamic world who were engaged with other intellectual, philosophical aesthetic traditions, and if people want to draw on those histories, that’s fantastic.”
‘Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets
at the Great Islamic Courts’
Through Jan. 31
Walters Art Museum
600 N. Charles St.
For more information: thewalters.org; 410-547-9000