What's on in Paris in Spring/Summer 2001

On-Line Galler
Browse the rooms like in real life and discover contemporary artists.
L'Etrange et le Merveilleux en Terres d'Islam
Until 23rd July 2001

Musée du Louvre,
Hall Napoléon

Metro: Palais-Royal-Louvre
Phone 01 40 20 51 51

Open: every day 9:00 to 18:00
Wednesdays until 21:45

Closed Tuesdays

Price: 25 Francs, 3.82 Euros
(46 Francs, 7.02 Euros for museum + exhibitions)

Editorial Collection

A rare occasion for the Art Lover to discover the magnificent books and art objects of Islamic art from some of the greatest Islamic art collections in the world: The British Library, London; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Berlin Museum für Islamische Kunst; The David Collection of Copenhagen; The Keir Collection from London; Victoria and Albert Museum of London; Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris; The British Museum, London; Collection Frits Lugt from Institut Néerlandais of Paris; India Office Library, London; and the Louvre Museum, Paris. From 27th April to 23rd July, 2001"L'Etrange et le Merveilleux en terres d'Islam" in the Hall Napoléon of the Louvre Museum.

The Cosmoplitan Art Lover

I have the impression that we are witnessing today in Europe a profound change of mentality, the leading edge of which is international art. The present-day international art lover who jets around the planet in search of his roots does so in much more of a humble, respectful way than the fortunate few who could afford to be cosmopolitan art lovers even thirty years ago.

Although some news reporters still blow out of proportion xenephobic incidents in the world, the tangible proof of this 'rapprochement' is that instead of being conditioned by condescending words such as 'integration', 'assimilation' of 'foreigners', 'aliens', 'immigrants', 'strangers' (all of which are terms that are still accepted and repeated all over the media), you see more and more people in the Western world who have made a small-but-important step for mankind in taking an interest in the knowledge of other civilizations – and this in far greater numbers than their elders. As with the handfull of experts before them, these art and culture lovers are fascinated, respectful, appreciative and inexorably attracted to other cultures than their own, and are ready to bear a long trip and the initial shock of cultural differences to really learn more about their neighbors.

A proof of this is two current exhibitions that have no doubt taken enormous time and energy to organize, bringing to the millions of cosmopolitan art lovers incredible treasures and testimonials of some of the greatest civilizations in the world: the "Fabulous and Marvellous in the Land of Islam" at Paris' Louvre museum, and the "Masterpieces of the Tehran Museum" in Rome's Palazzo Brancaccio.

The exhibition in Rome, previously in Berlin, covers the period from prehistory until the Islamic era (from over 7000 BC to 1000 AD), with 178 objects from various parts of Iran, including Persepolis.

The wonderful exhibition at the Louvre starts where the Rome exhibition concludes. Entitled " the Fabulous and Marvellous in the Land of Islam" it is in fact a testimonial of the tacit interest, admiration and curiosity that the Western world has always felt for Middle-Eastern culture. Much more profane than religious, it is an illustration of how the fine arts flourished in Iran, India, Syria, the rest of the Middle East, and China during the years that followed the acceptance of the Islamic faith. As the painting and sculpting of nature was forbidden in the Koran for fear of back-sliding towards idolatry (just as with the 2nd commandment in the Old Testament), a means to get around this interdiction (again like illuminated Western manuscripts) was found with the illustration and the illumination of important books. This became the major art form that was even encouraged and widely practiced.

The holy book of Islam revealed to the Prophet by the archangel Gabriel was written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy in a highly elegant and poetic style. It is little wonder that books, poetry, calligraphy and the 'arabesque' became the torch-bearers of Islamic civilization.

The open books of this exhibition plunge you into a world where faith in God, popular legends, history, mysticism, divination, proverbs of the sages, science and cosmology all co-existed side by side. They were painstakingly written by outstanding calligraphists, and illustrated with great virtuosity and incomparable color-compositions by the best miniature painters of the epoch, producing some of the most magnificent books in history. And, as the name of the exhibition suggests, in these books you discover the imagination and the symbolic imagery of these ancient nations, from the Dragon, to Diw (demon), Simorgh (king of the birds), Jinni (genie), Pari (fairy) and the Prophet's own magic horse, Buraq (with wings and a human head). To give a foretaste and guide the visitor, short descriptions of the contents of some of the open books on display are given below.

One major exhibit is what may be called the 'bestseller' of the epoch: "The Arabian Nights" or "Thousand and One Nights" (Hizar-O-Yek Shab). This is a series of stories of the clever Sheherazade and the cruel King of Samarkand, Shahriyar, who stayed her execution for a thousand and one nights in order to listen to yet another enthralling story invented by his slave-girl bride. Told orally for centuries, this compilation of popular tales such as Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor was finally written in Arabic, Persian and Turkish around 950 AD and translated from Arabic into French by Antoine Galland during the reign of Louis XIV.

Another book, "The Marvellous in Creation and Curious in the Beings" (Ajayeb-el-Makhlughat-va-Gharayeb-el-Mojoudat), is an ambitious cosmology compiled in Arabic by Al-Qazvini, the great Iranian erudite writer and astrologer who practised the sciences of astronomy and mineralogy around 1260, during the Mongol khanate. As it's name suggests, the book covers divine creations of every sort – celestial, terrestrial, fabulous or strange – as well as curious phenomena described by voyagers to such far and strange places as India and China. It is a scientific grouping of all known species, painstakingly compiled and classified alphabetically in encyclopedic format, yet it does not exclude the orally transmitted stories of marvellous and fabulous creatures.

High in the esteem of the Iranians is Firdowsi's 'Book of Kings' (Shahnameh), written in what author Firdowsi called the "sweet Farsi Language" or pure Persian. This epic poem with verses that have the rythmic sonority of drum beats and the virtuosity and fluidity of a modern novel, recounts the history of Iran and it's Kings from the beginning of the world until the muslim conquest (642 AD). It again mixes pre-Islamic fables and myths such as the white demon (div) with real historical facts taken from early historical sources and prehistoric popular fables. The great hero Rustam beats the white demon (whose blood saves the legendary king Kay Kavous from blindness) and all the foes of his beloved homeland. As in many Iranian poems there is a hidden and symbolic meaning, often carrying a mystical message, behind the appearance of a simple story. An example is the story of the mythical bird Simorgh which is also the symbol of the uplifting of a soul through faith or the return of the soul towards the creator (cf. Simorgh bringing Sam's abandoned son, the white-haired, albino Zal back to his repenting father). The virtuous Siavosh rides unhurt through the flames that are set by his father as a trial for him to test his innocence from an alleged affair with his mother-in-law Soudabeh. The tragic end of Rustam's young son Sohrab, and his great bereavement at this loss are unforgettable scenes depicted in Firdowsi's moving and heroic verses that, because of their simple and unpretentious nature, have travelled through the ages and remained fresh and pure.

Kalila and Dimna, written by Bidpay in Sanskrit for the education of a young prince, was allegedly plagiarized from the Panchatantra on the order of a Sassanid king, and translated into Arabic and Persian, reappearng many times under disguised names (e.g. it inspired La Fontaine's fables). Here you can see Dimna the jackal's trial for having caused the bull Shanzabeh's death through calumnious accusations, with King Lion as his judge.

The book of divination (Falnameh) that, when opened with a wish to know the future conduct to adopt, gave a written answer. An example is the page in which Imam Reza kills the demon to free the souls, on the opposite page of which it is written that "if you have opened on this page, voyage by sea is favoured and you should free yourself from anxiety". The divination was practiced also by asking the Koran or the Divan-e-Hafiz Shirazi for guidance.

Hafiz, the prominent mystic poet, brings us to another prevailing theme that flourished during this age: the mystic. One such poet is Attar whose "The Talk of Birds" (Mantiq-el-Tayr) is one the most famous allegorical poems of the Middle East. Here the legendary bird Simorgh is depicted as the king of the birds in quest of whom all the birds in heaven set off on a long voyage. In the process, many birds fall due to the trials, and only thirty birds survive to discover that their own thirty souls had merged with Simorgh – that literally means "thirty birds".

Islam respects other religions and their sacred books, including the Bible (Tora) and the new testament (Engil). Biblic stories such as Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark are recounted, and Jesus (Issa) and Mary (Maryam) as well as twenty-four Biblic prophets are acknowledged. The life of the prophet of Islam is described in two major books "Seyr-i Nabi" and "Mirajnama" that give an account from the "Night of Destiny", when the archangel Gabriel (Jebrail) summoned him to read the Holy verses of the Koran, and his "Nightly Ascension" or voyage (miraj).

Art Lovers' Paris

June/July, 2001