A Tiny Gem of a Show: Arts of the Islamic World
Bowl with abstract motifs, 900-1000, NW Iran, slip painted earthware (©photo Liz Hager)
Judging by several visits in recent weeks to the Arts of the Islamic World from Turkey to Indonesia at the Asian Art Museum, this tiny but intriguing exhibit is being overlooked by many in favor of the more promoted Afghani show downstairs. The Islamic World exhibit contains just sixty items—paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, metal wares, historic photographs, and even puppets—that span the years from the 10th century to present time. It would be a shame to miss these little jewels, for they encapsulate the truly magnificent and complex design traditions of Islamic world
Oddly it took a man from Chicago to put San Francisco on the map of Asian art. The pieces displayed in this exhibit are a miniscule part of the original collection of athlete and industrialist Avery Brundage who donated some 5,000 objects to the city of San Francisco in 1960. For a while the works were housed in a Asian Museum’s special wing of the de Young, although it was always Brundage’s intention for the collection to have a home of its own. By the time the new museum moved downtown in 2003, more than half of its 17,000 objects had come from the collector.
The pieces in this exhibit are testament to the extraordinary flowering of the ceramic arts in Persia, which began in the 8th century as a direct result of the expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula across Mesopotamia to Spain and Saharan Africa. Although they had a long ceramic tradition of their own, Persians were quick to absorb the techniques of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and contemporary China.
Persian potters were quick learners, but they were also technical innovators, who achieved considerable strides in glazing and firing techniques. Painting on ceramics is tricky—colors can “burn” in a kiln that is too hot or glazes may melt, thus causing the design to bleed. By developing a reliable double-glazing technique, Persians pushed the ceramic medium to new heights of sophistication, in the process achieving splendid intricacies of surface design.
Their production prowess was rewarded beginning in the years after 762, when the new Abbasid caliphate built its capital in Baghdad. Due to proximity, Persian cities grew as centers of ceramic production for the empire, serving the Caliphate, and, as the empire prospered, its citizenry as well.
The stylized floral design on the slipware bowl pictured belies a delightful intricacy of design elements—abstraction, symmetry, positive and negative space, echoing motifs (dots & circles), and layering. The design was created by first dripping, painting, or splashing a liquid blend of glazes—ground down minerals such as quartz, feldspar or mica—and diluted clay, or slip, onto the bowl’s hard air-dried surface. The bowl was then covered with a transparent overglaze and fired in a kiln, which produced its glossy and smooth surface. By the time of this bowl’s production, slip decoration was well-established in Persia, although this piece shows demonstrates its creator’s exquisite skill manipulating the liquid slip into fairly elaborate and intricate decorations.
Although this bowl is identified with NW Iran, it bears much resemblance to designs from the Nishapur area in NE Iran, which was once a strategic trade center on the Silk Route. The same remarkably modern color palette, which includes manganese purple, tomato red, olive green, yellow and brown tones, is found occasionally on Nishapur bowls. Additionally the bowl reveals the characteristic Persian application of sgraffiato (the technique of scratching through a layer of colored slip to reveal a different colour or the base body underneath), which by the 10th century was being exploited to the full.
Do not miss this show—it reminds us that the most surprising things can be wrapped in small packages.
Brief history of Persian ceramics
Giovanni Curatola—Persian Ceramics: 9th-14th Centuries