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Interest in mathematical art reawakens

Lucien de Guise

 

2008/07/24

 

Islamic art had some truly inventive aspects. Most of the impression comes down to geometry. No other culture has ever used maths to such effect.Islamic art had some truly inventive aspects. Most of the impression comes down to geometry. No other culture has ever used maths to such effect

THE mainstream news media don't always have that much more credibility than a blog for UFO spotters. It was therefore with some doubts that I approached an article in the Daily Mail. Apparently, Islamic traditions and values are to be taught at state schools in Britain. Whether this is true or not, what is almost certain is that Islamic art appreciation won't be part of the curriculum.

This is one of those areas that have been of marginal interest in the West for a long time. It was probably never in demand at any school, but at least it was noticed by a few individuals in the past. Nowadays, this is the aspect of Islam that generates the least excitement, especially among Western politicians.

A new exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia shows how much things have changed. "Beyond Orientalism: How the West was won over by Islamic art" tells a story that has been told before, but for once the action is not set entirely in Venice. Great though it is, there has always been more to Europe than that city. In this retelling of how Islamic art made an impression on the Western world, the exhibition has taken a wider view over a longer time frame.

On the must-have checklist of the distant past, there are always big ticks next to Islamic science and philosophy. If it hadn't been for the continuation of this work in the Islamic world, Greece would be better known for beach resorts than the improvement of mankind. The names of the leading Muslim scientists and philo- sophers are prominent in the pantheon of greatness. The artists are not.

This is partly because we don't know who many of the artists were, which doesn't make it any fairer because their contribution is in many ways more original than the philosophers and scientists who mostly handed on ancient Greek knowledge rather than being innovators.

Islamic art had some truly inventive aspects, and it was these that once made a quiet impression on the West. This is now completely silent. Most of the impression comes down to geometry. No culture has ever used maths to such effect. When the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty", he could have been talking about geometrical art. But he was really just talking about maths.

You might imagine that pared-down art would appeal to the modern world, filled as it is with clutter. Most contemporary art is on a scale that requires a gallery or hedge-fund manager's home to display it. Big installations are considerably less viable than a tile panel and they don't often serve such a practical purpose.

Islamic art has generally been useful. This was part of its appeal to Renaissance and other admirers whose worlds were beginning to fill up with as much worthless junk as the planet is now. Shedding some of those unwanted creative kilogrammes is one of the benefits of Islamic art. You need walls and floors, so why not have them looking good and lasting long? You need an astrolabe, so why not do the same? Well, maybe the demand for astrolabes is down these days, but it would appear from the advertisements that instead you need a slim handphone that will do everything up to Global Positioning System (GPS).

The ads don't often mention long lasting, or something to pass down the generations. Technology has changed. It's only meant to look good for a while, and then be discarded.

"Beyond Orientalism" looks at how much more positive the Western awareness of its Middle Eastern neighbours was in the past than it is now. Elements of Islamic art were incorporated into everything from mediaeval Christian paintings to flapper-era cigarette cases. There has never been a greater non-Western influence on Western art. Chinese, Japanese and African works have all had an effect, but art from the Islamic world worked its magic for over a thousand years, and in a wide variety of media.

This is a debt that is not often discussed these days. The era of maximum exposure was the 19th century. Those who think of grim but eminent Victorians should read Queen Victoria's diaries. Even after substantial editing by a protective daughter, the queen was clearly a more sensual woman than most people realised or, looking at her later photos, would have wanted her to be.

"Beyond Orientalism" shows the vibrant side of the Victorians, without the simpering sentimentality of its oil painters. Decorative artists are what the show is all about, providing a useful reminder that artists who worked with glass and ceramics were once given rather more respect than they are now. The most famous glassmaker of the moment (Dale Chihuly) is known mainly for his assertive behaviour and piratical eye patch. The most famous potter (the Turner Prize winning Grayson Perry) is admired for wearing girls' dresses.

The decorative arts were once held in higher regard, whether they were Western or Islamic. At least there is a reawakening of interest in the mathematical side of art. One of the surprise bestsellers of the year is Marcus du Sautoy's Finding Moonshine. After a long search within the Islamic palace of the Alhambra, du Sautoy managed to find every one of the 17 types of possible symmetrical transformation in two dimensions. He conveys this discovery with the excitement of a Bertrand Russell, albeit with a different writing style: "Mathematics has beauty and romance ... It's not a boring place to be, the mathematical world. It's an extraordinary place; it's worth spending time there."

He might also want to spend time at an exhibition in which geometry plays an important part. There aren't many shows like that around.

("Beyond Orientalism: How the West was won over by Islamic art" at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from July 25 to Oct 25.)



The writer is curator of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. This column will be moving to the New Sunday Times' Sunday People section from Aug 10

 

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