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Uni Archive: Art Historical Approaches to Western and Islamic Artworks of the Same Periods

Written in 2010 – the highest scoring essay of my BFA! Typed from a hard copy, so no footnotes, see references – also could not find one of the figures online (noted this in the text), the rest are below, click for large versions – featured image is Firdausi’s Shahnameh: Bahram Gur slays a dragon (c.1340)

Does Islamic art require a different art historical approach from its Western equivalents of the same period? Answer in relation to two or more examples from within each tradition that you have encountered on the course so far.

With the growth of globalisation and the movement of artefacts from museums of ethnology and archaeology to art museums, art history is being faced with a new problem: how (or indeed whether) to put the expanding art world “in a book”. Is it possible to have one global art history, covering both Islamic and Western art? Or are separate art historical systems needed to cope with the vast cultural and aesthetic differences between cultures? This essay will describe a handful of examples of both Islamic and Western art from the 14th and 17th centuries, and explore the practical and theoretical issues arising from historians’ attempts to overhaul art history and historiography, and whether it is necessary to approach different cultures’ art in different ways.

To define Islamic Art is in itself a difficult task, especially from a Western perspective with little knowledge of traditional Islamic art history and aesthetics. Piper claims that “Western distinction between ‘fine’ and decorative art is impossible to sustain when considering Islamic art” not only because a significant proportion of Islamic art is highly decorative and non-figurative, but because different attitudes towards art, craftsmanship and artists pervaded the Islamic culture; the “idea of the artist in the Renaissance sense could never gain ground” in Islamic art. While it is true that Islam has no “religious tradition of religious representational art”, there is evidence to suggest that it does not forbid all representational arts. For the purposes of this essay, the term “Islamic Art” will refer to pieces (whether decorative or figurative, ceramics, sculpture, calligraphy, paintings etc) produced in mainly Muslim Arab countries, and varying art forms will be considered, including calligraphy, decorative and representational arts.

The Hilyah is a non-representational description of the Prophet Mohammed, founder of the Muslim faith, who died in 632. The Turkish Hilyah (fig.1*) of 1691-92 is an example of how Islamic artists created portraits of Mohammed with text rather than representational images. While representational images of Mohammed exist, these – as indicated by Carboni – are generally historical representations, not religious ones. This particular Hilyah uses the three main forms of decoration used in Islamic art: Calligraphy, “arabesque, and geometric ornament”. The geometric ornamentation, surrounding the calligraphy is extremely fine and detailed, but not intended to distract from the Calligraphy, which was regarded as the “highest of all the arts”. Piper describes the floral decoration of the border as being more naturalistic than the typical Persian style, in which this kind of vegetal ornamentation was more heavily abstracted. Calligraphy was considered to be a superior and sacred art as opposed to painting or carving, which were regarded instead as craftsmanship.

Islamic representational art often demonstrates the many influences on Arab art. “Having little developed art and architecture of their own, the Arabs adopted and adapted the traditions of the lands they conquered, employing local craftsmen to rebuild or redecorate previous structures”. Pieces such as Firdausi’s Shahnameh: Bahram Gur slays a dragon (c.1340) (fig.2) demonstrate the way foreign influences are adopted into Islamic art, in this case Chinese influence is evident in the style of the mountains and dragon. Another example of representational Islamic work is Herat’s Mohammed meets Adam (15th Century) (fig.3**). As mentioned earlier, this figurative illustration of Mohammed is accepted as being a historical representation of the prophet rather than a religious one. Mohammed meets Adam surrounded by golden flames and angel figures, with calligraphy from three different languages above the image.

Piero Della Francesca’s The flagellation of Christ (1455-1460) (fig.4) is a similarly historical representation of Jesus Christ about to be whipped by two men. The text which was, for Islamic artists, the most superior and sacred part of works such as Mohammed meets Adam, and Muslim Hilyahs does not play such an important role in Francseca’s work; the only writing visible to the viewer is located under Pilate’s throne: OPUS PETRI DEBURGO SCI SEPULCI, the full name of Francesca’s home down, which acts as his signature. Francesca’s Flagellation is a mathematically and architecturally precise, if not somewhat mysterious and incongruous, work.

Firdausi’s Shanameh: Bahram Gur slays a dragon was produced just 2 years after Lorenzetti’s collection of frescoes The Good Commune (1338) (fig.5,6,7) in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. Lorenzetti’s frescoes contain representations of the town of Siena under both good and bad governments, as well as allegories of both these governments. The piece can be seen to act either as a warning against bad government or a congratulatory reflection upon Siena’s successful governing. Like Bahram Gur, The Good Commune’s perspective is not the kind used today. While both pieces appear flat, with no vanishing point or modern perspective, Lorenzetti has used medieval perspective, with figures of greater importance being much larger than less important figures – no such perspective is used in traditional Islamic representational art. Works like Bahram Gur appeared in books as illustrations or illuminations, to be viewed as a whole, alongside the superior art form of Calligraphy – whereas pieces such as The Flagellation and The Good Commune are works in themselves, to be viewed and admired on their own and as paintings in their own right.

How is it possible to form a system of art history so broad as to encompass two art traditions which despite their chronological closeness, are significantly far apart in terms of cultural, aesthetic and artistic attitudes? Elkins puts forward a number of possible answers to the question of how to move towards a global art history, including leaving art history unchanged, only augmenting its traditional focus to include non-Western as well as Western art; redefining art history to better fit non-Western art, art history “going in search of indigenous critical concepts…, Art history attempting to avoid Western interpretive strategies”, and the complete disbanding of art history as a discipline. While all these potential solutions can be considered to have some merit, the ideal end result is practically the same: one global art history. universal enough to authentically cover both Western and non-Western art history – meaning a move away from empirical and even neo-colonialist Western art historical traditions.

Hallam seems somewhat cynical at first about the prospect of a global art history, labelling it ‘ambitious [and] problematic”. Hallam also points out that Elkins’ argument functions very Eurocentrically in its discussions of tertiary institutions and its assumption that art history itself is Western; and also that it causes some confusion as to whether ‘indigenous critical concepts’ fall within the realm of art history at all – unintentionally “working his way around to the myopic conclusion that all other ‘ways of writing about art’s history’ must either follow Western norms or not be art history at all”. Hallam goes on to suggest his own possibility for a global art history, one which he claims is already at work in the form of, among other things, the Biennale – Hallam’s solution is Cosmopolitanism. Hallam claims that Cosmopolitanism in terms of global art history acts as an open dialogue, without the “exoticist fetishisation of difference” – whereby a “valiant effort at curatorial inclusivity” may act as or be seen to act as an “insatiable quest for the exotic’ – essentially patronising the very non-Western art styles and traditions it aims to include. Hallam claims that with openness and dialogue, comes the ability for Cosmopolitanism to view itself in realistic terms, aware of universality in art history as being fallible, focussing on political ‘inter-human relations”, and importantly, the ability to acknowledge the difference between cultures, and even the empirical way in which Western art history may have marginalised them in the past – global contemporary art has not emerged from a singular Western history. Perhaps Cosmopolitanism will even further inform our understanding of Western art history – will we, under an art historical system of Cosmopolitanism, approach Francesca and Lorenzetti’s works differently?

The aims of Cosmopolitanism, and Elkins’ possibilities for global art history are admirable – rearranging art history to include national art histories from around the world, rather than upholding the outdated and unrealistic idea of art history being a Western phenomenon – but does this system work retrospectively? Biennales and open discussion between many Western and non-Western contemporary artists and art historians will no doubt open up the future of art history to broader and more globally inclusive directions, but it must also be relevant and applicable to things like traditional Islamic art. We must also decide whether our understanding of these pieces is deficient if we have not first studied Arabic – a global art history must approach Islamic art in such a way that it is not westernised by our studies of it, and that our studies of it are not any less genuine for being undertaken in a Western institution – thus it must be agreed upon by art historians from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of different specialities and ideas as being a suitable global approach to Islamic art.

Non-Western art does not necessarily need to be studied with a separate art historical approach to Western art. The solution that Cosmopolitanism offers us is a single art historical system which, in acting as an open forum and art historical dialogue, allows us to not only approach modern Western and non-Western works in the same way, but its openness means it can be applied retrospectively to traditional Islamic art, because the Eurocentric colonialist attitude of past Western art histories is not only abandoned but openly acknowledged as having affected previous studies of such pieces. Cosmopolitanism’s embracing of difference may just be the key that makes it succeed as a single universal art history in this globalised art world.

*I have not found the exact Hilyah from my original essay (I think I photocopied it from a book), but have substituted a different one purely to give the viewer an idea of the approximate form of the Hilyah discussed in the essay **fig.3 is missing, sorry. Stylistically in some ways it is similar to this image, however the prophet does not appear veiled.

Fig 1

Fig 2

Fig 4

Fig 5

Fig 6

Fig 7


Aronberg, M., Piero Della Francesca | The Flagellation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990

Carboni, S., Islamic Art, The Big Picture: Recurring Themes in Western Art and Architecture VISA2211, [Lecture Notes], University of Western Australia, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts, Crawley, 19/3/2010

Elkins, J., Ed. Is Art History Global?, Routledge, New York, 2007

Hallam, H., Globalised Art History: The New Universality and the Question of Cosmopolitanism, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Art, 9:1/2, 2008/9

Piper, D., The Illustrated History of Art, Bounty Books, London, 2004

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