6 August 2019 Gulbenkian Museum

The Rise of Islamic Art

This Calouste Gulbenkian Museum exhibition, which takes over the Temporary Exhibitions Gallery in the main headquarters through to October, conveys the fascination Calouste and his contemporaries held for orientalism in a period shaped by the flourishing oil business.

The Rise of Islamic Art

One hundred and fifty years on from the birth of Calouste Gulbenkian, this exhibition casts a new glance over his collection within the scope of the historical context in which these works were acquired. Jessica Hallett, exhibition curator and one of those responsible for the Gulbenkian Museum Islamic collection, tells us about her selection that has been under preparation for the last eighteen months and that shall contribute to our better understanding of the priceless Oriental heritage gathered by Calouste over the course of his life.

In just a few words, how would describe this exhibition?

This is one of the high points in the commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Calouste Gulbenkian and spans his collection of Islamic art, a globally significant collection and worthy of new interpretations. Following in the footsteps of Calouste, we get to encounter some of the fundamental moments in his life and his collecting.

Which specific moments do you evoke?

Calouste Gulbenkian lived through highly turbulent times: the end of the Ottoman Empire, the two world wars, colonialism in the Middle East and the tragedy of the persecution of the Armenians. In this exhibition, the encounter with objects from his collection takes place against the backdrop of these historical events that marked both his life and his activities as a collector at a time when the category of “Islamic art” was undergoing foundation.

How do these events reflect on the collection?

For example, the decline of the Ottoman Empire impacted on the art market of that period and, consequently, on the collecting undertaken by Calouste Gulbenkian. The Armenian had occupied key positions in the Ottoman court as well as in the export business and, when the Empire disintegrated, many sought other ways of life with some dedicating themselves to trading in works of art. They had a strong network of contacts available, spanning the Middle East and onto China and deployed them to get works of art to Europe. The massacres the Armenians experienced in 1894-1896 led to the emergence of the respective diaspora that ended up playing an important role in the world art market.

Did Calouste Gulbenkian draw on this Armenian network for the acquisition of works?

Highly frequently. We may state that around a quarter of his Islamic art collection was acquired through Armenian antiques dealers and a third of the works were negotiated with Armenians through auctions. Consulting the letters Gulbenkian wrote enables us to trace the movements of these people. There is also a map showing the itineraries of these traders seeking out pieces of Islamic art for Calouste Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian made use of the expression oriental art and not Islamic art…

The concept of Islamic art emerges at a later date. Calouste Gulbenkian considered himself as oriental and spoke of “oriental art” but, in the late 19th century, with the rise in nationalisms, it became common to categorise these arts in terms of ethnicity. There then emerged other such designations as “Persian art”, “Arabic art” and “Saracen art”. The term “Muslim art” was first used in an exhibition held in 1893 before, later on, the term “Mohammedan art” was proposed but found lacking because, in fact, this did not extend to include non-religious art within its scope. In the 1920s, the term “Islamic art” first began to be used and was generally adopted in the wake of World War II.

Has a general consensus been reached?

Not exactly. This concept very much remains under discussion as academics have applied this to describe a region ranging from Southern Spain to India and a temporal framework from the Prophet Mohammed through to the 18th century, which thereby excludes both regions and epochs. Some consider that the term “Islamic art” is able to embrace such great diversity while others perceive in it a highly Eurocentric viewpoint. There have also been efforts to apply the designation “Middle East art” but the discussions continue. My opinion is that the artistic multiplicity implied by this concept is so broad that we should always, at least whenever possible, specify the art we are referring to.

When did Islamic art begin to attract interest in Europe?

We may identify two such moments: the first at the end of the 19th century when Islamic art became a source of inspiration to the European arts as is demonstrated by Art Nouveau; the second takes place after 1920 with the exploration for oil at a time when the interest of investors was also turning to the art of the geographic zones from which there came this “black gold”.

Did the oil magnates enter into conflict over the artistic resources of these regions?

Great interest began to emerge, especially for the most emblematic artefacts of the Middle East: in particular the carpets, especially Persian. The competition began to become fierce, which led Gulbenkian into having to advance with some acquisitions from antiques dealers so as to be able to guarantee the most sought after pieces. There are at least records for two of the carpets that Gulbenkian might have purchased but did not do so on account of already having examples in his collection and that ended up acquired by J. D. Rockefeller Jr. and are today on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is also known that Gulbenkian was in competition with J. P. Getty for a carpet that had gone on exhibition for the coronation of Edward VII and that ended up in the hands of the American but only after he paid out a small fortune for it. This is but one example of the great interest that these pieces were then attracting among the oil magnates.

What is the exhibition structure?

Right at the beginning, there is the presentation of four key works from museums of Europe and the United States that recall the historical and artistic pasts of cities such as Damascus, Mosul or Raqqa, today warzones, and which correspondingly have an unparalleled value. These are then followed by five thematic sections over the course of which 150 works are displayed with the majority being works from the Gulbenkian Museum collection. They are joined by over five dozen works drawn from museums worldwide. Despite not being a biographical exhibition, we do follow the life of Gulbenkian and encounter moments that open up windows onto diverse contexts.

What contexts do you refer to?

Various, marked by some key dates: 1869, the year of his birth in the midst of the Ottoman Empire; after 1898, a time when, already in Europe, Calouste Gulbenkian began collecting works from the Middle East. The year of 1907 sends us to Raqqa, where the first intact 12th and 13 century ceramics were found and arrived in Europe courtesy of the aforementioned network of Armenian traders. It is believed that Gulbenkian was one of the first of all collectors to begin acquiring pieces from this “great find” as it became known. There is also an emphasis on the year of 1914, when an agreement was reached between Calouste Gulbenkian and the Turkish Petroleum Company and World War I breaks out, which was to bear major repercussions for the entire Middle East with the subsequent founding of new states. The year of 1918 highlights the end of the war and also the deepening of Calouste’s fortune prior to a five-year period when he went on to acquire around two hundred piece of Islamic art.

And how does the exhibition end?

This ends with the arrival of Calouste in Lisbon and telling of his final acquisitions of Islamic art, including the collection’s renowned vase that features the Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds. In this poem, the birds gather to select a new leader and, to this end, decide to embark on a long journey in search of the mythical bird Simorgh. Following an arduous voyage along seven valleys and over seven mountains, the birds see their own reflections in the waters of a lake and understand how they themselves are the ruler that they are searching for. And it is with this most beautiful of pieces, inspired on this suggestive poem that the exhibition closes in the year of 1949, exactly at a time when a new world order began emerging. 


The Rise of Islamic Art
Headquarters Building ‒ Main Gallery
Curator: Jessica Hallett
Until 7 October

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