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Painting Fit For Princes: Sackler Exhibit Opens

By Angela S. Lee

The Islamic art exhibit at the Sackler Museum opens the door to a fairy-tale world of noble kings, evil demons and enchanted forests. Paintings for Princes: The Art of the Book in Islam is an unusually vivid and fascinating exhibit.

The about two dozen miniature paintings that make up this exhibit had been commisionned for manuscripts or albums by Islamic nobility centuries ago. These nobles valued the works so much that they often kept the pieces with them when traveling, and it is easy for the modern museum visitor to see why.

The paintings, each about the size of a notebook, are tiny treasures of artwork. Despite their small scale, they took months, even years, to complete, and their craftsmanship is impeccable.

Master artists first sketched in the design, then supervised a group of apprentices who meticulously handcolored in the page with brilliant colors and gold leaf. This care, this comprehensive approach, accounts for the striking vividness of the pieces.

If you look closely, and then closer still, you will understand why each piece took so long to complete. The attention to detail is incredible. The artists, equipped with kitten hair paintbrushes, individually drew every hair in the brow of every two-inch high prince, and captured the expressions of every tiny servant that populated every prince's palace.

But when you step back, and the details disappear, and the paintings become strange mosaics of jeweled color and gold. They take on an almost abstract quality. This is because Islamic art, unlike Western, was rendered in an intentional two-dimensionality. The works are fascinating because they are drawn from many viewpoints--there are no shadows to imply depth or perspective.

In one work, the artist shows you both the underside of the tent and the view over its top. He reverses perspective, depicts the far end of a rug as wider than the near end. You are shown not what you expect to see, but what the artist wants you to see.

Many of the works recount famous myths in the culture, but unless you happen to have studied Islamic manuscripts, you might be wondering what the characters in the paintings are actually doing. But if you guessed that, in this idealized world, the princes easily vanquish ugly demons in flower-strewn gardens, or that magical beasts roam emerald green fields as gilded clouds roll through indigo skies, you would probably be right.

One of the most charming works in the collection, titled "Heavenly and Earthly Drunkeness," comes from a sixteenth century manuscript. It portrays a house of drunken revelers, some of whom have passed out in the garden. The rest merrily sing and dance inside and outside the house, which is shown in cross-section. The gods look down on all these festivities, smiling approvingly and passing around a few goblets of their own.

This show is a feast for your eyes and imagination. It is truly amazing that you can enjoy so much in an hour what took artists so many years to complete.

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