Art Services International Exhibitions

Washington Post Art Critic Blake Gopnik Says Chester Beatty Albums Dazzle

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Drawn In by Details
An Indian Empire's Treasures Dazzle With More Than Could Ever Meet the Eye

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008; M08

Washington, DC -- Is it possible that some of the world's most colorful, exquisitely crafted pictures were barely meant to be seen? That absolutely gorgeous art could have been conceived without concern for human eyes?

"Muraqqa' : Imperial Mughal Albums From the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin," the show that opened recently at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery for Asian art, suggests such strange possibilities.

More about that strangeness in a minute. First, a bit about the show and its objects.

The exhibition presents 86 finely decorated sheets, made for the Mughal courts of northern India between about 1600 and 1650. They were collected early last century by Beatty -- in full, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty -- an American mining tycoon, philanthropist, collector and Anglophile. He emigrated to England in 1911, fell out of love with that country after World War II and eventually moved his collection to Ireland, where it recently found a grand new home in Dublin Castle.

The word "muraqqa' " in the title is Persian and means something like "patchwork." It was used to refer to the signature patched robes of Islam's Sufi mystics, favorites of the Mughal emperors. And also, as a kind of compliment, to the sort of deluxe albums on view in this show, whose pages are often "patched together" like scrapbooks.

On one side of each page (known in the trade as a "folio") you'd usually find an exquisite work of calligraphy -- a 13th-century poem, say, copied out by the famous 16th-century Persian calligrapher Mir Ali and then invisibly inserted into a decorative border. That ultra-prestigious script work was the heart of these albums. But sandwiched onto the flip side of the writing, within similarly ornate borders, you might also find another sheet that bore a freshly painted portrait of the Mughal emperor or one of his ministers. Or perhaps a famous scene from Mughal history or legend. Or you might even find, as on one page in this show, a collage of three different pictures drawn in Persia by three different artists of three different eras, joined by a fanciful European engraving of the moon.

A single album might be built around a few loose themes. But mostly a muraqqa' seemed to function as a treasure chest for collected and commissioned texts and imagery.

This exhibition is also a kind of muraqqa'. It is a one-museum "treasures" show, without much of an argument to it. It presents the best of whatever Mughal folios Beatty happened to acquire at the time that he was buying. That means it doesn't have the substance, or pay the dividends, of the Sackler's stunning "Hamzanama" show from 2002, which borrowed pages from all over to explore one illustrated volume of a great Mughal epic. (The comprehensive catalogue for "Muraqqa' " makes clear that a scholarly loan show is badly needed to untie its topic's knots. That makes it even stranger that, of the 18 fine pages the Smithsonian owns from these same albums, only two are included in the current exhibition.)

But maybe "Muraqqa' " does succeed, on its own terms, in coming close to the loose-limbed spirit of the six albums it anthologizes.

It's almost impossible to absorb the overload of separate little details included in these albums: a dime-size image of a pair of mating birds; an almost photographic portrait of a warrior or sage; scene after scene of silk-robed courtiers lounging on absurdly luscious carpets set down in luxuriant gardens; an interlaced border of snaking red arabesques and flowing black letterforms set inside another frame of gold flowers on blue.

Even on a single page, roughly 11 inches by 16, there's often too much detail to take in, as your eye first takes in a story line, then fastens on its separate episodes, then moves on to the single actors in them, then to their various items of clothing, each of which has its own patternings, in turn made up of the tiniest features, all enclosed in lavish ornamental borders with more incident than you could ever study.

The deeper you dig into the show, then into an album, then into a folio, then into its component parts, the more information there is to unpack. You go from standing a pace away, to arm's length, to nose up to the picture, to peering through one of the Sackler's magnifying glasses, to depending on the high-magnification lens set into each glass -- and still there's always more you hope to see.

When you're down to taking in each separate fiber in a wisp of peacock feather on the tip-top of the headdress of a Mongol chieftain resting in a landscape, or to counting every stitch in the quilting on the robe of an ascetic yogi, you know that something strange is going on.

What if all this is more than you're supposed to see?

What if the whole point isn't the seeing at all, but the more?

The bounty of these albums, with their absurdly detailed evocations of flowers and animals, of human faces and fabrics, may have been meant to be as overwhelmingly excessive as creation's is. It's a bounty designed to surpass our human senses rather than satisfy them. Over the space of much less than a square inch, the textured gilding on one portrait can manage to capture how light reflects off a gold-brocaded belt, and how different that is from its reflection off the tooling on a golden dagger. And all this is utterly invisible to the unaided eye.

At first glance, such things may remind us of European realism from around the same date, which we know the Mughals admired. But a European still life or portrait seems designed to make nature supremely legible and available to its viewers. The much tinier visions of nature buried deep in Mughal albums -- so deep we can only dig them out at all with magnifying glasses -- almost seem to want to play hide-and-seek with us. They seem to prove that there is more out in the world than any human's eyes could even start to grasp. And that any one detail that we do manage to take in is only an insignificant part of an immeasurable whole.

An inscription in one volume invokes such imponderable vastness: "As long as the patched cloak" -- the muraqqa' -- "of the celestial sphere contains the sun and moon, may this album" -- the muraqqa' the reader is holding -- "be the object of your perpetual gaze."

Mughal albums include pictures of the Turkish Sufi mystics known as Mevleviyya -- the Whirling Dervishes. Their ecstatic dance is meant to cause a dizziness that's so profound the world begins to fall away. Is it possible that the overflowing bounty on view in "Muraqqa' " is meant to leave our minds whirling, too?

Or maybe the explanation for the dizzying excess of these albums is much crasser than that.

As ultra-deluxe objects, they may have been as much about the unfathomable labor that went into making them as about the product of that labor, or any act of appreciating it. After all, these pictures didn't live out in the open, as Western paintings do, hanging on a wall for everyone to see. One picture was just the smallest part of a Mughal emperor's very extensive library, swallowed up in an album tucked away with many others like it. Any single image, of all those many thousands, can't have been looked at very often. I imagine that they may have functioned less like the pictures in our coffee-table books than like the many precious jewels in the emperor's treasury: Their value didn't depend so much on being seen as on being great, and being there.

In fact, the main evidence we have of an emperor's contact with a volume in his library is when he records it getting passed to him on his accession, along with all the other precious things his kingship brought.

A massive ruby doesn't lose its worth because it's almost always locked away from human sight. Likewise, the unimaginable man-hours that went into making every square inch on these pages do not shrink just because a page is rarely out on view. The skills it took to render all this stunning detail are rare as diamonds, whether or not there's anyone to witness the results.

Maybe these albums, and these images, were especially precious because of how far they exceeded the human capacity to take them in.

Muraqqa': Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin runs through Aug. 3 at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, on the south side of the Mall at 10th Street SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit In by Details.pdf

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