PARIS – The Louvre Museum’s futuristic, glass-roofed gallery for Islamic art won’t open until 2010 but three exhibits starting this month in Paris hint at what is to come.
The highlight is a Louvre show on Iranian art, with dozens of jewel-hued manuscript pages showing fanciful illustrations of princesses, flowering trees, horsemen and mythical flying beasts. Many pieces were loaned by Iran’s museums at a time when its government is in a standoff against the West over its disputed nuclear program.
“I thought it would be opportune to draw attention to an aspect of Iran that people simply do not know, or are unfamiliar with,” said Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, curator of the show “The Song of the World: Art of Safavid Iran.”
Displaying nearly 200 manuscript pages, vases, dishes and other treasures, the show covers the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran from the early 1500s into the 1700s and converted the country from the Sunni to Shiite strain of Islam.
Many of the pieces, such as plates or vases, look merely decorative to the untrained eye. But there’s an underlying symbolism.
“The point of Iranian art . . . is the celebration of the constants of the world as God’s creation,” said Melikian-Chirvani, who writes under the byline Souren Melikian as art editor of the International Herald Tribune.
That means a dish is not just a dish – it’s a symbol of the sky and the universe, Melikian-Chirvani said. Golden rosettes on manuscripts are not mere artistic flourishes, they’re stand-ins for the sun. Clouds represent springtime. Many artistic metaphors were inspired by poetry, which is intrinsically linked with the country’s art.
The Iranian show runs alongside a smaller Louvre exhibition, a display of masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum, expected to open in Toronto in 2011. The Aga Khan is spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims around the world.
One highlight is a historic Qur’an that fits on only two pages, its ink characters as tiny as particles of dust.
Another piece, a silk coat decorated with green birds, is believed to have come from Iran sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries, though there’s a possibility it was made in China.
The Middle East was a crossroads, absorbing influences from east and west and spreading its own art and ideas around the world. Louvre director Henri Loyrette called it a “world where the circulation of people and goods led to an intermingling, a unity that is an essential key to understanding the world of Islam.”
A third exhibit on art from the Islamic world runs at the Museum of Decorative Arts – housed in a wing of the Louvre, though it is administered separately from the vast museum. It’s called “Pure Decoration?”
The Louvre opened a department of Islamic art in 2003. But the existing gallery can display only a fifth of the Louvre’s 10,000 pieces of art from the Muslim world, and an $88-million expansion is in the works.
The new gallery, designed by Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini, will juxtapose a freeform glass roof – looking something like rushing water – with a neoclassical courtyard. The result will blend tradition and modernity at the Louvre in the same way that I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid did.
The Louvre’s Islamic art gallery opened under then-president Jacques Chirac, who said he wanted to highlight the contributions of Muslim civilizations on Western culture. Chirac, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, constantly pushed for the idea of a “dialogue of cultures” to break down the misunderstandings between the West and the Muslim world.
“The Song of the World” and “Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum” run at the Louvre through Jan. 7. “Pure Decoration?” runs at the Museum of Decorative Arts from Oct. 11 through Jan. 13.