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21.05.13 Graves, The Arts of Allusion

The Medieval Review

21.05.13 Graves, The Arts of Allusion


This award-winning book promises to transform established understanding of portable medieval Islamic artworks. Graves focuses on metalwork, ceramics, and small-scale sculptures, produced in central Islamic lands between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, that allude to architectural forms. In historically situating these "allusive objects" through a combination of trenchant visual analysis, masterful use of varied theoretical approaches, and rigorous research, she opens a broad, intellectually bracing prospect on Islamic visual culture.

What does Graves mean by an "allusive object?" She uses the term in a metaphorical sense to describe how one thing can be compared to another without ever fully representing it. A ewer with architectural motifs recalls the forms of tomb towers, to use Graves' example, without mimetically reproducing a tomb tower. Rather than "archimimetic," the allusive objects are "archimorphic," a term she coins to describe the way objects adapt architectural forms without copying entire buildings (3). This notion of allusion is critical to her project. Mimetic representation threatens to collapse one thing into another--the ewer as tomb tower--whereas in allusion the two things remain distinct yet locked in dialogue. This yields a dialectical relationship in which one category of thing is seen in terms of the other. The basis of the dialogue between allusive objects and architecture is their shared three-dimensionality in which the haptic experience of holding, rotating, opening, and closing objects intersects with the experience of inhabited space. At the same time, the allusive objects and architecture remain distinct, which creates a shuttling back-and-forth between them. What Graves demarcates through her idea of allusion, therefore, is a cultural discursive space of remarkable sophistication structured around the comparison of art objects and buildings.

The discourse around allusive objects opens a wider view of the intellectual dimensions of portable, functional objects in the Islamic world. The first chapter, "The Intellect of the Hand," examines textual sources for evidence that luxury arts were not only products of manual skill, but also thought, with the ambitious goal of "the reinstatement of craftsmanship into medieval Islamic intellectual history" (27). The antagonist in this chapter is the modern Western perception of ceramics and metalwork as "minor arts" and their creators as simple craftsmen rather than artists. The latter distinction in particular would see craft as the mere exercise of manual skill whereas art embraces higher faculties. To make her case Graves relies especially upon the tenth-century Epistles (Rasā'il) composed by a group known as the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafā'). The humble title belies the encyclopedic scope of the work, which aimed to categorize all forms of knowledge and left an indelible stamp upon Islamic thought for centuries. Significantly, the Epistles posit making as an epistemological faculty, firmly linking manual artistry with thinking. Graves further underscores the intellectual heft of artmaking by pointing out that the process of cognition itself was widely understood through the material metaphor of seals impressed in wax, and that refined objects, such as astrolabes, reified metaphysical ideas. She rightly insists that materiality indelibly shapes thinking: that one needs "to look at the metaphor rather than through it" (39). Overall, this chapter alone offers a notable contribution on medieval Islamic understandings of artmaking and the status of artists.

In chapter two, "Building Ornament," Graves explores the three-dimensional, haptic qualities of ornament, and observes how scholarship has typically reduced ornament to an optical, two-dimensional phenomenon. This view creates a problematic conceptual division between the form of the object and its ornamentation. Graves illustrates the issue by discussing a bovine-shaped aquamanile decorated with figures and vegetation painted in luster from Iran, circa 1180-1220. She pinpoints with remarkable analytical precision how the dynamic polysemy of such vessels--at once a container for pouring water and an image of a bovine--is signaled by the lack of a general term in the languages of modern scholarship and the medieval Islamic world to describe functional vessels that look like something else. The example fits slightly awkwardly, however, within Graves' argument in a chapter about ornament, since the ornament would normally be seen as the luster painting on the vessel rather than the form of the vessel itself. Is the author implying that the three-dimensional bovine shape of the aquamanile is itself a form of ornamentation? The aquamanile example, in any case, relates to a comparable lacuna that Graves highlights in the categories of Islamic ornament created by scholars, which typically include vegetal, figural, geometric, and epigraphic, but overlook architecture as ornament despite its frequency. Even Oleg Grabar in The Mediation of Ornament, Graves notes, adhered to a view of architecture as ornament that focused on two-dimensionality and the mimesis of actual buildings rather than allusion to architectural forms. Arcading, she argues, challenges such a reductive view by creating "fictive spaces" (70) within the arcades, and serving as liminal transitions between actual spaces, including the interior and exterior of vessels. The analysis receives compelling support from the discussion of arcaded ornament on buildings and ceramics in the thirteenth-century Jazira, the region where the modern nations of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq meet. The use of this architectural ornament around doorways, in particular, reveals how the form interacted dynamically with lived physical space through the creation of miniaturized spaces within the ornamental arcade. The same ornamental language was adapted for habbs, large unglazed water jars, which feature elaborate screens and arches, often inhabited by figures, molded around the vessels' necks.

Chapter Three, "Occupied Objects," examines artworks from twelfth- and thirteenth-century Persia that include human figures within the framework of architectural allusion. The presence of figures, Graves contends, animates fictive space and invites imaginative projection by the viewer into that space. The chapter centers on inkwells from Khurasan that mimic the shape of domed tents. A group of five such inkwells feature three occupied arches engraved on the exterior that seem to offer a glimpse of the vessel's interior. The dynamic play with space continues with the inscriptions that circumscribe the objects, which entice the viewer to hold and turn the inkwells. Finally, the representation of scribes under the arches--apparently laboring within the inkwells--alludes to the scribes who would have carried such inkwells and used them in their work, thus creating a spirited shifting between reality and the fictive space of the vessels. Rather than imitate a specific building or even building type, the inkwells are eclectic in their "archimorphic" references and play with notions of space at different levels simultaneously. The result is a referential instability that places the form of the inkwell in a dynamic relationship with architecture that nevertheless preserves the character of the inkwell even while making connections to the experience of architectural spaces. These allusive objects prove elusive when viewed through Western ideas of mimetic representation, which, in seeking to stabilize reference, restrict the shifting imaginative dimensions of the objects. The inkwells with occupied arches consequently demonstrate perfectly Graves' larger argument in which imagined architectural space served as a discursive space for intellectual play. That this kind of allusive layering of reference was prized in the medieval Islamic world is shown by a quote from al-Fārābī that Graves adduces at the end of the chapter in which the influential philosopher extols indirect reference in poetry over "direct imitation" (139).

The fourth chapter extends the argument by examining how crafting poetry was likened to the arts of gold smithing, metal casting, and jewelry making, which adds a literary facet to the idea of the "thinking hand" developed in the first chapter. Graves notes how nazm, Arabic for "stringing" jewelry, also means composing verse, and metal casting was used metaphorically to describe the seamless beauty of a poem. She then locates a further intersection of poetry, luxury arts, and architecture in both the praise of Baghdad as seemingly cast from a mold by the ninth-century writer al-Jāhiz and the mythical City of Brass. The same confluence of ideas, Graves observes, informs a group of eighth- and ninth-century domed cast copper alloy incense burners. She examines ongoing debates over localizing these artworks to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean or the Iranian plateau by concentrating on the famous example in the Freer Gallery and a lesser known but equally impressive incense burner unearthed in Sweden. For both incense burners Graves concludes that they likely originated in Egypt or the eastern Mediterranean, but her reasoning is as important as her conclusion. She points out that it is misleading to argue about the origin of these objects by using comparisons with actual buildings. By the early Islamic period domes in the eastern Mediterranean world were a prestigious architectural form associated with both myriad buildings as well as objects. The closest comparison that Graves presents for the incense burners, consequently, is neither a quincunx domed church nor the Dome of the Rock, but a small stone cupola standing on four columns from the Umayyad pleasure palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar. Although the analysis may not settle definitively the question of localization for the incense burners, it demonstrates unequivocally the artistic independence of the burners at the nexus of poetry, architecture, and metal casting.

Graves then finds a similar confluence occurred with domed and pyramidal-roofed lanterns of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. By this later period, these archimorphic forms recalled commemorative architecture specifically, although, again, without representing any single building. The lanterns were further transformed by the associations with the Qur'anic "Light Verse," which likens God to light and God's light, in turn, to a lamp in a niche. For both the incense burners and the lamps discussed in this chapter, it is as if the qualities of fluid molten metal or flickering light are sublimated into a labile referentiality that creates shifting spectrums of meaning. The characteristics of referentiality in these artworks echo to a remarkable degree, according to Graves, medieval Islamic theories of metaphor, or isti'āra. Earlier forms of isti'āra tended to transfer an aspect of one thing to another whereas by the eleventh century isti'āra generally operated through direct substitution of one thing for another, which depended upon some form of affinity between the two things. The allusive objects analyzed by Graves in this chapter link these types of metaphor: a lantern is given an architectural feature, such as a dome, which then invites the perception of the lantern as architecture. Graves thereby shows how the thinking hand exercises both technical knowledge and poetic skill. The fact that the artworks she analyzes straddle categories of metaphor further proves that these artworks were no mere approximation or brute materialization of literary ideas, but participated actively within cultures of expression in the medieval Islamic world.

For the final chapter, Graves analyzes kilgas, stone stands for water jars from Cairo made between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The kilgas consist of an octagonal core poised on four legs with a basin projecting on one side. In a manner by now familiar to the reader, the kilgas are decorated with an array of archimorphic forms, including muqarnas, trilobe arches, and elements borrowed from ornamental water channels and pools. The stands also feature lion protomes that reference the sculpted head of a lion that once adorned the Nilometer on Rawda Island and marked the height of the Nile flood that would assure a plentiful water supply. The kilgas thus allude quite specifically to the Cairene built environment without entirely reproducing any single structure. Graves then compares the kilgas to practices of ekphrasis, both of which rely on architectural details vividly described, often through metaphor, to evoke the idea of a larger ensemble. She highlights descriptions of water architecture, in particular, which evoke movement and transformation that resonate powerfully with the fluid manipulations of architectural forms on the kilgas. The process at work in ekphrasis and the kilgas, Graves observes, seems to manifest Islamic philosophical notions of how the imagination recombines forms held in the memory to forge new ideas. As a kind of reified ekphrasis, therefore, the kilgas reveal the epistemological convergence of artmaking and poetry.

In the conclusion, Graves characterizes the discursive space of allusive objects through a clever adaptation of Rosalind Krauss's notion of post-modern sculpture existing in an "expanded field" that confounded the traditional categories distinguishing sculpture from its setting. For example, landscape art shows sculpture encompassing the category of landscape against which sculpture had previously been defined. Graves contends that allusive objects do something similar: as small-scale objects they are meant to be held and touched rather than inhabited, yet they nevertheless employ the language of architecture. Here the argument shifts into a metadiscursive critique of art history, which has tended to demean these objects by placing them in the category of "applied arts," "decorative arts," or even--to make the value judgment clear--"minor arts." This inherent bias in the construction of the discipline's categories has influenced the study of Islamic art, despite the fact that such a large portion of the artwork included in the broad (and also problematic) category of Islamic art consists of small, functional objects. Graves even reproduces an element of this bias in persisting with the term "craftsmen" to describe the makers of the objects she studies. Why are they not "artists?" Graves makes a convincing case for the conceptual dimensions involved in producing allusive objects, but using the term "craftsmen" perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes. Indeed, at one point the author employs the phrase "intelligent craftsman" (204), revealing through the qualifier the assumption that a craftsman exercises manual skill but not thought. That Graves works precisely against this sort of assumption indicates how deeply the roots of Western ideologies about art and artists run. But this is a minor critique of a book that achieves the remarkable feat of seeing past the constraints of Western categories to recover a rich dialectic between objects and architecture in the medieval Islamic period.

By profoundly reshaping our understanding of small-scale Islamic art objects, Arts of Allusion has become essential reading for historians and advanced students of Islamic art, and would also profit scholars of Islamic literature, philosophy and science. The book is superbly written, and handsomely produced with an abundance of color illustrations. Graves clearly read widely for the book, and she deftly draws from a variety of disciplines in her analysis without becoming dependent upon jargon or an imported theoretical model. Medievalists, too, will find this sophisticated book deeply thought-provoking, due in no small part to the expanding horizons of medieval studies.