To appreciate the Asian Art Museum’s new show, opening on Friday, for what it is, be aware of the contrast between the vastness of the subject and the scope of the exhibit. The topic of Islamic art and culture could fill libraries; the San Francisco museum’s “Pearls on a String” exhibit, on view from Feb. 26 through May 8, contains 64 objects – including manuscripts and small paintings – in three sections of one gallery.
The “string” in the title is the connection between pearls of art “across time and space… taking us back to a time of tolerance, when Islamic rules welcomed many religions in their courts,” says Museum Director Jay Xu. The subtitle of the show has a more specific and properly limiting description: “Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts.”
Originating in Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, “Pearls” is curated by the Asian Art Museum’s Qamar Adamjee here. She says the exhibit provides “a rare glimpse of the worlds [three important] figures inhabited, including the social connections that ignited their creativity… highlighting the importance of both individual initiative and human relationships in creating masterful works of art.”
The three are Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak, a writer in 16th-century Mughal India; Muhammad Zaman ibn Haji Yusuf, a pioneer painter in 17th-century Safavid Iran; and Sultan Mahmud I, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, 1730-1754, an important patron of the arts – it is his jeweled gun that’s a highlight of the exhibit.
Labels, explanations, and background are at the heart of the show, which focuses on the question “Who’s behind the art?” The answer is in the narratives about the writer, the painter, and the ruler.
An example of the scholarly presentation of esoteric-to-Western audiences art is the description of Muhammad Zaman’s watercolor-ink-gold “Simurgh assisting at the birth of Rustam,” from the “Shahnama” (Book of Kings) of Firdausi: “the painter blended Persian and European conventions in the illustration of a fantastic phoenix-like creature, arriving to assist at the birth of the hero Rustam.
“As earlier Persian painters had done, Muhammad Zaman extended his composition into the margins of the page and represented the floor of the balcony on a vertical plane, tilting it to display an intricate tile-work pattern. The landscape with leafy trees and craggy mountains receding into the distance, however, evokes the atmospheric perspective found in European paintings.”
“Pearls” is the first of a number of small-scale exhibits during the celebration of the museum’s 50th birthday. Coming up next, opening on March 4: “Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art” and “China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps.” “Mother-of-Pearl Lacquerware from Korea” begins on April 29. Then, opening on June 17, comes the major exhibition of the anniversary year, “Emperors’ Treasures,” with more than 150 artworks from Taipei’s National Palace Museum.