Twenty-eight drawings primarily from the 15th through 18th centuries will be featured in The Tablet and the Pen: Drawings from the Islamic World, on display at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum from February 18 to July 23. The exhibition oﬀers a unique opportunity to understand how the medium of drawing emerged as a powerful and dynamic mode of expression in the eastern Islamic lands. The works exemplify the creative experimentation of Islamic artists in Turkey, Iran, and India through their underdrawings for painted compositions, drawings intended to transfer designs to other media, and ﬁnely executed and detailed works on paper that were meant to be autonomous pieces of art in their own right.
“This small but potent exhibition oﬀers a fascinating glimpse into the motivations and mechanisms behind the construction of images in Muslim culture,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “It also involved a great deal of research by students on a signiﬁcant number of drawings from our collection, giving them the opportunity to reveal new information about material and technique, which in turn has led to a deeper understanding of artistic process and sources of inspiration for this unique visual tradition.”
The Tablet and the Pen was organized by two doctoral candidates in the history of art and architecture, Ladan Akbarnia and Chanchal Dadlani, in coordination with Mary McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic Art at the Harvard University Art Museums, and David J. Roxburgh, professor of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. Akbarnia and Dadlani attribute the exhibition’s name to the centrality of the tablet and the pen in the Islamic idea of creation, saying “The Qur’an states that God’s ﬁrst creation was the pen, and that all existence was written with the pen on the ‘safely-preserved’ tablet.” As early as the 16th century, Muslim writers associated the various traditions of Islamic art with this moment of creation and recognized the importance of tasvir, an Arabic term for the act of “depiction.”
Works on display
The exhibition includes exquisite works from Harvard’s own holdings, as well as four drawings loaned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the prestigious collection assembled by Viktor Goloubew. Goloubew (1879–1945) was a connoisseur and scholar at the Ecole de l’Extrème Orient. Most of the drawings were created under the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501–1732), but there are also examples from the Timurid dynasty in Iran and Central Asia (1370–1506), the Ottoman dynasty in Turkey (1299–1922), the Mughal dynasty in India (1520–1857), and the Qajar dynasty in Iran (1779–1942).
A particularly ﬁne work, Mystical Journey (Iran, c. 1650), is a chaotic-looking swirl of ink dervishes, animals, and insects on marbled paper. Technical analysis by Craigen Bowen, deputy director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, revealed that the composition was not random, as had been thought. Instead, microscopic examination made it clear that the artist had incorporated and drawn inspiration from the swirling forms created during the process of marbling the paper.
Among the MFA drawings on display will be A Peri with a Flask, executed in black ink and opaque watercolor on paper sometime during the second half of the 16th century in Ottoman Turkey or Safavid Iran. This work is distinguished by its delicacy and remarkable detail and shows a peri, a winged spirit beloved in Iranian and Turkish folklore, holding a ﬂask that depicts a fantastic bird similar to the Chinese phoenix.
“These drawings show a freshness, vivacity, and experimental quality that one wouldn’t see in a painting,” said McWilliams. “By the 17th century, people in the Islamic world had come to appreciate drawings as a stand-alone art form.”
The Tablet and the Pen a collaborative eﬀort
This exhibition is an example of the collaboration that the Art Museums encourage between its curators and the faculty and students in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. Both student curators are preparing their dissertations under the supervision of Roxburgh, an expert in Islamic art. Akbarnia has an interest in the Chinese inﬂuence on art in Iran and Central Asia during the 13th through 15th centuries and the development of that theme in later drawings. Dadlani is a specialist on the Mughal period in India.
The students were able to select and study the drawings for the exhibition and to closely examine the works under magniﬁcation and ultraviolet light with conservators at the Harvard University Art Museums and the MFA. “We examined each of the drawings in detail, from the ﬁnest to the most richly textured lines, and began to understand how pen and brush were used to execute these compositions,” said Dadlani. “This allowed us to truly consider how artists explored and exploited the qualities of this particular medium.” Akbarnia adds, “If visitors leave with a clearer sense of the great skill displayed by the artists in these drawings, as well as a basic understanding of the technical aspects and challenges of the medium, they will have an appreciation of the comprehensive nature of Islamic drawing, and ultimately, of its great value in the ﬁeld of Islamic art.”
Funding for the exhibition has been provided by Melvin R. Seiden, the Arthur Urbane Dilley 1897 and Theron Johnson Damon 1905 Fund for Islamic Art and Culture, the Eric Schroeder Fund, and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture.