Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Islamic Chinoiserie"

The lecture on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 was given by Yuka Kodai, a scholar at the Department of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kodai was previously a curator at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. The lecture was based on her most recent publication Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran.

“Islamic Chinoiserie,” a term Kodai had coined herself, examines the Chinese contribution to artistic explosion in Islamic Iranian art under the Mongols.

Iran was conquered by the Mongols and was ruled by the Ilkhanids meaning “subordinate to Great Khan of China”. This resulted in a significant amount of cultural interaction between East and West. The lecture focused on how Chinese artistic styles were evident in Iranian art under the Mongols through textiles, ceramics, metalwork and paintings.

The Mongol were very interested in textiles and used it as a form of art propaganda. Textiles were portable objects and this allowed the Mongols to use them as symbols to express their social status. When Eurasia was conquered by the Mongols, there was an exchange of people, goods and ideas between East and West. Textiles were one of the products that most aided in the transmitting of ideas and artistic style between East and West. Through imported textiles in Iran, Chinese artistic concepts were adopted. Examples are images of dragons and phoenixes.

The typical Chinese dragon is depicted having a‘s’ shape body with an emphasis on the flames from the snout and its four legs with large claws. Iran depicted dragon-like creatures as a snake, but after the Mongol invasion, Iranian depiction of dragons incorporated Chinese style but was combined with their own decorative motifs. The dragon symbolized the emperor of China, but Iran transferred the symbol to refer to the Mongol rulers in Iran.

The Chinese phoenix was also reworked in Ilkhanid Iran. The typical Chinese phoenix would be depicted with a long impressive tail and a distinctive face within a naturalistic setting or background. Iranian depictions of the Chinese phoenix were more geometrically composed and symmetrical.

Ceramics are another important export from China. Many of the Chinese ceramic pieces, designs and styles were copied by Iranian potters as well as adopted with more added decorative elements.

One interesting image that was adopted in Islamic Iran from China was the lotus motif, which appears in textiles, manuscripts, metalwork and architectural decorations. The lotus motif originates from Buddhist China. It had a strong symbolic meaning referring to purity and the Buddha. Islamic Iran adopted this lotus motif and adapted it to their designs creating a more stylized version than the Chinese lotus. Perhaps the lotus acquired a new symbolic meaning in the Islamic Iranian context. 

Iconography in paintings clearly displays the multi-religious environment that was taking place in Ilkhanid Iran. Paintings combined Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic iconography. The example Kadoi discussed was a painting of The Annunciation (a Christian subject matter). The painting depicts the Virgin Mary surrounded by Islamic architecture with a Buddhist style influence.

Kadoi concluded by explaining how her research in Islamic Chinoiserie examines the Islamic admiration and understanding of Chinese style and techniques and how that was fundamental in developing Iranian Islamic art during and after the Mongol invasion.

The lecture was very interesting and I find it fascinating to discover how Islamic art is diverse and how Islamic artists had absorbed artistic styles from different cultures and religions and incorporated them into their own style. The result is a mixture of different elements, iconography and motifs each with its own history brought together under the art of Islam.  


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