Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The World That Fit In Scheherezade's Head

Part six in a series on D&Dables in art history

"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
--Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance
Royal Mosque, Isfahan, 17th century.
The little niches are called muqarnas

"Decorative" is a loaded word in art history, and--considering what art actually is--is hard to define. It has something to do with there being more colors and shapes going on than ideas (and stands on the opposite side of the tightrope from another vague and loaded word--"illustration"--which suggests an image where there's nothing but ideas going on).
19th C. Mughal Qur'an--from Iran or India
Great Mosque, Damascus c. 715 
Drawing a clean distinction between what's "decorative" and what isn't is hard because different viewers are going to have different notions about how many ideas they're looking at in any given object. I, for one, am not sure I've seen anything "purely decorative"in my life.
Samanid bowl with calligraphy, 10th century but looking somehow very modern.
Another one. There are lots of types of Islamic calligraphy--this long geometric
kind is called kufic script, it's fairly common.

The problem is pushed to the foreground with the art of the Islamic world because--depending how you look at it--either it's almost all decorative or none of it is. Or maybe everything religious isn't and everything that isn't religious is--even when they're done by the same artist in almost the same style. Or something. It's hard to say and better, probably, to just look.
Incense burner, Egypt, 8th-9th C.
While the Western tradition addressed ideas mostly through illustration and story ("here's St George killing a dragon") in the various Islamic civilizations a different creative direction took hold.

Part of this has to do with religious injunctions against depicting things. The precise rules are different depending where you are and who you ask--sometimes its a rule about depicting just the Prophet, sometimes it's a rule about depicting people, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any living thing, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any real living thing. I'm no expert on the rules, though I do remember in school seeing one Persian manuscript where a later owner had gone through and painted a black line through the neck of every person in the manuscript.
Wonderfully enigmatic image of the Prophet looking at
a David Lynch box. 1222. The veiled face is one
convention adopted to avoid depicting him.

Point is: the most common way to express stories and ideas was through calligraphy. Taking the overt content--words--and imparting beauty and perhaps new shades of meaning to them by how they were written.
Blue Qur'an--North Africa, 9th-10th C.
Mamluk-era Qur'an

Both the line and the ethic of calligraphy (take a known and legible thing, beautify it with strict attention to geometry and proportion) influenced every single other art form in the culture. The mosques often have calligraphy worked into the reliefs, the paintings have a pictograph-like line, the metalwork is done in dense script-like meshes of vegetal designs.
Ince Manare madrasa, Konya, Turkey, 1258. That's a knotted
prayer running up the front of the building.

Here's what I particularly like about this from a D&D perspective. Consider Jack Vance's Dying Earth as quoted by Jeff:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. [...] Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

And consider Jeff's comment here: Spells are almost alive with power. Memorizing a spell is kinda like putting a demon in your head. Something similar could be said of a prayer--a prayer is putting a spark of the divine in your head--or into whatever you're painting it on or carving it into.
Amulet case--10th-11th C.
The black stuff is a compound called niello, often
used for medieval inlay.
And D&D wizards are always writing spells down, and in old editions you could even write it wrong and memorize it wrong. I like the idea that writing things down is encoding them and  binding them into the thing. While calligraphy was esteemed almost- or just as- highly in Japan and China, it didn't have the omnivorous quality of Islamic calligraphy, taking over walls, plates, doorways.

There is something almost gnostic in this: the world and everything in it is just the expression of something else happening in another, higher reality. All our world's objects and pleasures are just a text about that higher world.
Great Mosque, Cordoba, Spain

The architecture also has to be counted as a tremendous influence on the art--moreso than in the West, because of the art's inherently abstract and geometric quality, it's easy to find the forms of buildings reproduced on a smaller scale in the luxury objects and paintings. One theory holds that the "carpeted" look of these traditional walls descends from actual carpets--which the Mongols and other nomadic peoples' used as tent walls and which were and are still hung on walls for insulation and to, of course, tie the room together.
Persian Qur'an, using Nasta'liq script-- 16th-17th century
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (1404, but
completely reconstructed in the 70s I think)
Mamluk Qur'an

Lutfallah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, finished in 1618
Various medieval braziers...

I think the colorful and monumental qualities of Islamic architecture are partially due to having (in a decent proportion of the very many countries which were ruled by an Islamic civilization at one time or another) a lot less foliage to compete with than the rest of us. Bukhara, for instance, gives the impression that if you wanted any kind of environment you had to build it yourself:
Great Mosque, Yazd, Iran 1330
So calligraphy and carpets influence the buildings, and the buildings influence everything else. These influences have something in common: they're all things only people make. Nature plays a role in every civilization's art, of course, but it wouldn't be crazy to say it plays a smaller roll in the art of the Islamic world than in that of any other great world civilization. It appears as pattern and abstraction, but relatively rarely as a force in itself.
Weird cat-shaped incense burners were fairly
common in 12th Century Iran 
I have no idea how accurate this is, but here's someone's
explanation for the variety of weird felines: "While zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations were forbidden under Islamic religious law, the so-called “principle of improbability” was employed to create animals that were so far removed from reality that they could not be argued to be in any way representational of nature; thus were the strictures avoided. " 
Super cute.
The lack of observed natural motifs adds an air of urbanity and artifice to Islamic art taken out of context that accords well with the kind of goatless cosmopolitanism in 1001 Nights-style worlds like Al-Qadim and the Thief of Baghdad.

This painting, done in 1488 by the renowned Bihzad, features Zuleykha chasing Yusef through seven doors and is one of the most magical things I have ever seen:
Note the totality of the artifice: no sky, no landscape, everything is civilized, abstracted, sturctured, lonely, symbolic--plants and stars are only present as the idea of plants and stars worked into the patterns. This is a true mythic otherworld maze, made of only psychological things. This is Julio Cortazar territory--hundreds of years before modernism.

Here is Bihzad actually taking on nature, with the typically Persian use of rich colors derived from jewelry, lustred tilework and textile design:

Mir Sayyid Ali came along a little while after Bihzad...
Palace scene,1539-43
...I love how the food and wine float on that palace carpet like toy boats.

It's interesting to compare this battle scene to how a Japanese artist might have painted it. In both cases, the trees could be stylized and isolated, but the Persian painter has decisively and consciously transformed the tree into a beautiful symbol of a tree, whereas a Japanese painter would have given us some approximation of some seen tree.
From the Bayasanghori Shahnameh
The horses, though, have detail and distinction, no two quite alike--as useful war animals they belong to civilization, to the writer-like record of who and what was there. Compare this to one of Paolo Uccello's battles.

Likewise, you can directly compare this anonymous Ottoman portrait to the Bellini painting that inspired it:
…while Bellini was worrying about how the light fell on the folds and the face and making it look like his painter was actually sitting on the ground, the Ottoman artist worked on recording colors and patterns--making the subject of the painting into a pattern.

And, taking a bite out of the other end of cultural appropriation sandwich, here's a Persian hero killing a  totally Chinese dragon...
Bahram Gur Kills the Dragon. 1371. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Secrets of an Eminently D&Dable Subcontinent

Fifth in a series about D&Dables in Art History 

The best of Indian art generally falls into three broad categories, each with their own fairly distinct aura:

First, there's folk art--

These are objects in all media and a bewildering range of styles made all over India because someone, somewhere felt like it.

Here's a drawing somebody did of some guys hitting each other:

…it matches no other style on the continent or, really anywhere else.

Similarly, these look like they could've been made on any planet so long as it wasn't ours:
Earring or Iron Golem?

Different as the earrings and the abstract dudes fighting, they have a certain set of qualities--densely composed, vivacious, playful, curvy--which come out in a lot of the other art of the subcontinent.

The second category is richly decorated luxury objects…

This is an elephant goad and an amazing piece of sculpture. Enlarging it lets you see how the whole thing is hollow, plus all the dozens of different animal shapes worked in. While Western art basically went up to the Medieval period with the weird monster art and then took a long breather to try to figure out how to make people, India just kept going with the monsters, making ever more refined, inventive and insane zoomorphic and teratomorphic shapes and giving them new things to do.

Indian miniature painting fits firmly inside the "decorated luxury object" category--for the most part--and the figures writhe and settle along the hills and plains of the paintings in much the same way the creatures sidle into the curves of that elephant hook.

Ustad Mansur was the star animal painter at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, he made one of my favorite paintings of all time:
I love this fucking painting. It is unbelievably charming.
See the butterfly? The chameleon's totally gonna eat that butterfly.
There's an adventure hook in there somewhere: yes, the party needs to find a chimera and get it back to the imperial zoo, but then someone has to paint it so-- in case it dies--they can send another party out to get another one just like it.

The Mughals were an Islamic dynasty and Indian painting during this time is very similar to Persian miniature painting (about which more later). These kinds of paintings have something of the design sense of east Asian painting while still having something of the very European desire to get everything in and get everything right.

A Chinese painter would've more ruthless subordinated the branches, animals and leaves to an overall design so the whole picture looked like it was one elegant gesture while a Western painter of the same period probably would've tried to make the chameleon look as much like an observed chameleon really sitting on a branch as their technical skill would allow while also trying to make the composition look like it all just happened to be that way (but covertly fitting it into a cross or a triangle or some other eye-pleasing organization of shapes). This painting is a third thing: the curve of the branch and tail are obviously the way they are for the convenience of the image, but each object's texture and color has been rendered carefully and independently, with no desire to "push" any of the elements back in order to create a unified whole. Each object is its own thing, and can be examined separately or as part of a pattern.

This lion works much the same way: the head is done in a sort of bulbous style reminiscent of Chinese lions but then the mane is done totally differently in layers of fine-lined hair, then the torso is done in a highly stylized, muscular way and the tail could've been snipped off the chameleon. A single animal is conceived as a collage of differently patterned and decorated parts (which, if you read old naturalists' and fabulists' descriptions of new animals, is how they're described in words).
Lanterns generally echo their cultures' architecture in miniature and this very Taj Mahally one's no exception.
They made a pig cannon. Awesome.

Persian and Mughal paintings often have neat architectural
perspective tricks. Enlarge this painting, save it, add a few numbers and you've
got a complete dungeon, with a tower and animals and
even NPCs--note the couple in western dress on
the far right getting married.

Emperor Jahangir's friend Imayat Khan was wasting away from
opium addiction so the emperor was like, Better have somebody
paint him c. 1618
Notice the way the withered addict-flesh is treated as just one more color and one more texture in the arrangement.
Mughal miniature paintings are very video-gamey in both the way they use space and the way they use color and pattern to differentiate figures from each other. It's a really good format for illustration-as-diagram style pictures or things with hidden clues.

This is a chair-leg. It's typically Indian that, even detached
from the whole, it's still a sculpture in itself.

Third, There's Temple and Religious Sculpture

I don't plan on doing too much architecture in this series because if I did we'd be here all day but I'd feel remiss if I didn't at least show a little Indian stone temple architecture because these things are mind-blowing and there is an off-chance someone doesn't know that:
Lingaraja Temple. Holy fuck.
C. 1100
Anyway, these dungeony temples were (and sometimes still are) filled with utterly dungeony sculptures...

The guy above is actually Buddhist--it's Manjuvajra Mandala, who is an esoteric form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom. Or so I'm told. A lot of sculpture from the Pala period (8th-12 c) is done in this kind of black soapstone--I always wondered if Giger looked at a lot of this stuff.
Sometimes you'll see the same face ten or twenty times in a row on human-faced deities but figuring out how to do Ganesh's face and big belly often pushes artists to try something new.

Srirangam Temple. These date from the Vijayanagara period (1336–1565)--again there's that Gigerish, almost unfollowable, density of shapes.

The eyes on suave Ganesh here stand in contrast to the inquisitive slits on the previous Ganesh, and the pose is more naturalistic than symbolic.

Lions from Kailasanath, 750-850 AD. Asia in general was pretty confused about what lions looked like for a shockingly long time. But, then, if every time you saw something it was trying to kill you you'd probably have a sketchy time describing it, too. And when everyone's confused art wins, so I'm not complaining.
This sandstone apsara (sexy female nature spirit, see also yakshi), known as the Dancing Celestial was made in the 12th century in Uttar Pradesh and is at the Met...
…her pose is known as the tribhanga (or 'three bends') and is pretty common in Indian sculpture and dance. It's kind of the less douchey, more fun-loving version of Greek art's contrapposto pose. Tribhanga's like Oh My God I Love This Song and Contrapposto's all Oh, That's Cool, I Used To Like This When I Was In High School I'll Be Over Here In The Corner Hoping Everyone Notices My Hair.
Now click this and enlarge it:
This is Durga killing Mahisha--a buffalo demon--from the Pala Period. There are a million cool things about it, but three of the less obvious ones are:
-it's tiny--shorter than your hand with fingers extended
-Durga has, among other weapons, a chakram, which is like a murder-Aerobie
-the way Durga has decapitated the bull (very cleanly) and the head is just sitting there and she is just literally yanking the demon right out of its neck.
Whoever made that would've had a very promising career at Forge World had they been born in our century.
This is Chamunda, 8th century. Speaks for itself, really.

And this is an Indian stepwell, which has nothing to do with anything but is worth noting as probably the most D&D-looking place ever: