Arabesque! (Arab what?)

When the latest New Yorker came in the mail a few days ago, I flipped to the back first, like I always do, to see what movies are reviewed, if there’s any art and architecture discussion, what books they’re looking at this week.  News, schmews!  Give me culture!  I was really excited to see a review of the newly opened Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Islamic art seems to me to be rarely in the spotlight in this country, so seeing a two page spread in the New Yorker is kind of a big deal. It’s an interesting review, in that the author educates us a bit about Islam, a bit about Islamic art, talks about his impressions, readies the reader to go see the galleries, which is all lovely.  I got a bit confused, though, when he wrote, after talking about Korans, “The gestures of their handwriting resonate with a visual language that, rooted in pre-Islamic times, was perfected by Muslim artists and designers: the arabesque.”  A-ha! I thought.  I most definitely have some unfinished business with the arabesque, thanks to my old friend, Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar.  Here was my first exposure to the arabesque:  “instead of understanding the arabesque as a form, we may consider it as an idea.”  Um, ok.  How is an artistic motif understood as an idea rather than as a form?  And what exactly is it?  Let me cut to the chase and say that the arabesque is a vegetal pattern that’s repeated over and over, or “a precise type of vegetal motif: leaves and stems artificially arranged in continuous sequences or symmetrical designs in a given space.” (When giving this definition, Grabar says that earlier he may have, “contributed to the confusion rather than to clarification” about the arabesque.  Agreed, Dr. Grabar.)   So that’s it.  That’s what it is. Did you get that from the above quote in the New Yorker?  No.  And the author doesn’t go on to explain it, either.  And I don’t get why not.  It’s really not all that hard to explain.

Before we go on, here are a couple of examples:

Wall revetment from a private house Iraq, Samarra. 9th c. CE. Carved stucco,

Arabesque example

These look to me like borders, something surrounding the central action.  But in Islam, because their religious art is mostly non-figural, this vegetal pattern is often the main event.  This, I think, is what can be confusing for us.  In Islam,  their religious buildings can’t be decorated in the same way that Christian churches are decorated, with images of people and events, because they don’t use human and animal figures in Islamic religious art.  Why?  Maybe because they were seen as idolatrous.  But there’s no specific prohibition anywhere. Isn’t that amazing?  We have no evidence of any kind of specific prohibition by anyone.  And although meanings have been ascribed to the arabesque, there’s no indication that the people creating and using it were making any kind of statement about gardens in paradise or the infinite in god or in nature.  Those meanings were applied later. Does that make it devoid of meaning?  I wouldn’t say so.  If you look at it for a few minutes, don’t you get lost in it?  It’s meditative, and beautiful, and awe-inspiring all on its own.  What better to adorn a religious building than nature?  Nothing, in my book.  And I love this — experts think that artists put intentional mistakes in their patterns, perhaps to show their belief that only god is perfect.  Whatever the reason, anyone who intentionally puts mistakes into a pattern is ok by me!

Here’s one more example.  It looks like a really tall border, doesn’t it?  But it’s the building!  Isn’t it gorgeous?

Mshatta Facade, originally in Jordan, 8th century

Mshatta Facade detail

An aside:  Arabesque sounded vaguely familiar from a bit of ballet in my distant past, so I looked it up.  Guess what?  The word “arabesque” means Arab-like.  This did not occur to me one time until I read it. Not once. I love that words often mean something so obvious, and we never think of it.  You know the word “parole,” as in getting out of jail early, but you have to go see a parole officer?  I have known since I was in seventh grade that “parole” means “word” in French, but I never put it together. To be on parole means that you’ve given your word.  How cool is that?  Apparently the ballet position derives from the artistic motif, but this seems like a stretch to me.

Now we come full circle, back to the Met in New York.  If you go, you can see this mihrab (pronounced “mee-ruhb”), which is a niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. (I wonder if this indicates the direction of Mecca from New York?)  This one includes both vegetal arabesque and what’s sometimes called calligraphic arabesque — the writing around the outside.  Again, because there basically isn’t any figural religious imagery, words are used for decoration, all around the outside in this example.  Click on the image to see what this inscription says.

Isfahan, Iran, 1354, now in the Met

Through writing this post, I’ve come to appreciate is the flexibility of the arabesque.  It can be anywhere on a building, made out of just about any material, in any country, all throughout history.  I  love that continuity, and the variety within it.  I like change.  I get bored with the same old same old.  At the same time,  there’s something really comforting about continuity, about that connection with the past.  My unfinished business with the arabesque just got even more unfinished.  There’s always more to see!

Quotes from:  Peter Schjeldahl, “Old and New,” The New Yorker, Nov 7, 2011, pp 88-89; and Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, Yale University Press, 1987, pp 193-211.


2 thoughts on “Arabesque! (Arab what?)

  1. Thank you. I really didn’t know anything about islamic art—or the arabesque. I only thought of the ‘spin’ definition or arabesque. It does immediately remind me of M.C. Escher (I dig him)—because of the tessellations in his work maybe. But I wonder if he was inspired by the arabesque.

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