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Walters Art Museum showcases Islamic art fit for a sultan

Portrait of Mahmud I, from a series of portraits of the emperors of Turkey.
Portrait of Mahmud I, from a series of portraits of the emperors of Turkey. (National Gallery of Art Library / / Baltimore Sun)

There are no two ways about it —Abu'l Fazl was a decidedly odd duck.

The 16th-century writer and historian was awkward as a youngster. He was sensitive and argumentative, a bit of a social misfit. As an adult, he turned into a brilliant scholar with such little concern for creature comforts that he would go for two or three days without eating.

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Yet, the writer — his full name was Abu'l Fazl ibn Mubarak — also was a spin doctor so adept at crafting the public image of his powerful patron that he became one of the most influential courtiers in the Indian empire. Perhaps not surprisingly, he attracted dangerous enemies.

"He never wanted a political appointment," says Amy Landau, who curated "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts" for the Walters Art Museum.

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"He just wanted to hang out with his books. But he became very powerful. Much of what we know about that time today is because of the words he wrote."

His words inspired some of the most beautiful manuscript paintings of 16th-century India, which are displayed in the exhibit.

"Pearls" is the Walters' first show about Islamic art, made up mostly of pieces that have been lent by other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibit, which has been five years in the making, opens Sunday and runs for three months before traveling to San Francisco.

The exhibit attempts to break new ground by emphasizing stories about three extraordinary figures: Abu'l Fazl; the 17th-century artist Muhammad Zaman, who radically changed the course of Persian painting; and 18th-century Turkish ruler and arts patron Sultan Mahmud I.

Most Islamic art exhibits, says Landau, the Walters' associate curator of Islamic and South Asian art, have focused on big themes or historic periods at the expense of individuals. "Pearls" aims to resurrect some of these figures from the shadows of history, and to fill in the blanks for those who already are well known, through the presentation of 120 paintings, figurines and precious objects.

"Often, stories about people aren't so common in exhibitions of Islamic art," Landau says. "This exhibit honors the Islamic tradition that holds that works of art are imprinted with human traces."

Visitors can search for those residues in a 17th-century Islamic silk cape embroidered with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, in 10th-century sandstone sculptures so detailed that each fingernail on a dancing Hindu god is shaped differently, and in a nearly life-size painting of a young woman in an elaborate Georgian costume who seems ready to fling a cup of tea across the room.

As befits a writer, Abu'l Fazl comes alive through the words he wrote during a quarter-century as the secretary for the 16th-century Indian emperor Akbar the Great. Abu'l Fazl's life's work was a history of Akbar's reign, which the scribe obsessively wrote and rewrote for more than three decades.

The history, which was illustrated with watercolor paintings commissioned from court artists, simultaneously characterizes Akbar as endearingly human (in one scene, he's beset with chickenpox) while also elevating him to semidivine status.

In the 1650 watercolor "Akbar with a Sarpech," the ruler's head is surrounded by a gold halo, and he's holding a sarpech, or jeweled turban ornament that symbolized royal authority. If that weren't enough, angels flying above Akbar's head hold other regal trappings such as a crown and sword.

What sovereign wouldn't be flattered? But the closer the two men grew, the more perilous Abu'l Fazl's position became.

"Abu'l Fazl had friends and foes," Landau says. "He created an image of the emperor that not everyone bought into. Some people thought it was blasphemous."

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At the turn of the 17th century, Akbar's son, Prince Salim, began plotting to overthrow his father. Salim was canny enough to realize that he'd first have to rid himself of the king's secretary and myth-maker.

In 1602, Abu'l Fazl was sent on a diplomatic mission, and when he returned, he was beheaded.

Salim had gotten rid of the messenger, but he found that destroying the message was a far more difficult proposition.

"Even today," Landau says, "the power of Abu'l Fazl's words live on."

Not surprisingly, the historian's life is relatively well documented. But Landau says much less is known about the 17th-century painter Muhammad Zaman ibn Haji Yusuf, who was active in the Iranian court from 1670 to 1700.

Nonetheless, the extent to which Zaman radically transformed Islamic art can be gleaned from one small, 81/2-by-53/4 -inch watercolor painting from 1689 titled "The Return from the Flight into Egypt."

To Western eyes, the three people walking by the side of the donkey are instantly recognizable. And wait — what's that around the heads of both the child and his blue-robed mother? Could the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ be wearing halos? (Though they aren't considered divinities, Jesus is regarded by Muslims as a great prophet, and his mother also is revered.)

In fact, Zaman's watercolor is a riff on Peter Paul Rubens' oil painting "The Return from Egypt."

"Muhammad Zaman was very influenced by the Northern European style of art," Landau says — and in particular, by the techniques of perspective (fooling the eye to create an impression of three dimensions on a flat surface) and chiaroscuro, or the treatment of light and shade.

Zaman took these newfangled painting methods and placed them in a Persian context.

"He used new pictorial tools to retell stories central to Persian culture in novel ways," Landau says." He made the European style his own, and he interpreted it in a way that appealed to his contemporaries."

Zaman's work is full of subtle details that reward viewers willing to lean in close.

But there's nothing understated about the knock-your-socks-off working Turkish rifle from 1732 that's located in the show's third section.

"Who in the world would make such a thing?" Landau asks.

The rifle, which was made for Sultan Mahmud I, is plated from muzzle to butt with gold and covered with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Open the stock, and you'll find a golden dagger encrusted with jewels from its blade to its hilt.

And should the gun's owner need to dash off a note in the middle of battle, he could always dismount and open the stock, which conveniently holds a pen box, a pen holder and a reed pen that are more or less buried beneath gems.

"Mahmud was a curious cat," Landau says, putting it mildly.

"He liked ingeniously designed objects, and he liked shiny, bejeweled things. His reign is often brushed over as a period of decline for the Ottoman Empire. I wanted to retrieve Mahmud from the shadows of history."

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The future sultan was born in 1696 with a curved spine that left him with a hunchback. When he was a child, his uncle, Ahmed III, launched a palace coup and deposed Mahmud's father. Though he grew up educated in the arts, Mahmud remained in confinement until he was in his 30s.

When a revolt broke out against Ahmed in 1730, Mahmud was placed on the throne. Because he had never been instructed in statesmanship, military affairs or governing, it was widely expected that he'd be a puppet king.

"He proved them all wrong," Landau says. "He strengthened the military. He won back some of the land lost by his predecessors."

Mahmud also built palaces and water fountains and spent a fortune cultivating tulips. He was a great patron of musicians and wrote 37 compositions himself. He esteemed the art of calligraphy, and employed a chief merchant who supplied the court with exquisite mechanical clocks, jade drinking glasses and jewelry.

"Our exhibit challenges the notion," Landau says, "that economic decline is always accompanied by cultural decline. Mahmud commissioned lavish libraries and mosques that define Istanbul's skyline to this day."

If you go

"Pearls on a String: Artists, Poets and Patrons at the Great Islamic Courts" runs through Jan. 31 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.

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