Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2000
Robert Hillenbrand Islamic Art and Architecture Thames and Hudson, 1999. 288 pp.; 80 color ills.; 190 b/w ills. Paper $16.95 (0500203059)

The old Praeger World of Art series attempted to cover the history of world art with a large number of affordable paperbacks with color illustrations. David Talbot Rice’s Islamic Art was a pioneering book in the series; published in 1965, it was revised in 1975. Never a particularly noteworthy introduction to the field, it did at least possess the virtues of being in print, affordable, and the only book of its kind. With the appearance of the two Pelican History of Art volumes on Islamic art, the first by Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar (1987) and the second by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom (1994), the rather distressing problem of finding texts for a two-semester college-level survey of Islamic art was at last solved, but a respectable general one-volume introduction in a paperback textbook edition for use in the U.S. market was still lacking.

The enthronement of multiculturalism among the premier academic virtues in the 1990s finally led to serious attempts to deal with the one-volume problem, and today we have three handsome and well-illustrated paperbacks: Robert Irwin’s Islamic Art in Context (published by Abrams in the Perspectives series, 1997); Blair and Bloom’s Islamic Arts (published by Phaidon in the Arts & Ideas series, 1997); and now the newest of all by Robert Hillenbrand. These present us with an embarrassment of riches, for the three texts are quite different from one another in approach, design, and choice of illustrations.

The prolific Robert Hillenbrand is perhaps known most widely as a scholar of Islamic architecture, although his writings cover a much wider spectrum. His short survey volume deals with Islamic art from its historical beginnings in the Arab world down to the eighteenth century in the Safavid and Ottoman empires. Missing entirely from the geographical expanse of Islam is India from 1200 onward, and the text omits the art of Ghaznavids, Turkomans, Anatolian Beyliks, and the party-kingdoms of Spain owing to a strict word limit. There are two temptations this reviewer has decided to avoid: that of questioning the premise of writing about the entire vast and complex history of Islamic art in a single volume; and that of enumerating the things that have been left out. That sort of approach will have to wait until the opportunity arises to review a 288-page World of Art volume entitled The Art of Europe Since Charlemagne.

Hillenbrand organizes the book by historical period and by dynasty; this is the most conventional approach among the three new Islamic art paperbacks mentioned above. It is also, for those teaching or learning unfamiliar material, the most comfortable and traditional way into an artistic tradition that at first may be quite baffling to the reader. As one might expect, the pace of the book is very rapid. Hillenbrand expresses his intention at the outset to avoid saying something about everything, and instead focuses on “the peaks rather than the valleys.” He writes with great confidence, marking out the major themes with an eloquent voice, resorting frequently to rhetorical questions to introduce his themes. The editors have made a wise decision to allow a real rhetorical voice, something that is often conspicuously lacking in highly condensed introductory volumes; the book reads quite easily, and its oscillation between the conveying of information and interpretations imparts not only a forward momentum but also a comfortable rhythm to the text.

The illustrations are well chosen; any potential annoyance on the part of the specialist in encountering too many of the “usual suspects” among the objects illustrated and discussed is avoided by the use of splendid new photographs from interesting angles of familiar buildings: the mosque of Aqmar in Cairo viewed from above; the inclusion of people in the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The “empty building syndrome” that shows great palaces without any tenants, and great cathedrals inhabiting deserted city streets, devoid of worshipers, is an affliction of most architecture books, but here from time to time we actually see people giving scale and life to illustrations of buildings. Graphics, including simple isometric line drawings, are both well chosen and effective. One potential fault, an editorial quirk of the entire series, is that we are not told where the various museum objects illustrated are to be found; the photo credits are seldom of any help in this regard.

What is a final reviewer’s verdict on this book? It is extremely difficult for one who has taught the history of Islamic art and architecture for three decades to approach any general work with a completely innocent eye. I have not yet had the opportunity to test Hillenbrand’s work in one of my general art history courses. But with some confidence I can appraise the book as competent in its presentation of facts, eloquent in its prose, familiar and comfortable in its organization, lavish in its illustrations (given its limitations), and original in many of its emphases and judgments. For the novice it is a fine introduction to the field; for the jaded specialist, it is full of new ideas on how to approach familiar material. Our thanks to Robert Hillenbrand for taking on this very difficult task, and for following it through to a succesful outcome.