Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 25, 2019
Margaret S. Graves Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 352 pp.; 125 ills. Cloth £55.00 (9780190695910)

The elevation of quotidian objects through technical virtuosity has long been considered a quintessential feature of Islamic visual culture. Accordingly, historians of Islamic art have investigated objects’ potential to accrue shifting meanings, generate affiliations across cultures, and communicate complex rhetorical messages. Rarely, however, have medieval Islamic objects received treatment as constitutive—and even generative—elements of intellectual trends in their own right. Margaret S. Graves shifts this trend with an innovative study that recognizes the full cognitive potentialities of objects. Arts of Allusion focuses on a diverse set of objects from the eastern Mediterranean and Iranian plateau, produced from the ninth through thirteenth centuries, which are united by their use of architectonic elements. Including lamps shaped like shrines and inkwells fashioned after garden tents, these works allude to (rather than mimetically reproduce) architecture, distinguishing them from the more familiar categories of the model and miniature. Combining formal analysis with primary sources, Graves reveals these objects’ engagement with contemporary philosophy, literature, science, and theology, as well as the senses. She identifies allusion as a strategy of representation that relies on correlation and analogy, thus placing greater cognitive demands on maker and beholder alike. By focusing on “allusive objects” and the questions of perception they raise, Graves advances the precept that thinking and making are mutually constitutive fields.  

Graves has two primary objectives. First, she aims to identify and discuss the connections drawn by craftsmen between objects and buildings in order to understand the visual modes craftsmen employed to generate cognitive and formal correlations between artworks and monuments. This approach importantly underlines the capacity of nonmimetic forms to generate resemblance and meanings. This leads to Graves’s second objective, which is to restore Islamic art to a broader cognitive field by recognizing the dialogue among plastic arts and literature, poetry, painting, and architecture through examples of what she aptly calls “allusive objects.”

Chapter 1 assembles a corpus of primary sources that deal with artistic production in the premodern Islamic world. In many ways, this chapter provides the basis for the book as a whole, since it uncovers a persistent strain of thought that identifies making as a form of thinking, or what Graves refers to as the “intellect of the hand” (26). The author consults different textual genres, including theological, philosophical, and scientific, to analyze metaphors of materiality, architecture, and craftsmanship. For example, some metaphors reveal an intimate understanding of materials in different states, whose mutable properties endow them with explanatory power in the realm of cognition. This point is vividly demonstrated by a discussion of molded and fired unglazed earthenware from Iran alongside the authors al-Ghazālī (a twelfth-century polymath) and al-Kindī (a ninth-century Islamic philosopher), who employed clay-based analogies to elucidate the workings of the imagination and the creative energies of God. As Graves points out, such sources affirm the central tenet of contemporary theories of “cognitive poetics,” which place somatic experience at the heart of language and thought, enabling “the blending of distinct conceptual domains, even material artifacts with abstract tenets of the faith” (39). This discussion serves as the basis for examining objects through an “analogical mentality” and approaching the craftsman as an intelligent maker.

The following four chapters explore different cognitive avenues for analyzing allusive objects. Chapter 2 focuses on a range of portable objects that employ arcades to create spatial perception. Graves observes that arcades on objects draw immediate links to architecture, challenging persistent conceptualizations of ornament as a two-dimensional schema that can be applied to any surface. Through examining a group of early Islamic sarcophagi, caskets, and a Qur’an chest from the eastern Mediterranean, she draws out the specific ways in which the arcade creates fictive spaces and transfers the significance of contemporary sacred and honorific architecture across correlative forms. This leads her to the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Jazira (the plateau between the Tigris and Euphrates), where ornament is coextant with architectural fabric, as evidenced by the carved portals of the mausoleum of Imām al-Bāhir in Mosul. They feature sculpted dragon arcades that protect liminal spaces, blurring distinctions between ornament and structure. Such ornament finds a correlation in ḥabbs, clay storage jars with architectonic structures that employ a local repertoire of talismanic figures, including twined-dragon arcades, sphinxes, and female busts, to protect their contents. The ḥabbs highlight the three-dimensionality and specificity of ornament, while also raising the possibility that objects inspired decoration of full-scale architecture, speaking to links among object makers and builders.

Turning to the visual mechanics of likeness, chapter 3 examines how the use of human figures on twelfth- and thirteenth-century inkwells from Iran constructs perceptual responses. The copper inkwells are cylindrical containers with dome-surmounted lids, engraved and inlaid with silver and copper. Among scholars, they have generated two modes of viewing: some see them as building-shaped objects, while others do not. Graves interprets them in conjunction with Emmanuel Alloa’s concept of “seeing-with,” which refers to the way material particularities, viewing circumstances, the artist’s intention, and the viewer’s gaze combine to shape the viewer’s perception of images (100). She skillfully builds a case for likeness, beginning with an inkwell at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, that resembles domed tents, a staple of garden architecture. An example at the Royal Ontario Museum enhances this resemblance by depicting scribes enclosed in arches beneath epigraphic bands. The inscriptions prompt the beholder to turn the object and watch scribes perform different tasks. This mode of “ludic, visuospatial play” (138) culminates in an inkwell at the David Collection in Copenhagen, which becomes a theatrical set when rotated, animating dervishes playing music, running to pour wine, and drinking. The inkwells display an interest in space and narrative that resembles shadow theater and the visual pyrotechnics of the illustrated Maqāmāt manuscripts of the thirteenth century. Graves situates the inkwells’ allusive mode in the idea of poetic imagination formulated by the Persian philosopher al-Fārābī (d. 950), which prioritizes indirect over direct forms of imitation. Here, allusion is a performance of sophistication and wit.

In chapter 4, Graves develops the interrelation of the literary and visual arts by focusing on the operation of the metaphor. She begins by examining pervasive metaphors of poetic composition as metal casting, city-building, and weaving, which posit art and poetry as analogues. This allegorical framing lays the groundwork for her analysis of two groups of objects, cast-metal censers produced in the eastern Mediterranean from the eighth through ninth centuries and ceramic and metalwork lanterns from pre-Mongol Iran and central Asia. Graves situates the censers within an evolving set of late antique architectural forms used to demarcate sacred and royal spaces, and also within the literary topos of the cast-metal city. She then turns to lanterns fashioned after centrally planned domed shrines and funerary monuments, such as Seljuk kümbets. By virtue of their form and function, the lanterns evoke the symbolic connotations of light in Islam, perceived as an attribute of God. When lit, the lanterns transform into “fully radiant miniature monuments” (175), which—like the shrines they evoke—become beacons of faith and hence a metaphor for Islam. Graves reads the lanterns as materialized metaphors, drawing on literary theories that define metaphor as a figure of speech that turns one thing into another, based on a perceived point of affinity.

In the final chapter, Graves analyzes kilgas as material instantiations of ekphrases, vivid descriptions meant to conjure up absent buildings in the imagination. Kilgas, marble stands for water jugs produced in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, served as part of the urban system for water distribution in Cairo. They often display nude women evocative of ancient river goddesses among muqarnas, epigraphs, and arches. Graves beautifully elucidates the centrality of the Nile, and the nilometer, to perceptions of the city, providing a context for the elaborately carved stands. She examines them in conjunction with extant examples of fountains, such as the twelfth-century one at Zisa Palace in Palermo, drawing attention to their formal and functional correlations. While the kilgas do not replicate water architecture, they isolate and rearrange its most paradigmatic features, creating what Graves eloquently calls “microcosmic odes to water architecture” (210). In this respect, kilgas engage theories of the imagination and perception, particularly those of the Persian polymath Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), who regarded sensory perception as the basis of remembering and retaining information and impressions, which could then be imaginatively recombined for the creation of new ideas and images. The kilgas encapsulate ideas and impressions of water architecture in a way that parallels the workings of both ekphrases and memory.

Overall, Graves’s methodology, careful research, and frameworks for analysis of nonmimetic art make for an innovative book that will be an important point of reference for historians of Islamic art and architecture, as well as scholars engaged in the study of objects. Her work has broad implications for the way we understand the links among objects and architecture, and also the place of the object in the discipline. The “intelligent objects” of her book make a compelling case for their centrality to the visual and literary cultures of premodern Islamic societies.

Heather Badamo
Assistant Professor, History of Art & Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara