"I do not have a recent past. I am compelled to penetrate into the ancient past, which is about to disappear under the sands of time." Although the writer, Tewfik El-Hakim, is a playwright, he might just as easily have teen speaking of Arab art.
Muslim art today is a striking synthesis of folk traditions and modern painting trends. Yet it was not always so. For six centuries, the fine arts of the Middle East slumbered and when they were finally given new breath, the glories of the past provided the major inspiration for Middle Eastern sculptors and painters.
For generations, many of the peoples of the Middle East had expressed their creativity in decorative designs based on geometric and floral figures or on calligraphy. Their ceramics, mosaic tiles, stone sculpture, miniatures and architecture—much of it in connection with religious themes—were unsurpassed for beauty of line and color and painstaking detail. But painting and sculpture depicting vignettes of everyday life were absent from the artistic scene.
When Muhammad established Islam in the early seventh century, many of the Arabs were nomads. Since, at that time, they had little artistic heritage of their own, they studied and adapted the finest creative genres of the peoples around them.
There were two principal influences—the Eastern Christian (or Hellenistic) and the Persian. As it developed, the humanistic and naturalistic principles of Hellenistic art were gradually replaced by the decorative characteristics of Persia. Flat, brilliant colors had already supplanted the subtle shades of Byzantine and Greek art during the fifth century, human figures had become stylized and symbolic, and delicate Persian miniatures and illuminated manuscripts had exerted a strong influence on Arab art. The Chinese touch, which had been introduced through Persia, was especially apparent in Arab pottery. Styles and patterns were borrowed, but the Arabs developed several techniques which later became characteristic—covering painted designs with transparent glaze, painting over opaque glaze, and the luster process.
The art of calligraphy was cultivated by Muslims from earliest times and was more esteemed than painting, which generally took the form of wall art.
There are two principal styles of Arabic writing—Kufic, a formal script with angular letters, and Naskhi, a cursive style with rounded letters. Kufic was used for about 500 years to copy the Koran but was eventually succeeded by Naskhi during the eleventh century. The tradition of artistic writing and illumination of manuscripts has continued into the present but no longer holds the pre-eminent place it once did in Middle Eastern art. Nonetheless, calligraphy still exerts a powerful influence over modern Arab artists, as in the abstractions of Syrian-born Madiha Umar.
A short-lived school of Arab painting came to fruition in the early thirteenth century in Baghdad. It was distinguished by a major work by its leader, Yahia Al-Wasiti—an illustration of an Arabic literary classic, Maqamat Al-Hariri. But 20 years later, the conquest of Baghdad by Hulaku the Mongol in 1258 spelled the end of this movement.
It was only at the turn of the nineteenth century—1808 is the accepted date—that painting as a valid and important means of expression began to attract Arab intellectuals. History was the principal source of inspiration, and most of the works depicted past days of greatness. The Arab artist drew on such themes as the victories of Saladin or Omar entering Jerusalem. The output of this period can be compared to that of the Western world in which Greek and Roman mythology formed the subject matter for artists.
Muslim artists next passed through a period during which much of their subject matter predicted an Utopian future. Many of the paintings of this period depicted idyllic islands where the people lived in harmony close to the soil and to each other.
Arab art needed broad social and political change to infuse it with new life, to turn its vision outward and enlarge its audience. The two world wars provided this impetus. Arab artists started to study in the great art capitals of Europe. They came in contact with all the "isms"—cubism, primitivism, realism, impressionism. Most important, however, they realized that what made their heritage unique was liable to pass into history unrecorded except for a few intrepid Western voyagers who had sketched the scenes they encountered on their Middle Eastern travels.
The reawakening started in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. It later spread to most of the Middle East.
It started when Muslim artists rediscovered the human figure, switched from abstraction to representational painting, and realized the value of their native inheritance. This about-face is best expressed by such artists as Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu of Turkey, Said Tahsin of Syria, Zoubeir Turki of Tunisia, Aida Marini of Lebanon, and Jewad Selim of Iraq. Muslim art today attempts to preserve the passing scenes of the Arab world—to "keep them a bit longer and make them known," according to Miss Marini, one of the leading women artists in the Middle East. It does so within the framework of modern artistic techniques, yet the vibrant pure colors and simple lines of most of these artists is uniquely Levantine.
The Turkish school of art, on the other hand, had had contact with the West for many centuries through the sultans of the widespread Ottoman Empire. Painting had always been one of the essential expressions of the Turkish character. Even before Islamic art became a reality, Turkish artists were adept at miniatures which showed a fierce realism and power typical of the modern Turkish school. Unlike other Muslim nations, they did not restrict the usage of the human form. The early Seljuk sultans decorated their palaces with painted frescoes, and Sultan Mehmet II notably encouraged painting by inviting Bellini to his new capital of Istanbul to sit for his famous portrait.
Modern Turkish painting began about 1914 when certain Turkish painters, having studied in Paris, brought home the influences of French impressionism. The Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul soon became the center of the contemporary art movement, and even today many of the country's best painters are professors there.
Muslim art is coming into its own. Arab, Turkish and North African artists have recaptured a pride in their birth right while remaining within the rising tide of national economic, social and political ambition. There is a keeling of ferment and innovation in the air.