Edward Lucie-Smith visits the new gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies
Pure coincidence, and the vagaries of my opera subscription, led me to a perfor- mance of Die Entfiihrung aus dem Serail at Covent Garden on the very day that I visit- ed Empire of the Sultans, the exhibition of Ottoman art from the Khalili Collection, at the new SOAS Gallery, just off Russell Square.
The basic assumption made in Mozart's Singspiel (despite the magnanimity of Pasha Selim) is that the Ottoman Empire was a bad thing, even if also fascinatingly exotic. On the whole, 20th-century art- fanciers have tended to go along with that. Victorian fascination for the Ancient Greeks has been replaced by a more con- temporary obsession with Byzantium. Visi- tors to Istanbul sometimes manage to ignore the Ottoman monuments altogeth- er, in favour of Santa Sophia and the miraculously preserved late Byzantine mosaics and paintings in the Kariye Jami. If they offer a nod to the Turkish con- querors, it is by making a perfunctory visit to Topkapi, the ancient palace of the sul- tans, and thrilling to tales of executions by bowstring, Chief Black Eunuchs and janis- saries overturning their soup cauldrons.
In fact, Ottoman art offers one of the world's great decorative styles, more pow- erful, resonant and dignified than its Islamic counterparts in Persia and India. One reason why European spectators find it hard to get to grips with the Turkish achievement in the visual arts is the minor role played by representations of the human figure. Mogul and Iranian minia- ture painting breaks the religious tabu on figurative art much more often and more confidently than the Ottomans did.
Another reason, which emerges espe- cially clearly from this particular exhibi- tion, is the corresponding emphasis on the written word. Like China and Japan, Ottoman Turkey gave a high place to cal- ligraphy, as the noblest and most refined of all forms of artistic expression. The show is filled with examples, mostly copies of the Koran written in various classical styles of Arabic script. Few of us respond confidently to the stylistic nuances of texts we are quite unable to read.
Fortunately for those of us who are intellectually challenged by the manuscripts, the show does have other things to offer — rugs, silk brocades, ceramics, armour and weapons of war, writing implements. There is a wide range of dates — from a couple of hundred years before the Turks captured Con- stantinople in 1453 to just before 1918, when the last sultan abdicated.
These objects demonstrate a number of apparently self-contradictory things. First, a feeling for solemn grandeur of form and decoration — undercut by a taste for glit- ter. How about a pair of paper shears lightly frosted with diamonds? We are entering Faberge territory here, but with- out the obligatory curtsey to Louis XVI. Second, a liking for formality and symme- try combined with an intense feeling for nature — Ottoman representations of flowers have unrivalled lyricism and fresh- ness, appropriate to people who were once nomads on the steppes. Third, an unbroken continuity of style combined with eclecticism. When one looks at the objects one immediately sees motifs bor- rowed from Europe on the one side, and Iran, Central Asia and even China on the other, but combined in a distinctively Ottoman way. And when one reads the labels one sees that the objects themselves are often of uncertain origin — some of the most striking weapons and pieces of armour may have been made in the Cau- casus, for the Turkish market. In fact, what one has here are forms of expres- sion eloquent of the way in which the Ottoman power stood at a confluence of cultures.
Our difficulty in fully realising or admitting this is a result of historical con- ditioning. In the Middle Ages, the Cru- saders and the Turks fought for control of the Byzantine heritage. The Crusaders grabbed Constantinople first, but it was the Turks who kept it. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ottoman armies threat- ened the integrity of Europe. Their suc- cesses in the Balkans cast a shadow over European politics today. In the 19th cen- tury, European politicians continued to fulminate about the `unspeakable Turk', and in the first half of the 20th century their plans for the future of the sultanate (whose departure had been long and longingly anticipated) were frustrated by the stubborn military and political genius of Ataturk. No wonder our attitudes remain as ambiguous as those expressed in Mozart's opera.
The Ithalili Collection, however, offers only a very small taste of the Ottoman cultural achievement. Fully to savour it, you have to visit not only the great col- lections in the V&A and the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and also those of Topkapi itself, but the mosques of Istan- bul. The Ottomans were great decorators and calligraphers, but even greater archi- tects.
Edward Lucie-Smith is the author of Art and Civilisation (publisher, Laurence King).