This week the louvre in Paris opened a 30,000-square-foot Islamic Art wing, intended to showcase their collection of over 18,000 Islamic works dating from seventh to the 19th century from Spain, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan. The 3,000 works on display include a 16th century Ottoman manuscript, an entire 14th century Mamluk porch, and perhaps most interesting, three illustrations of Muhammad. In the wake of recent international tension between Muslim communities and the West, the opening of the new galleries is being described as timely. The museum’s elegant tagline, “Islamic Art: Resplendent at the Louvre,” contrasts sharply with the “Death to America,” “Death to France,” and “Death to Britain” signs of protesters who gathered at the French Embassy in Iran this past Saturday to express outrage over the incendiary characterizations of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed in the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo as well as in the American YouTube trailer for Innocence of Muslims.
Much of the rhetoric surrounding the opening has been explicitly political. The new wing is intended to show “Islam with a capital I,” explained Sophie Makariou, the Head of the Louvre’s Department of Islamic Arts, at a recent press preview. “We are suffering from simplistic views of the Islamic world. [Some] would make us believe that there is just one Islam, which is just not true.” The French President François Hollande himself attended and spoke at the wing’s opening ceremony. “The best weapons for fighting fanaticism that claims to be coming from Islam are found in Islam itself,” he said. “What more beautiful message than that demonstrated here by these works.” Similarly, Prince Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia made this statement about the wing: “After 9/11 all Arabs and Muslims have the duty and the responsibility to tell the west about real Muslims, about real Islam, and how peaceful our religion is.” Yes, art’s symbolic power has the ability to talk, but so does France’s Muslim population, the largest in Eastern Europe, whose voices or opinions of the new wing have been notably absent from its news coverage.
While the Louvre’s newest addition is mostly being celebrated as a timely gesture of cultural affirmation by the West and the French government, who funded the majority of the wing’s $130 million dollar construction along with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal’s foundation, it has not been without criticism. In particular, many have found the title “Islamic Art” reductive. Considering the term in this instance is being employed to describe both art made in service of Islam as well as any secular art created in a place under Islamic rule over the course of 11 centuries and from five different countries, the accusation of cultural consolidation has merit.
The wing in its entirety is meant to depict “the radiant face of a civilization,” Louvre director Henri Loyrette stated. This type of comment, plus the exoticizing wall text found throughout the galleries, which describes the collection as the “Louvre’s Islamic Treasures” or a display of lapis jewelry as an example of “the riches of Syria” makes it unclear what Muslim world the museum thinks its new addition is talking about? Ultimately however, the construction of this wing is a very good thing. It makes accessible incredibly rare and important ancient art works to the Louvre’s eight million yearly visitors. But to conclude that the display of ancient—not contemporary—works of calligraphy, textiles, ceramics, and ornaments are in direct dialogue with current events and the current global and French Muslim community would be shallow indeed. — OF
Authenticity & Authorship
barthes may have declared the author dead over 40 years ago, but that notion has proven a bit radical for most of us. We still like the unity of a figure, an artist with a face and a biography. Emily Dickinson, whose life’s work of over 800 poems wasn’t discovered until after her death, seizes interest through her notoriously reclusive life as much as through her poetry. At the 2012 meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, a possible new daguerreotype of the poet—who, as every single Emily Dickinson fan has been pointing out for the past month, claimed in letters to have no portraits of herself—was revealed. Polly Longsworth, a Dickinson biographer, observed that “Dickinson may have surprised us once again. It’s that uncanny ability she had—there’s always something she hasn’t yet told us.” The “new” photograph is exciting because, dead long before the popularization of film, Dickinson had few opportunities to be photographed. There is only one authenticated portrait of her, and it’s a 16-year-old Emily looking small and ethereal, almost sickly. The newly-surfaced daguerreotype shows two women sitting beside each other, one (the maybe-Dickinson) with her arm gently around the other’s back. The Amherst College Archives notes that this woman seems “a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity,” and enthusiasts seem eager to assign this poise to the poet.
The actual process of authentication is a little vague. So far, Dr. Susan Pepin, an opthalmologist who “has long been interested in Dickinson’s eye problems” (namely an astigmatism in one eye) positively compared the eyes in the images, and a fabric sample that matches the blue checked dress in the photograph was found in the Emily Dickinson Museum’s textile collection. The other woman has been identified as Kate Turner—a close friend and rumored lover of Dickinson’s—based on other images. It’s unclear exactly how much more evidence is needed for the final confirmation, but the Amherst College Archives has put out a call for any information regarding the photograph.
This discovery and clue-finding process may be more climactic than the actual implications of an authentic photograph. Earlier this month at Columbia University, a manuscript by Claude McKay discovered three years ago was authenticated. The work was unearthed when a graduate student organizing materials in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library discovered the unpublished novel inside a bound cardboard cover bearing the title “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem” and McKay’s name. McKay was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the author of the first novel by a black American to become a best-seller (1928’s Home to Harlem). For the past three years, the graduate student and his advisor have rooted around in library archives across the country, gathering archival and circumstantial evidence to substantiate McKay’s authorship of the work. In addition to the appearance of themes, characters, and neologisms in the manuscript that recur in the writer’s other work, the vital discovery was in the correspondence between McKay and his friend, the writer and political activist Max Eastman. A letter from Eastman contains a direct quote from the novel. William J. Maxwell, the editor of Complete Poems: Claude McKay, called the authentication of the novel “scholarly gold.” The manuscript is back in the archival box it was found in—only now, it is catalogued. — CM