x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Danish exhibition explores images of nature in Muslim art

Copenhagen has just launched a new museum quarter, the Parkmuseerne, and one of the opening exhibitions is Flora Islamica, 66 pieces that analyse how and why trees, plants and flowers were so prevalent and important in Muslim art.

Hens are concealed within a plant in this 16th-century Iranian painting. David Collection
Hens are concealed within a plant in this 16th-century Iranian painting. David Collection

At around the midway point in my tour of the David Collection, I have lost all sense of time and, to a certain extent, space. This is partly due to the museum's contents - a mesmerising array of Islamic art from several centuries and continents, in a very modern setting - but also its bewildering size.

An eager guide whisks me up and down staircases, along secretive passageways and through glass doors that swoosh open dramatically like something from the new Star Trek movie. The varied rooms seem almost endless.

"We boast a little bit, and I think it is actually true, that we are among the 10 most important Islamic collections in the western world," says the museum's director, Dr Kjeld von Folsach. "We normally say that the David Collection is the best-kept secret in Copenhagen; nobody really knows it. You think it is a little thing that is perhaps not that interesting, and then you suddenly see that it is actually a treasure house."

The David Collection's temporary exhibition, Flora Islamica, is helping to launch the Danish capital's new museum district. The Parkmuseerne is a collaboration among six institutions that surround the picturesque Rosenborg Castle Gardens, and "Flowers" is the theme for their launch events. The David Collection's contribution - which runs until October - offers a fascinating insight into the significance of floral themes in Islamic art.

The 66 exhibits are separated into eight categories, the most interesting of which are the Abstraction, Arabesque and Fantasy sections. These showcase the elaborate lengths to which Islamic artists went to represent the natural world while remaining faithful to the conviction that only the Prophet can fashion living things. It was a conflict that bred creativity.

"In harsh areas where water is scarce, shade, wonderful trees, flowers and water - it is so important," von Folsach says. "But instead of doing as we did in the west, going into naturalistic detail, they made these more idealistic pictures of nature, magnificent things like arabesques, or these fantastic flowers."

I perhaps linger longest over an item in the Abstraction section, a decorated panel from an Egyptian door from the 10th century. What look like leaves converge to form a bird that, when studied more closely, disappears. "I love that one," the director agrees. "You feel the artist is playing with you."

Von Folsach is particularly proud of the museum's huge collection of paintings, which can reveal much about the rigidity of an era. Also wilfully illusory is a splendid picture from 16th-century Iran, then ruled by the art enthusiast Shah Tahmasp. Thought to be the work of his favoured painter, Sultan Muhammad, it depicts several hens concealed within a fanciful plant, their tail feathers protruding from the leaves.

In 17th-century India, realism began to reign. The Mughal emperor Jahangir was renowned for his love of plants and animals, hence artists were happier to adopt a more naturalistic style, often influenced by European works. A painting of King David replete with a colourful floral border is "copied nearly directly from a Dutch print", von Folsach says.

Elsewhere, there are lotus-leaved Persian dishes, heavily influenced by Chinese imports, a limestone block featuring 13 intricate arabesque designs - used to stamp leather goods - and some intriguing paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. These feature glorious regal gardens with ominous ponds and rivers that appear to run black with oil; waters that "were once brilliantly silver coloured", von Folsach explains; the precious metal in the paint oxidised over the years.

Flora Islamica showcases only a fraction of the David Collection. The eponymous benefactor was CL David, a prominent lawyer and art enthusiast who lived in the museum's building until his death in 1960. The Islamic section has grown significantly since then, a conscious decision by its custodians to offer something unique to Scandinavia. From a 7th-century Quran sample to a 19th-century Kashmiri shawl, the exhibition, split into 20 geographical and historical areas, offers an enlightening overview of "a culture that for centuries was far superior to anything we could do", von Folsach says. "I think it's an important message."

The new Parkmuseerne should help spread the word, he hopes, because, as converted town houses, the museum is quite easy to miss. That explains why the collection feels so much bigger inside, and the maze-like quality "is a little bit deliberate", admits von Folsach. "Because we haven't got big rooms, we thought, 'why not create this bazaar-like, labyrinth-like mood?' which is really very typical of old Middle Eastern cities.

"If you go into the centre of old Marrakech, old Istanbul, old Damascus, this is the feeling you get," he says. "You get lost."

Flora Islamica is at the David Collection, Kronprinsessegade 30-32, Copenhagen, Denmark, until October 27. Entry is free. Visit www.davidmus.dk for details

artslife@thenational.ae

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