A tour de France of Islamic art

David Tresilian , Tuesday 29 Mar 2022

An intriguing new initiative is raising European awareness of Islamic art by organising exhibitions across provincial France, writes David Tresilian

Islamic Art

While images from the world’s major collections of Islamic art are widely available on the Internet thanks to digitisation projects carried out by museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in order to see the objects themselves it has usually been necessary to visit these and other institutions, with all the trouble and expense that this entails.

Many people may not be able to do so, however much they might wish to see Islamic art objects for themselves. Instead, they have to rely on two-dimensional images taken by others that may not give a clear sense of the scale, materials, or workmanship of the objects concerned and that can only ever be a second-best substitute for seeing the pieces themselves.

Perhaps it was with such people in mind that a new initiative has been organising exhibitions of Islamic art at museums and other institutions in 18 towns and cities across France, enabling visitors who may not have the time or inclination to go to Paris or other cities to come face to face with museum-quality Islamic artefacts in their own backyards.

Organised by various French government ministries in association with the Louvre and other museums, the initiative has identified objects from Paris and other collections that includes all the traditional categories of Islamic art, among them ceramics, glassware, metalwork, calligraphy, illustrated manuscripts, architectural elements, and other materials produced across the Arab and Islamic world between the Middle Ages and the 19th and 20th centuries.

They have been divided into mini-exhibitions and sent out across the country to occupy temporary exhibition spaces in museums and other institutions from Narbonne in the south of France to Tourcoing on the Belgian border and from Nancy in the east of the country to Nantes on the Atlantic coast. Smaller towns and cities have been chosen as priority locations, perhaps because their inhabitants might ordinarily have fewer opportunities to see exhibitions of Islamic art.

The idea behind the initiative is to “give everyone the opportunity to see the beauty that Islamic civilisation has given to the world,” President of the Louvre Laurence des Cars explains in material accompanying the exhibitions. For Yannick Lintz, curator of Islamic art at the Louvre, in choosing the objects to be exhibited in the exhibitions the idea has not necessarily been only to select masterpieces. Local museums or other collections in France often possess Islamic art objects, and the idea has been to build on these while complementing them with materials from the Louvre.

The initiative aims to “stimulate new interest… and curiosity towards the cultures of our neighbours that have engaged in exchange with us since time immemorial in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East,” she said. “The idea of mounting 18 exhibitions in 18 locations at the same time is to give 18 opportunities to young people, families, even people who never ordinarily go to exhibitions the opportunity to see objects that could be considered as ‘cultural ambassadors’… acting to reflect ideas of beauty, luxury, decoration, and other cultural usages in societies stretching between Europe and China.”

While Al-Ahram Weekly was not able to visit all 18 exhibitions, half a dozen or so seemed practicable on a shortlist that was later whittled down to four. This seemed enough to gain a sense of how it was being received on the ground.

The first stop on what soon became a kind of mini tour de France of Islamic art was in Saint-Denis north of Paris where the Musée Paul Eluard had been selected to host one of the exhibitions. Perhaps best-known today for the giant football stadium that dominates the southern reaches of the town and fills the space between Saint-Denis proper, now a suburb of Paris, and the northern city districts, the town historically has been better known for its 13th-century basilica in whose crypt are buried many of the former kings of France.

The basilica has recently been restored, and the building as a whole, freshly scrubbed and with its mediaeval façade gleaming in the winter sunlight, looked much happier than it did only a few years ago. The area around it, also extensively renovated, was giving off friendly vibes, with attractive café and restaurant terraces reaching out to visitors and green spaces and children’s play areas providing relaxation for local families. The Musée Paul Eluard is just a stone’s throw from here in one of the town’s older districts.

Rebuilt as a convent in the 18th century and on one occasion hosting a daughter of the king of France, the building that now houses the museum suffered various indignities. But it was converted into a museum of local art and history in the 1970s and sensitively restored, with exhibition spaces on the first floor in particular still bearing witness to the building’s original vocation and various religious injunctions designed to encourage the nuns still painted on its walls.

The museum is named after French poet Paul Eluard, a native of Saint Denis and one of the town’s most distinguished sons. A communist throughout his life, Eluard was much invested in political and social causes, often in association with other members of the French surrealist movement. There is an exhibition of his books and manuscripts on the museum’s upper floors.

Meanwhile, the Islamic art exhibition is housed in the ground-floor temporary exhibition space. Darkened to allow the projection of an accompanying film showing some of the places from which the objects come, entering it feels like crossing a threshold from the northern French collections in the rest of the museum to a space holding objects that have travelled a great deal further.

They include a 19th-century Persian painting, pages from a 16th-century Indian copy of the Quran, a 15th-century key to the Kaaba in Mecca made in Egypt during the rule of Mameluke sultan Faraj ibn Barquq, and 17th, 18th, and 19th-century Indian, Ottoman, and Persian decorative items, including a dagger, a gorgeously decorated jug, and a gold-encrusted jade bowl once in the collection of French king Louis XIV.


NORTH AND WEST: A feature of most French towns and cities, and all those above a certain size, is a municipal art museum that acts as an urban landmark, anchoring the main commercial and business districts along with other fixtures like the local railway station, town hall, main post office, and administrative buildings.

Often built in grandiose 19th-century style with a vast entrance hall and facades encrusted with portrait busts designed to proclaim that century’s belief in the civilising power of art, these buildings, probably better kept up than similar provincial museums elsewhere in Europe, also often house remarkable collections that in other countries might well be whisked off to more prestigious institutions.

Often one walks into such municipal museums and discovers works by major artists, perhaps confiscated during the French Revolution from local aristocrats or religious orders and presented to the new public collection or collected by some local businessman or other worthy and made over to the local museum after his death, perhaps in lieu of taxes but more likely as an expression of civic pride.

However, the Islamic art initiative has generally not selected such institutions to host its exhibitions, and so arriving in the northern French city of Rouen, the Weekly followed the map not to the city’s 19th-century municipal art museum that characteristically dominates a major square, but instead to a smaller museum of ceramics housed in an 18th-century townhouse that has been converted to display a collection of china made in the region and elsewhere.

The exhibition of Islamic art is on the top floor of this museum, accessible through galleries full of 18th and 19th-century ceramics bearing witness to the region’s once-thriving industry that apparently rivalled more famous centres in the French cities of Limoges and Sèvres. It includes a range of mostly Egyptian items, including 13th and 14th-century bronze basins inlaid with silver and decorated with courtly and hunting scenes in which Mameluke emirs invited to magnificent banquets can be imagined as once dipping their hands. There are also various manuscripts and glass bowls.

The Mameluke basins found their way into local French collections at the beginning of the last century, while other items, among them 17th-century decorated tiles from Iran and a 19th-century manuscript of prayers from Ottoman Algeria, have been lent by the Louvre.

Not so far away from Rouen as the crow flies, but very different in terms of scale, the town of Mantes-la-Jolie was the Weekly’s next stop on the tour de France of Islamic art. The destination was another smaller municipal collection that had been chosen to host the exhibition.

Rouen is perhaps far enough from Paris to escape its orbit, though as all readers of the 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary will know, it is not far enough for its pull not to be felt, particularly among younger people sensitive to the glamour of the capital exerting its influence from beyond the Normandy fields. Mantes-la-Jolie, on the other hand, nearer to Paris, is very definitely within the capital’s orbit and is now best known as a dormitory town.

Even so, arriving in Mantes one morning on a commuter train from Paris, one got the sense of a self-contained and characterful town with its own style or even swagger. The train line from Paris follows the Seine River for much of the way – Mantes, like Rouen, is built on the Seine – and from the windows passengers can watch landscape made famous by the French Impressionist painters at the end of the 19th century flitting by.

This was mostly untouched by industry when painters such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and others produced their idyllic pictures, whereas today the local landmarks include the Renault car factory at Flins, one of the French constructor’s largest facilities in Europe, and the abandoned electric power station at Porcheville, its twin towers, now cold and silent, towering up against the sky.

Mantes itself, like much of Rouen, was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in the final months of World War II, yet fortunately not only has it been sensitively reconstructed, but many of its heritage buildings were spared, among them the 13th-century Church of Notre Dame de Mantes, built on the scale of a medium-sized cathedral, and, next to it, the former Hotel-Dieu, a kind of mediaeval hospital, within which the local museum is located.  

Much of the permanent collection of this museum, sensitively but nevertheless spectacularly implanted within the walls of the mediaeval building using a kind of second skin, is given over to an exhibition of paintings by local artist Maximilien Luce, a neo-Impressionist painter who worked in a variety of styles. This in itself was a revelation.

Upstairs in the museum’s temporary exhibition space the Islamic art exhibition had found a home, with this including objects such as a 10th-century tombstone from Mecca, an 18th-century Algerian foundation stone, decorative items from 11th and 17th-century Iran, and a 16th-century ornamented iron helmet, made in Germany to the specifications of Ottoman grand vizier Sinan Pasha, but for one reason or another never delivered.


ATLANTIC COAST: The last stop on the Weekly’s tour of Islamic art was the port city of Nantes on the French Atlantic coast. Once again, the organisers had chosen a smaller venue for the exhibition, this time within a set of converted mediaeval buildings.

Nantes, formerly a major port drawing for much of its prosperity on the neighbouring shipbuilding centre of Saint Nazaire, has been an economic success story in recent years, with various service industries taking up the slack left by de-industrialisation and national and multinational companies choosing the city as their centre of operations.

Arriving in the city on a sunny winter afternoon, it was not difficult to see why, with the city’s high standard of living and remarkable green credentials – bicycles and pedestrian areas everywhere – very much in evidence. While Nantes has the kind of castle that often features in illustrated children’s books, with a moat and impressively fortified walls, as well as the inevitable 19th-century museum of art, the Islamic art exhibition was housed in the Passage Saint Croix, an exhibition space and cultural centre.

Two rooms of this leading off an attractive central courtyard had been reserved for the exhibition, which featured martial objects like an 18th-century Ottoman ceremonial sword and a 19th-century Iranian decorated shield, an exquisite 18th-century Ottoman coffee set, and a 14th-century Egyptian copy of the Quran.

While the Weekly’s tour of Islamic art exhibitions revealed some unevenness, all of them had been beautifully installed. Ample information and further links were given to objects of a quality rarely seen in provincial museums in any country, their more usually being cloistered up in larger national institutions in capital cities. There was the added bonus of being able to explore the permanent exhibitions at the various host institutions, often making real discoveries.

In the best and most striking cases, the Islamic objects were being used as the core for locally generated activities including lecture series, guided visits, school projects, and curatorial talks on aspects of Islamic art, the objects in the exhibition, their provenance and acquisition history, and relations between the Arab and Islamic world and France.

Inevitably, some institutions seemed better off in this and other regards than others, with the affluent city of Nantes with its famously active civil society and residents’ associations making particularly striking use of the opportunities provided by this national project to raise awareness of Islamic art. In Mantes-la-Jolie and perhaps particularly Saint-Denis, funding for such activities may not be so forthcoming, and more work may be needed to grow an audience for some of the activities in relation to Islamic art.

What stood out from this exercise and from the Weekly’s tour de France of Islamic art was the laudable desire to find new ways to reach out to audiences that because of geographical location or other reasons may not ordinarily visit Islamic art displays in public or other collections. This was underlined by a determination to set the museums in the centre of their communities, seeing them as places for debate and exchange as well as for the informed contemplation of the art and other production of the past.

Even for national museums of the size and scale of the Louvre it can be difficult to organise meaningful outreach to all sectors of society, particularly when other priorities can easily supervene, in the Louvre’s case the need to preserve the institution as a focus of international tourism and a curatorial and research centre in its own right.

What can be done at local and provincial museums, however, particularly when the funding and other conditions are right, is to engage people who might not otherwise want to join the several million others who routinely visit national museums, giving them quieter and more intimate opportunities to engage with and learn more about the history and variety of Islamic art.

Arts de l’Islam, un passé pour un présent, 18 locations across France until 27 March.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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