The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Susan Killeen.
While showing guests through the Syrian Room at Shangri La, one of my joys is lighting up the low tea table (65.9) under the nineteenth-century Moroccan embroidered and appliqued textile in the smaller room. It’s as if the table waits patiently in the dimly lit space to perform for visitors when the light shines, and it never fails to elicit a chorus of oooos.
The table, or khwan, is a beauty from late nineteenth–early twentieth-century Iran, probably the Qajar period. When created, it very likely did not have the same legs, and may have had short ones to elevate it just slightly. Rather than a table, this ornate piece was most likely an elaborate tray or “trencher” as it might be called. One might imagine that it once carried an array of sweet and savory dishes to be shared with guests.
An excellent example of the artistic genius found in Islamic art, the table asserts the details of geometry, calligraphy, floral, and figurative imagery—a visual delight. The surface is a painted, gilded, and lacquered wood graced with scenes of princely life. Exquisitely featured medallions or cartouches depict several figures in a forest landscape with a variety of birds and wild animals. A number of leisurely figures interact while two youths demonstrate their prowess on horseback. The overall dimensions of the piece are 11 3/8 x 32 5/8 x 62 inches.
A narrow, floral border frames the central panel. Inscriptions of Persian poetry surround the edges of the table, beginning in the upper right hand corner and continuing around to the left. True to the artistic culture and custom of the period, the poetry (translated by former scholar-in-residence Wheeler Thackston) praises the table for its beauty and service:
habbaza khwane ki naqshash bas khwash u zebasti
O what a marvelous table, the design of which is so pleasing! How beautiful you are!
hamchu chihr-i dilbaran janbakhsh u ruhafzasti
Like the countenances of charmers, you are life-giving and spirit-increasing.
rashk-i naqsh-i Azar u Mani ki naqshash chun nigar
A design so beautiful it would make Azer and Mani jealous.
dilsitan u naghz u khwash u zebasti
Ravishing, comely, beautiful, good, and charming you are.
inchunin alhaq qarin-i khanda khwan u naqsh band
Thus truly a table and design coupled with laughter.
diljo-i bazm-i shahanshah-i jahan-arasti
You are a comfort at the banquet of a world-adorning king of kings.
For me, the fact that an otherwise utilitarian object would be so charmingly embellished speaks to the fact that the arts have the power to lift us up and enrich the function and beauty of the everyday items we use. The artisans of Islamic culture certainly appreciated this concept as a way of life.
About the Guest Author: Susan Killeen is a writer and producer, having worked in television and on educational documentaries. She served as executive director of the Hawaii Consortium for the Arts and as President of the Honolulu Pen Women. She has taught creative writing and has worked as an interpretive guide at Shangri La since 2011.
The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Stacy Pope.
As a tour guide at Shangri La, I feel lucky to spend so much time at such an exquisite place. The more I learn about the property and its vast collection of Islamic art, the more I love it—and that seems to be true for many of our visitors as well.
One of my favorite things at Shangri La is a colorful mosaic (48.93) located in the patio, or central courtyard. It is strikingly beautiful and grand, to be sure; it’s also a masterpiece of craftsmanship. But most of all, I enjoy observing visitors as I explain the inspiration for the mosaic’s design and the incredible amount of effort and skill its creation required. I watch as they gradually transform from passively appreciative to engaged, gathering around the mosaic’s gleaming façade for closer study and lingering even as we move toward the living room.
Handcrafted 75 years ago in Isfahan, Iran, the mosaic is young in comparison to many of Shangri La’s centuries-old works of art. The fact that it perfectly fits the patio’s protruding south wall—which is 11 feet wide and 20 feet tall—is no accident; Doris Duke and her husband, James Cromwell, commissioned the mosaic with this very spot in mind.
In 1938, as construction on Shangri La neared completion, the couple traveled through Iran (as well as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt) for artistic inspiration and to purchase pieces for their new home. In Isfahan, they were particularly impressed with the early-seventeenth-century structures framing Naqsh-e Jahan Square (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including several ornate palaces and the astounding Masjid-i Shah, or Shah Mosque. Archives at Shangri La and at Duke University contain Mr. Cromwell’s photographs and film footage documenting its intricately patterned portal panels. These panels, rich in floral and geometric designs and flanked by calligraphic cartouches, became the models for Shangri La’s patio mosaic design.
Work soon began on the Cromwells’ commission—but the process would be long and arduous. First, batches of stonepaste tiles were glazed in cobalt, turquoise, kelly green, mustard yellow, brown, brick red, white and black; then, each batch was fired individually, as each color demanded a unique firing temperature for maximum glaze brilliance.
Then the cutting of the tiles began. Mosaics are something like jigsaw puzzles, requiring many small pieces that fit together to make one larger image. The more complicated the design and color scheme, the more pieces it can take. The patio mosaic called for approximately 17,000 pieces—each cut by hand into tiny circles, asymmetrical squiggles, half moons and every other shape imaginable. When the cut tiles were complete, each had to be placed upside down into the pattern. Plaster was then poured, bonding the pieces together into one work of art.
Then the Cromwells faced the problem of getting the mosaic all the way from Iran to Hawai‘i—in the midst of World War II. In 1940 it finally arrived, having traveled eastward by ship to New York before backtracking to Honolulu.
The finished mosaic features vibrant floral arabesques, interlocking leafy vines and four cartouches containing Koranic inscriptions that honor Allah and praise the god-fearing mortal. At its crown, a cryptic geometric design encodes the repeating message “May it be blessed” in Kufic script. The entire work is framed in serpentine vines.
What an artistic achievement—and what magnificence the mosaic adds to Shangri La.
About the Guest Author: Raised just down the road from Shangri La, Stacy Pope has worked as an interpretive guide at the museum since 2011. She is also a published travel writer and magazine editor.
If anyone were curious about what the thermostatic mixing valve in the Playhouse is made of, who the Mughal Garden fountain spigots were purchased from, or what kind of wood Moroccan artisans used for the living room and foyer ceilings, chances are, we’ve got the answers (white metal-plated copper alloy, Novelty Foundry, and painted cedar, respectively). The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art is extremely fortunate to have such detailed information about the house and its collections—and we have the Shangri La managers and recordkeepers, from 1936 onward, to thank.
As an archivist, I’m very interested in recordkeeping. In fact, it’s my job to ensure that researchers can not only find information contained in records, but that they can also understand how and why those records were originally created and maintained.
It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite thing at Shangri La is an item from the archives. It’s a logbook kept from 1939 to 1944, and it records items received by and sent from Shangri La. The arrival of important collections items—the Syrian mother-of-pearl chests Doris Duke (1912–93) purchased from Asfar & Sarkis (65.46), the Persian tomb cover purchased from Hagop Kevorkian in 1940 (48.348), and the Spanish luster plates purchased from the William Randolph Hearst sales (e.g., 48.114)—are recorded here, along with the arrival of more utilitarian items like books, shoes, and three rubber raincoats for use on Doris Duke’s yacht. The departure of important objects, like the Guanyin statue shipped from Shangri La to Duke Farms in January 1941 to make room for the newly acquired Veramin mihrab (48.327), is recorded here as well.
Logbooks like this one (records such as these were kept intermittently through the 1980s) help us to understand an object’s provenance and acquisition. Historical photographs, dealer invoices and correspondence, and shipping and insurance receipts all offer partial information about how and when objects were purchased. The logbooks, because they confirm the receipt of objects and usually indicate the date and dealer or country of origin, are very important pieces of this puzzle.
What’s more, this particular logbook functions as a chronicle of the collection during a very important period of its development—the period following Doris Duke’s 1938 trip to the Middle East. Just about every two weeks, shipments of objects, textiles and furniture from dealers and galleries were received at Shangri La. Collections objects were almost as often leaving Shangri La, to be shipped to one of Doris Duke’s other properties, or to be sent out for repair, fumigation or other conservation treatment.
Since records of Doris Duke articulating her collecting objectives and vision are relatively scarce, we rely on evidence like this to figure out what she may have been thinking. For example, we can trace in archival and curatorial records how Duke’s needs and tastes as a collector changed over time—how she began by collecting practical objects that could be used at Shangri La, then became more discerning, developing concerted interests in Ilkhanid Persian tilework, Qajar Persian art, and late Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings, among other subjects.
Keeping good records is also a part of our responsibility as stewards of these objects—indeed, documenting collections is part of the American Association of Museums’ code of ethics. In short, the more information we can gather about the DDFIA collection, the better we can understand and care for them!
NOTE: This logbook will likely be displayed in the next exhibit case installation in Shangri La’s Damascus Room, the one area onsite where visitors can view such important archival items.
The following is a guest post by historic preservation intern Alison Chiu.
The field of historic preservation is full of unanticipated treasures!
I recently began the broad task of creating an inventory of Shangri La’s on-site and stored architectural elements. Working with Operations Manager Bill Miyaji, we began by diving into years of accumulated architectural storage in the basement. Amidst piles of bronze door hardware and long-abandoned projects of partially carved white marble, we stumbled upon many treasures including an unmarked black bag of trefoil-design ceramic picket tiles (the likes of which currently line the edge of bougainvillea and hibiscus beds at the central courtyard and along the swimming pool), as well as a 1938 Leonard thermostatic mixing valve, an operating device designed to mix water from two separate supply lines in order to provide a user-controlled shower temperature as desired. Our most exciting find, however, was a pile of dusty, old wooden block forms.
Ten large wooden pieces, measuring approximately 1 foot by 2-1/2 feet and 3 inches thick, were inconspicuously stacked upon a shelf along with a jumble of smaller wood pieces, almost resembling toys, piled on top. We were intrigued by the distinct sharp, curved lines of the larger items. As we looked more closely and began to lay a couple pieces out on the ground, it became apparent that we had found original formwork that was used to make the concrete crenellations that decorate the Playhouse roof! These wooden pieces date back to 1939 and are still in very good condition today.
In 1938, the Cromwells traveled to Isfahan, Iran, and brought back photographs of the Chihil Sutun, a pavilion built in the middle of the seventeenth century during the reign of Shah Abbas II. This pavilion served as an inspiration for the Playhouse. The façade of the Playhouse, which sits along a major visual axis of the site, depicts a series of elongated columns and intricately stenciled designs at the cornice and ceiling of the main portico and is mirrored in the clear blue reflection of the saltwater swimming pool. Historically, the Playhouse served as quarters for guests of the Cromwells, and as a recreation area for army and navy officers stationed in Hawai‘i during World War II.
Not only are the recently discovered formwork pieces interesting from an architectural and construction technology perspective (potentially providing information about historic practices in the concrete industry, as well as methods of ornamental concrete production and availability of local building materials), they are also indispensable tools that may prove useful if additional crenellations need to be made in the future.
That exciting moment of discovery, as well as contact with the tangible product of an experienced craftsperson, is always a humbling experience and one of the most rewarding aspects of being involved in historic preservation. We invite you to visit Shangri La and discover the beauty of art, landscape, and architecture yourself!
About the Guest Author: A recent graduate of the Master of Science program in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, Alison Chiu is currently working as a consultant to the Foundation (June-September, 2012). Following her 2011 summer internship at Shangri La, Chiu is currently developing a system to adequately record Shangri La’s intensive stewardship efforts through capital projects, building operations and grounds work for present and future staff and researchers. Her research and documentation include creation of a cyclical repair and maintenance plan for the site, as well as co-collaboration on institutional archives policy for Shangri La’s newly-created historic preservation materials library. While at Columbia University, she conducted research on historic wall drainage systems and will present an illustrated lecture on her graduate thesis work, The Evolution of the Weep-Hole, at the 2012 Association for Preservation Technology Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.
I’m pleased to announce that this is the first post in a series entitled A Few of Our Favorite Things, which is especially designed to give you an insider’s perspective on Shangri La and an in-depth look at the staff’s favorite objects within the collection.
I feel it only right to confess that I have a rather serious condition. Its name – Tulip Fever. I adore the Iznik floral tiles embedded in the walls of the Foyer! I love the Iznik dishes in the Syrian Room vitrines! And when I’m alone, I secretly lavish visual caresses on the Iznik pieces resting in the collection storage areas. Alas, this is the nature of my condition. And I’m hoping that by the end of this post, you’ll catch a mild case of it yourself…
I first discovered the glory of Iznik tiles while standing in the Foyer as a visitor to Shangri La (several years before I would become staff), surrounded by over 600 tiles. I was drawn to the jagged, serrated edges of the green saz leaves, the burnt red of the tulips and the tightness of the repeating arabesque design. And I recall distinctively thinking, as I looked at the tiles, “What are tulips doing in Islamic art?!”
As it turns out, the tulip, a flower I casually considered as no more than a candy-colored lollipop, has a much more colorful past than you might initially suspect. Indeed, the tulip has deep roots. To fully understand just how deeply they tangle in Iznik pottery and the greater human experience for that matter, we must first appreciate that flowers began flaunting their beauty long before we as a species were around to appreciate them. In fact, more than 100,000,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand years) the first flowers, members of the scientifc class of plants known as the Angiosperms, began stretching delicate petals to the sky, attracting all sorts of winged admirers.
It would be considerably later that they would attract their first two-legged admirers. Some 50,000 years ago on a summer day in Iraq, between the end of May and the beginning of July, a Neanderthal man was buried at Shanidar Cave on a bed of ramose branches and flowers. Surprised?! You’re not alone! The Shanidar Cave site is the first known documentation of a humanoid species deliberately “picking flowers,” let alone association with a death ritual (Leroi-Gourhan: 564). Clearly, flowers have long held a place of beauty and importance in our lives and those of our distant ancestors.
Shifting focus regionally to the mountains of Central Asia, we find that this is where scientists suspect the first wild tulips sprung up. Under human attention, the wild tulips’ colors diversified and intensified, and before long the tulip was on the move. From Central Asia, the tulip made its way to Turkey and then on to Europe, meeting with great adoration.The Ottoman sultan Ahmed III (1673-1736) famously loved tulips, hosting numerous lavish festivals and celebrations in honor of them. A period of time known as the “Tulip Era” (1718-1730) speaks to the craze that enveloped the Ottoman royal court, with elite members of society planting tulips throughout their gardens. Tulips first appear in Ottoman art in the 1540s and soon were proudly displayed on clothing, hanging textiles and yes, tiles! Here too the tulip became entwined with notions of nobility, privilege and royalty.
This flower wasn’t just for royalty though. In the 17th century, a whole country went mad for it! Between 1634 and 1637, tulips swept the Dutch into a mass frenzy that has become known as “tulip mania.” In the 1600s, the Dutch dominated many of the global maritime exchange and economic systems, pushing many merchants into the upper echelons of society. And what flower says “I’ve arrived” better than the tulip? Soon, gardens all over the Netherlands were filled with blooming tulips. At the height of “tulip mania,” one tulip sold for the equilvalent of an Amsterdam riverfront estate. To put this in contemporary terms, this is equivalent to a New York townhouse on 5th Avenue, on in monetary terms, 10 or 15 million dollars, for a single tulip bulb — how crazy is that?!
As with all good things, “tulip mania,” with its vastly overpriced bulbs, came to an end, or more of an economic meltdown, really. The Dutch passion for the tulip aesthetic had spurred one of the largest investment bubbles in history. Despite this sordid past, few nations today love the tulip more than the Netherlands. Growers, who grow billions of
bulbs a year for export, call thier passionate love for thier work “tulip fever.” I too have “tulip fever,” just as I suspect the sultans of the Ottoman empire and the potters of Iznik, Turkey did; and I think they would concur — it’s quite a lovley burn!
Now whenever I gaze at the Iznik tiles in Foyer, my mind drifts to the curious fact that flowers have attracted our ancestors for millennia and, despite time and distance, that a long-dead Ottoman Sultan and I might both adore red tulips! Today, Turkish potters continue to manufacture high-quality copies of long loved Iznik tiles. These new Iznik tiles are destined for a range of domestic and foreign markets (obviously I’m not the only one who likes staring at Iznik tiles!). So the next time you are taking in a piece of artwork you’ve never seen before, I encourage you to let your mind wander where it will. There’s no telling how deep the roots grow, until you dig!
For those interested in further exploring the above topics, I recommend reading Islamic Tiles by Venetia Porter (Interlink Publishing Group, 1995), The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Random House, 2002) and “The Flowers Found with Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Burial in Iraq” by Arlette Leroi-Gourhan in Science (1975). And please do feel free to post questions or comments regarding your favorite things in Shangri La’s collection!