Figurative Art in Medieval Islam: And the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (1465-1535)

Michael Barry, Author, Stuart Cary Welch, Introduction by Flammarion-Pere Castor $95 (408p) ISBN 978-2-08-030421-6
The illuminated manuscripts of Kamaluddin Bihzad, a court painter to the early Safavid Dynasty, are revelations of color and form. His figures, rendered with fluid lines, are marvelously expressive, his backgrounds crowded with undulating trees or stunning architectural patterns. The eye is unsure where to alight, until it comes upon a central figure-a turbaned Joseph kneeling on a delicately patterned rug, or a horseman flinching as his mount transfigures into a seven-headed demon. Western scholars of Islamic art have been aware of Bihzad's gifts for some time, but most have dismissively categorized his work as illustrative. However, Barry contends Bihzad's paintings are of an intensely religious quality, despite the Islamic injunction against images. Barry's arguments are convincing, his erudition is impressive, and his book is stuffed with delightful reproductions. But his prose can be repetitive, and his organizational choices can confuse the reader. Why, for example, does Barry discuss the history of ""Orientalist"" scholarship and Bihzad's influence on Matisse before reporting Bihzad was born around ""1465, died in 1535, and was a native of the Central Asian kingdom of Herat, an oasis in what is now northwestern Afghanistan""? In all, the book is a detailed introduction to an unsung genius, but it may be too detailed and circuitous for the casual reader.
Reviewed on: 05/16/2005
Release date: 05/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
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