Catch Arabesque at the Clark before March 22

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA
Closes March 22
[Click on any image for large view]

If you know the slightest thing about ballet, you will recognize the term arabesque. It refers to a common pose in which a dancer stands on point on one leg with the opposite leg stretched out behind her in a horizontal plane. It is often the case that when a word comes into common use for whatever reason, we cease to think about its origins. In this instance, though, is it is obvious that it derives from “Arab.”

Arabesque is not solely a dance term. In the broader art world, it also applies to design, graphics, painting, carving and many other expressions. That which is arabesque is marked by curving, lacy, and interlocking lines–often based upon vegetation–that draw upon our senses. As design, it also comes to the West via Islamic societies. Depending upon the context, representations of humans or animals can be construed as idolatry, which is why many Muslim calligraphers and painters avoided them. Instead Islamic artists featured geometric shapes, repeated patterns, and impressions drawn from the non-animal natural realm.

A soon-to-close show at the Clark Art Institute shows how the arabesque affected Western design.It’s a small exhibit, but one that demonstrates the power of cultural diffusion. Few Western artists shared objections to representing humans or animals, but they were certainly inspired by the twisting, sinuous forms of the arabesque. “Inspired” is the correct word. In Muslim societies the arabesque showed up in mosques and on pages of the Qur’an; in the West, it was more likely to be a floor tile or wallpaper pattern! Sculptors, illustrators, china manufacturers, potters, and poster artists were among those who found it irresistible, especially during its heyday in the 19th and early 20th century. 

Little Briar Rose
Battle of Lenore
Fairy tales lent themselves to mood-enhancing illustrations. Eugen Napoleon Neureuther’s 1836 etching for “Little Brian Rose” is an example of this. If that tale doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because you know it is its expurgated and Disneyfied form as “Sleeping Beauty.” You’d need the accompanying text; Neureuther was so enamored with detail that it’s hard to find Little Briar Rose amidst all the foliage and Gothic tracery. Coincidentally, his “The Battle of Lenore” etching of Lenore heaved over her lover’s grave as his ghost materializes sometimes gets conflated with the Scottish folktale of Tamlin. (Fairport Convention’s 1969 telling of it in song was a redefining moment in folk rock music. Just for fun, click on the link

I never saw Neureuther’s designs in my childhood books, but I certainly visually devoured illustrations from Walter Crane (1845-1915), who was such a giant among children’s book illustrators that his work is still used. His engraving for the story of “Prince Charming” is perhaps a familiar example. Paul Elie Ranson’s 1890 take on doomed lovers “Abélard and Héloïse” still surfaces in books as well. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-96) had a short but influential career, but t’is a rare staging of Salome that does not at least give him a wink and a nod. 

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable use of the arabesque is in the form known as Art Nouveau. Poster designers loved its knots, twists, and snaking lines. The Czech graphic designer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) created theatrical works on paper that have become such staples of popular culture that people today recognize the images even if they couldn’t come up with the name of the artist. His “La Plume” is a mash of the Pre-Raphaelite–the romanticized faintly medieval female figure–and the arabesque: her swirling hair and the riot of foliage, stars, zodiac signs, and playful lines.

One inclusion at the Clark first gave me pause. It is Henri Matisse’s 1924 painting Pianist and Checker Players. At first, I thought it a force-fit, but the more I contemplated it, the more it seemed an inspired choice. Its flatness and skewed perspective are classic Matisse, but what we really want to gaze upon in this case is everything except the three figures. Matisse shows us how deeply the arabesque insinuated itself into bourgeois French society. Today we might be tempted to call the room over-decorated, if not garish. Note the oversized floral wallpaper, the diamond-shaped floor covering, and the even bolder wool rug that sits upon it. A corkscrewing sculpture sits upon a dotted base on a nearby dresser. Everything in this room clashes in hue, shape, and pattern, yet everything in it bespeaks the prosperity of its owners and their cultivated taste. 

 I love shows that make me think and see differently. Arabesque certainly fits the bill. But hurry if you want to see it; Arabesque closes on March 22.

Rob Weir

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