Arabesques finds inspiration in a springing line at the Clark Art Institute (By the Way)

I remember the Alhambra. The stone walls were worn to a warm sandy gold. Roses were blooming in the gardens and water running in stone channels. The palace of the Nasrid sultans in Granada is more than 700 years old, and I remember the detail. The ceilings rose in scallops, one tier after another until you lost them in the shadows. The walls were patterned stories high in tiles and carved eight-pointed stars, flowering vines and gemoetric shapes — and words. But I didn’t know that then, and I couldn’t read them.
On a winter day, a bright 3-degree day in January, I saw them again at the Clark Art Institute. Owen Jones drew them in a notebook close on 200 years ago.
He was a Welsh architect, and in the 1830s he traveled to Cairo and Constantinople, and then to Granada with a friend. The palace rooms were all but empty then, and the gardens were overgrown. He drew the walls in careful detail. His drawings would help to translate the artwork here for the people in his own country, with varying consequences, and the Clark’s new winter show invites me to think about them.
Arabesques is Anne Leonard’s first show as curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Clark, and it has taken three years to put together. She began it researching in Chicago with a team of scholars and brought it here with her.
When she talks about arabesque, she means a curving line that feels to her as though it moves freely across the page. It’s an ancient form, she said, in Islamic art and in the Arab world before Islam, in Classical art.
She is focusing here on the 19th century in Europe. Following that line, she finds a movement between the Impressionists painting landscapes in the fields and the Modernists’ slick industrial surfaces.
When the show first opened, she led a tour for the press. She came to study this movement, she explained to us, because the relationship between art and music draws her in, and this movement runs through both. A melodic line that moves and flows in Debussy or Ravel draws from the same source as a woman turning in a lithe a swirl of skirts in a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Maurice Denis.
They found inspiration in Arab calligraphy and, in the patterns artists like Owens recorded in Arab art and architecture, weaving and textiles, illuminated books.
Leonard traces that influence here in subtle forms. She sees it in vines and petals, or in the line of an outflung arm.

In a finely engraved scene, Max Klinger changes the ending of the classical story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, letting them meet by the river and hold each other. Green stems frame the scene. Eugen Neurether’s inkwash Ballad of Lenore reminds me of the sinewy trees and twilight in Arthur Rackham or the night sky and trailing leaves in Kay Nielsen.
And that rippling energy is compelling and beautiful. But I kept thinking.
I’d had a glimpse of the source of it in the fall. I had the chance to take an informal workshop in Arab calligraphy at Williams College. (I’m an alum, and I’m auditing an Arabic 101 course, out of plain curiosity.) It’s an artform centuries old. We learned about 14 different scripts or more, each one finely measured and controlled to create a sweep of curve and a momentum from one letter into the next.
So here, as I felt the rush of Maurice Denis’ woman leaping with a newspaper, I wondered … What were artists painting then in Cairo or Damascus or Tehran?
Did they ever meet artists like the ones in this show on equal terms? Did they ever talk together? And what did the story look like from their point of view?
So today I walked into the Clark’s library to ask.
I knew they were connected. From Owen Jones to Toulouse-Lautrec, the British were a colonial invading power in Egypt, and the French were in North Africa. Political, economic and religious currents could move people in painful ways — this field is vast, and I only understand glimpses of it.
But I wanted to know what was happening day to day, in coffee houses and studios. What I’m finding so far comes in fragments, but they’re telling me that artists like Denis and Klinger didn’t have to ride on horseback to southern Spain to come in contact with Arab art or Arab thought — if they wanted to, they could read journals and talk with writers and artists around the corner.
People traveled in both directions. Arab writers and scholars were studying in Europe, taking notes and writing books. In the 1860s, Mirza Malkum, a writer and diplomat, studied in Paris and ran an Arabic journal, Qanun, in London. (A qanun is a stringed instrument, like a harp or a dulcimer, with a high, sweet tone.)
There were Arab intellectuals traveling in Europe, reading French, English and German, and holding conversations at home.
In Syria, the poet and journalist Maryana Marrash was hosting gatherings of artists and writers and musicians. Her brother Abdullah lived in Paris and London and published a bilingual Arabic-French journal there …
The artists in this show at the Clark likely did not know Arabic, Leonard says. When I came back this morning to wander through the slow slowly and absorb it at my own pace, I wanderd into a tour she was giving to a group of students.
When Jones printed his patterns in a book, they appeared out of context, she was explaining. Artists who saw the patterns there would not necessarily know the cultures they came from, or the backgrounds. They might feel the beauty of the letters and not know how to read the words.
The show raises clear questions about contact between cultures and addresses some of them on its own walls, and it invites me to think farther.
What does it mean when one culture inspires another, or borrows from another, or takes from another?
To admire another culture, to explore the world beyond what you know, to learn from art and music and poetry — that feels beautful, and deeply needed. It lets one human touch another.
But to take something from someone else that is deeply meaningful to them, without permission and without understanding it — that feels dangerous, because it’s the opposite. It takes someone’s humanity away.
The Clark calls out to me to think about that distinction. And it has given me some resources to think with.
In the library there I found a book called al-Nur. I can read that word now, in simple calligraphy and I know what it means. It means light.
It comes from an exhibit at the Dalas Museum of Art that I would also love to have seen.
Here is a Persian miniature, a man kneeling under a flowering tree at night. Here are pages illuminated and bordered with flowers, and a real leaf layered in gold so that the veins show a delicate tracery, and letters sweep across it in script.
In Shiraz in 1855, Muhammad Davari was painting and illuminating his own Shahnama, an epic Persian poem a thousand years old. His painting of a man leaving his horse in the shadow of a wall to climb in the moonlight reminds me of Lenore weeping at night with the hills behind her, and the image moves out of the central square, flowing into the text.
I know that there’s a vast amount I don’t know about these movements of art and history. But I would like to think all the same that if someone like Muhammad Davari and someone like Max Klinger could have met at a café table in either of their cities, over a cup of black coffee and cardamom, they could have talked about light and shadow, and joyful movement, and making old stories new.

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