A group of students was standing in front of the Mark Rothko painting taking notes as the museum guide talked about the artist’s life and his inspirations. I would have walked past the crowd had the curator not suddenly dropped one phrase, “As we all know, minimalism in art was invented in the West.” I was admiring Rothko’s use of vermilion red, an intense hue that made me think of Indian kumkum (the crimson powder Hindu women use to draw a mark on their foreheads) and Russian lacquers, when the West claimed Minimalism.
Leaving aside the absurdity of referring to Rothko as a “minimalist”–a label he would have rejected outright, it’s senseless to separate artistic achievements by arbitrary parameters. To see why, one should leave the halls devoted to 20th century art and walk through, say, the expositions usually housed in the Eastern wings. If the museum in question is the Met in New York, then the Department of Islamic Art is where I would take you.
We will walk with nary a glance at the lacy Mughal stone screens and the gilded albums decorated by Ottomans calligraphers–we can return to admire them later–and stop in front of one of my favorite objects in the museum. It’s a white bowl with a black border. The glaze is translucent and the few cracks on its smooth surface only enhance the whiteness of the earthenware. The decoration is as simple as it can be–letters, forming into words.
The bowl comes from Nishapur, a city in northeastern Iran. In the 10th century when a craftsman decorated it, Nishapur was one of the largest cities in the world, numbering around 1.7 million people. Elsewhere, the Chinese were inventing playing cards. The Umayyads at Cordoba Spain declared themselves emirs and set about creating a splendid court to make their archrivals, the Abbasids, envious. In Baghdad, Ibn al-Nadim compiled Kitab al-Fihrist, “an index of the books of all nations, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, which are extant in the Arabic language and script, on every branch of knowledge.” Kyivan Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to his land and ordered the old Slavic gods to be thrown into the Dnieper. The Europeans switched to Arabic numerals. Meanwhile, the artisan in Nishapur threw a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel.
We admire the way the letters frame the edge of the bowl and the striking combination of white and black. It is, I dare say, quite minimalist in its bold shape and design. I won’t proceed to argue that minimalism is an Eastern concept, mostly because I don’t find such divisions interesting, especially when it comes to abstract concepts. People devise artistic solutions in a variety of ways, from the visually complex–the Belgian medieval tapestries–to the strikingly simple–the austere beauty of the wooden sculptures from the same era.
Moreover, people traveled and ideas spread. The East vs West division might be useful to the political propagandists and their epigones, but life, fortunately, is much less neatly ordered. Hokusai, the master behind one of the most renowned images in art, the Great Wave off Kanagawa, was inspired by the European paintings that reached Japan with the opening of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century. In turn, his Great Wave swept over European Art Nouveau and sent ripples through Impressionism and Cubism. Its flotsam continues to surface as the Great Wave decorates mugs and mousepads. Who invented what in that case?
Instead of looking for simple answers, let us once again turn to the white Nishapuri bowl. The reason why the popularity of Nishapur’s wares didn’t last beyond the Middle Ages is that in the 13th century Genghis Han ordered the slaughter of the whole city as a punishment for the murder of his daughter’s husband. The pottery and poetry–the famous Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din known as the Attar (Perfumer) of Nishapur wrote his best work in this cosmopolitan city–were no more. But when the artisan was making our bowl, Nishapur was in its golden age and concerns were more pragmatic. The description on the rim reads,”Planning before work protects you from regret.” It then goes on to wish “good luck and well-being.”
Photography by Bois de Jasmin. The white Nishapuri bowl, an example of the Samanid pottery style, is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 450