“Arabesque” at The Clark, Williamstown, MA; through March 22.
This modestly chic, none too didactic show suggests the gradual assimilation of Arabic and Arab-influenced Islamic design elements, especially the nature-derived arabesque, into European art through the course of the 19th century. Mostly prints, the gathered material also includes drawings, paintings, photographs and a few objets, drawn mainly but not exclusively from the Clark’s holdings. The trajectory moves from ornamental flourish to the edge of expressive abstraction implicated in the fluidity of the curvilinear per se, climatic in Art Nouveau. Taken nearly for granted in the concerted formalist approach is the hovering cultural backdrop of increasing French and British (mainly, among other European) interaction with Ottoman and other societies in the Middle East.
Starting with the earliest work: late 18th – century Rococo compositions centralizing figure groups with decorative borders of Roman vegetial stock underlying Islamic styles that bring in indigenous eastern regional forms and spiritual intentions. By then, Chinoiserie and “Turkish” tropes were in vogue in Europe. Contoured arcs are given distinctive play in several exquisitely delicate allegorical prints (c. 1800) by Philipp Otto Runge (see German Romanticism) featuring cherubic babies amidst billowy beanstalk-like botany in celestial settings.
The underlying mathematics of much Arab design is conveyed in jewel-hued studies of architectural details of the Alhambra by British designer, Owen Jones. These are displayed in a constructed room with a horseshoe-arch portal to add a relevant real architectural element; glass, fabric, and furniture selections are also included here. Several other British artists in the orbit of the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are represented primarily by densely intertwined rhythmic foliage motifs, among them a charming ink drawing by Walter Crane in which you can follow the hand of the emerging image. At the other design end of such lacy intricacy, the wavy-gravy geometry of Henri van de Velde, Art Nouveau progenitor, on the title pages of a 1908 edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. (Van de Velde’s interest in Nietzsche, who extolled primal, communal arts in many of his writings, was not incidental.)
Other faves: Aubrey Beardsley’s sinuously sinister illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which never get old; ditto the fetching, tentacle-haired women of Alphonse Mucha in two large color litho advertisements and several well-known images of lithe dancers by Toulouse-Lautrec, which, together with an ink-brush-like print image of an animated tiger by Paul Ranson, bring japonisme into the formal focus; an elegantly writing female personification in a large painting by Maurice Denis (borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts); and an intimate Matisse interior with apropos curlicue-laden wallpaper, reminding of his forthright Moroccan inspirations.