Although this history and geography created a variety of styles, the exhibition makes clear that a few characteristics dominate Islamic art. The most important stems from the prohibition of the use of images of humans and other living creatures in the decoration of mosques and religious books and objects. As [Tim Stanley] puts it, this prohibition, a strict interpretation of the Koran's ban on idolatry, "has made Islamic artists more creative." As a result, nonfigurative decoration dominates Islamic art. The artists relied mainly on two kinds of patterns. The first featured entwined tendrils, vines and other vegetation; we now call these "arabesques." The second pattern displayed an array of fanciful geometric forms. These patterns are repeated relentlessly in much of Islamic art until finally broken, often by a dash of calligraphy quoting verses from the Koran. The continual repetition is so soothing that it encourages an onlooker to linger and meditate.
Islamic artists did not work in isolation. The Islamic countries traded with Europe, Africa and Asia for centuries, and there was a lively exchange of products and techniques. The sophisticated Islamic technique of adding luster or a metal sheen to ceramics, for example, was highly prized elsewhere. The exhibition includes a large, 15th century luster bowl with the striking image of a Portuguese sailing ship. Made by an Arab workshop in the Spanish city of Malaga, the bowl was probably commissioned by a Portuguese merchant. After 1496, when the Spanish Christians conquered Malaga, the luster ware industry shifted to Valencia in Christian Spain and eventually to Venice in Italy.
The venerable Victoria & Albert is a crowded museum with galleries that often seem cramped and cluttered. But the National Gallery of Art's superlative design team led by Mark Leithauser placed the pieces of the exhibition in spacious and subdued rooms surrounded by high cutouts that resemble the turrets of an Islamic palace. "It's been a revelation to me," Mark A. Jones, director of the Victoria & Albert, said after looking at the show in Washington. "The objects look far more wonderful than I have ever seen them before." Far less clutter has been promised when the Islamic rooms at the Victoria & Albert are renovated, and the touring exhibition returns in 2006 after its stops in Washington, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo, and the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield, England.