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On Exhibit: Following a 'wandering path'

On Exhibit: Following a 'wandering path'

Examples of arabesque motif on exhibit at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown
On Exhibit: Following a 'wandering path'
Photographer: Courtesy Clark Art Institute

In photos -- Left: “Divan Japonais,” 1893, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (French 1864-1901), color lithograph, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Bequest of Louise H. Landau; Right: “La Depeche de Toulouse,” 1892, Maurice Denis (French 1870-1943), oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund

The latest exhibition to open at The Clark Art Institute traces the swirling, serpentine lines of arabesque through cultures, mediums and time. 

“Arabesque,” which opened last weekend, brings together works of art from the likes of Alphonse Mucha, Henri Mattise, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and many others, who all used the artistic device perhaps in innovative ways. 

“It’s an art-historical term used for this very distinctive design motif that is this sort of curvilinear form that winds around and it appears in many different forms but it tends to have a sort of wandering path. Its name would suggest origins in the Arab lands but it should be said that arabesque has an ancient heritage,” said curator Anne Leonard. 

It’s the first exhibition she’s curated at the Clark. She originally started working on it three years ago while she working at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. 

While the exhibition touches on the ancient heritage of the arabesque design, it mostly focuses on the 19th century, at which point the design motif went from the edges to the foreground of visual art. 

In one of the earliest examples in the exhibition, sweeping vegetation curls together around the border of an intricate etching that illustrates the fairy tale “Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty).” 

“It’s a tour de force of etching but you’ll see the text of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale is actually [written] in tiny script here in this little stone wall. So the illustrator is illustrating this tale which could only be read with a microscope or magnifying glass. This is the kind of imagery that sets up a new stature for arabesque in the 19th century,” Leonard said. 

Right across from the work is an entirely different world. The room echoes the architecture of Alhambra in Spain and feels more like a dimly-lit mosque than a gallery space. Since the exhibition is divided into several sections that reflect the origins and the styles of the works featured within them, the pieces in this room include a glowing mosque lamp, a tapestry and a mosque table designed by Carlo Bugatti. 

Each piece imitates a motif captured by Owen Jones, a British architect and writer who traveled to the Alhambra palace in the 1830s and illustrated the patterns and motifs that he saw. He published them in two works, “Alhambra” and “The Grammar of Ornament,” both of which helped to spread Islamic-inspired arabesques. 

That’s easy to see in the next section of the exhibition, which, while devoid of the hushed atmosphere of the mosque-like room, has curved, serpentine-like benches that add to the aesthetic and echo works like “La Dépêche de Toulouse.” 

The oil painting, created by artist Maurice Denis, features a woman in a flowing red floral dress reading a newspaper above a crowd. Her body is an arabesque, as are the pages of news that seem to be slipping out of her hands. 

In another work nearby, a woman’s hair fluidly intertwines with the smoke from her cigarette. The Alphonse Mucha lithograph is meant to advertise the Job cigarette rolling paper company, as its name indicates and it’s easily recognizable as a Mucha work just from the figure’s swirling hairstyle. It’s also an obvious example of how arabesque was being used in a new form at the turn of the 19th century.  

“It’s not that it’s an addition, it’s not that it’s a decorative appendage, it’s really the driving force behind these works of art,” Leonard said. 

The exhibition also explores how the arabesque was found in music and dance. In a series of black and white photographs by Harry Ellis, a blurred woman spins, with her dress unfurling around her. The figure is Loïe Fuller, a 19th-century dancer known for what she referred to as her “serpentine dance.” The Clark will host dancer Jody Sperling on March 1 who will perform a modern version of the dance.  

The exhibition ends with a vibrant Henri Matisse piece that points to how the arabesque form has influenced everything from home decor to music. 

In “Pianist and Checker Players,” arabesques seem to be on the floral-patterned carpet and the pink wallpaper. Two boys in striped shirts sit playing checkers while a

woman plays the piano. Behind them, there’s a sculpture of a curved figure, whose arm goes all the way to the edge of the composition. 

While it is slightly out of the 19th century time frame (Matisse painted it in 1924), the finale work reveals the continuation of the arabesque’s legacy. 

“I think what arabesque does over this period is [it] becomes a sort of emblem of not formal freedom, but also a kind of imaginative freedom,” Leonard said. 

That freedom is on full display in the intricate and at times joyous “Arabesque,” which will be on view at the Clark Art Institute through March 22. For more info visit clarkart.edu

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