Louvre Opens New Department Of Islamic Art

Islamic art
The Louvre in Paris is opening a new Department of Islamic Art that will have one of the best such collections in the world.

One treasure is this ivory pyxis of Prince Al-Mugẖīra, shown here in a photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons. It was made in 968 at Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Spain. Note that there are human figures on it. While many Islamic traditions forbid the depiction of people and animals, others such as the Moors of Spain, the Moghuls of India, the Persians of Iran, and the Ottomans of Turkey all had a long tradition of human portraiture.

This is just one of the many insights visitors will gain now that a refurbished and expanded wing of the museum has opened its doors with more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Department of Islamic Art will exhibit nearly 3,000 works, whose origins range from Spain to India and date from the 8th to the 19th century. The total collection numbers some 18,000 works from the Louvre’s collections and some on long-term loan from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

The recent furor over the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in an anti-Islamic movie has overlooked the fact that some Islamic traditions do create portraits of Mohammed, as this page from the University of Bergen makes clear. Of course these are positive portrayals, but they show that the Islamic world is not monolithic in its ideas of what can and cannot be shown. The Louvre did not state whether they have any such images on display.

Centre Pompidou-Metz Recreates Artistic Life Of World War I

Centre Pompidou-Metz, World War OneIn the first of a series of events to commemorate the upcoming centennial of World War I, the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France is hosting “1917,” an exhibition of artistic life during that bloody conflict.

While millions were dying on the battlefield, the arts were flourishing in Europe. Much of it was centered on, or a reaction to, the most terrible war the world had yet seen. A large portion of the exhibit is devoted to trench art made by soldiers at the front line. Some drew sketches of their lives; others did creative things with the detritus of war, like the goblets made from artillery shells shown here.

Works from artists on the home front are exhibited too. The star attraction is Pablo Picasso’s largest work, the giant painted theater curtain he made for Parade, a ballet directed by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. This impressive work is more than 30 feet long and is rarely displayed due to its size.

In all, “1917” gives us a snapshot into a crucial year in the development of modern art. The show runs until September 24.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Video: Bones And Art In The Paris Catacombs

You’ve probably seen videos or photos of the famous Paris Catacombs, with their miles of ossuaries holding the bones of some six million Parisians. The catacombs were created in the 18th century from existing underground quarries, and these quarries, tunnels, and other mysterious underground spaces create a network under Paris measuring more than 180 miles. It’s truly a city under the city, with its own secret life.

This video, created by some intrepid urban explorers, shows parts of the Paris Catacombs you won’t see on the official tour: rooms filled with graffiti and giant murals, even a large stone model of a castle. Despite their reputation as burial places, the tunnels and rooms beneath Paris seem to have a lot of life in them.

The Parisians who make these works of art, called cataphiles, also sponsor underground parties, meetings, even a cinema. To learn more about these interesting folks, check out this article.

Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of Spain’s Basque region

Spain, BasqueOne downside to being an immigrant is that you have to learn a whole new set of politics and social divisions. Since moving to Madrid six years ago, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Spain’s Basque region. Everyone has an opinion about it but most haven’t actually been there.

I’ve recently returned from six days hiking in the Basque region with a group of Americans and two Basque guides. One guide, Josu, got elected mayor of his local group of villages on the night of our farewell dinner. This photo shows him at the moment a friend called with the news. In case you can’t guess, he’s the guy in the middle with the ecstatic look on his face. I think I detect a bit of surprise and relief too.

As is typical of locals showing around foreigners, our guides wanted to show us the best their region had to offer and leave us with a good impression of Basque culture. That wouldn’t have worked with a Spanish tour group, by which I mean a group of Spaniards from other parts of Spain. Any mention of Basque culture, the Basque country, or the Basque language will often elicit a variety of reactions ranging from dismissive grunts to angry lectures.

The Basque people have a distinct identity yet have never had their own nation. At times they’ve been oppressed, most recently from 1936, the start of the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s fascists bombed the Basque region, through Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975. Basques often say they suffered the most under the dictatorship. Many Catalans say they suffered the most. I’ve heard Castilians say everyone suffered equally. I have no idea who’s right and to be honest I don’t care. The bastard has been dead for 36 years. Time to move on. To keep the ghost of Franco hovering over Spanish politics is to grant him a power he shouldn’t have had in the first place.Spain’s regions enjoy a great deal of autonomy, but the central government is trying to hold them back from full independence. The Basque independence movement is the oldest and loudest. This perfectly legitimate expression of nationalism has been soured by ETA, a terrorist group that has killed more than 800 people and has set off numerous bombs in nonmilitary targets such as airports.

ETA today looks like an anachronism. The military dictatorship is long gone. It’s legal to speak Basque or Catalan, and in fact they are official languages in those regions. Nobody is being tortured for waving a nationalist flag. These things happened under Franco but they are not happening now. I’ve been to Palestine. I’ve been to Kurdistan. I know what oppression looks like, and I’m sorry if this offends the many Basques who’ve been nice to me over the years but the Basques are not an oppressed people.

It’s not even clear the majority want independence. I’ve asked several Basques the question, “If there was a referendum tomorrow, would the Basques vote for independence?” All of them said no. Our guide Christina said no, adding she herself wouldn’t vote for it. Our other guide Josu, who’s a member of the separatist Bildu party, replied, “Tomorrow? No. People need to learn why they should want independence.”

The central government in Madrid is helping with that. Its fumbling of the economy, stalemate political fighting, and widespread corruption and incompetence are enough to give anyone thoughts of secession. Having lived in six different countries, however, I’m not sure replacing one group of greedy politicians with another group of greedy politicians who happen to speak the local language is going to solve anything.

The one thing that must change here in my new country is that ETA needs to go. A group that sets off bombs in tourist destinations has no place in a democracy and too many people make apologies for them. I asked one Basque man what he thought of the ETA’s 2006 bombing of Madrid’s Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorians. This occurred after ETA had called a ceasefire. His response was to say, “The ceasefire had been going on for nine months with no political progress.”

Well, OK, I can see how that would be frustrating, but why does the answer have to be a bomb? Why not call a general strike, or block the highways with tractors like the French farmers do? Nonviolent direct action. The airport bombing seems to have been intended to derail the peace process rather than encourage it. Like other terrorist groups, ETA thrives on conflict. If it accomplished its goals it would lose its reason for existence.

And that’s why ETA remains a threat to everyone in Spain–tourists, Spaniards, immigrants like me, and the Basques themselves. As one Basque woman told me, “I know people who had to leave the Basque country because of threats from ETA. If they ask for a revolutionary tax and you don’t pay, that’s it, they kidnap you.”

Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Visitors come to experience both its present and past. Its sunny beaches and formidable castles. Its lively cuisine and Renaissance art. But if all Spanish citizens–whether they call themselves Spanish, Basque, or Catalan–can’t stop pointing fingers and get over their collective past, tourists won’t have a Spain to visit.

One member of our group emailed Josu after the election.

“You were kind enough to translate a motto that I wanted in Basque for a Makil walking stick that I am having made: “Makil zuzena egia erakusten du.” (The straight stick points true.). That’s not a bad political motto to use. Read that every Monday before you start your week. That is why you ran for office.”

Sounds like good advice for all politicians in Spain, whether they call themselves Spanish or not.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own. Especially this post.