It's hard to understand. There has been no show in memory which features Islamic glass. Yes, Middle Eastern and Indian museums have Islamic glass galleries or groupings, but no Western show has ever been mounted on this topic. Reflecting this neglect, as well, is the fact that the major reference book on the material was published in Berlin in 1929.
But now, finally, Islamic glass has begun to receive the attention it deserves. The Corning Museum has mounted a show of 150 pieces, produced over a span of 13 centuries, from 600 to 1900 AD. "Glass of the Sultans" runs until Sept. 3, 2001, in Corning, N.Y., before moving to New York's Metropolitan Museum, Oct. 2, 2001-Jan. 13, 2002.
The Met is adding more than a dozen works from its own collection to the show, plus a selection of examples of European glass inspired by Islamic predecessors. Artists influenced by the Eastern glass include Emile Galle (1846-1904) and Philippe-Joseph Brocard (active around 1850).
The Romans were the first to develop the technique of glass- blowing in the first century B.C., and these delicately colored objects quickly became a trade object that traveled around the globe.
Archeological discoveries demonstrate how expertly Islamic glass artists built on the Roman example and became the new masters of the technique from the seventh century on. They invented glass staining in the eighth century and relief cutting in the ninth.
During the 12th to 15th centuries, Islamic glass artisans produced richly gilded and enameled glass. All of these techniques are brilliantly displayed in this exhibition. The objects range from tiny medallions and delicate cosmetic flasks to ornate vessels over 18 inches tall. They were lent by museums in Padua, Venice, Israel, Germany, Austria, Kuwait and Qatar.
Why has this material not been exhibited before?
The answer is, in part, a practical one: fragility of the glass. As one might imagine, transporting these objects from all corners of the world posed unusually difficult obstacles. One of the curators, for instance, was obliged to travel on shipboard to oversee the transport of a work from Kuwait.
All art lovers -- not only glass aficionados -- are encouraged to take advantage of this unusual exhibition. There may not be another like it in your lifetime.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.
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