Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

West Asia: Between Tradition and Modernity

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
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The end of the Ottoman empire unleashed a renaissance in literature and the arts. Traditional arts had suffered under ailing economies and the transfer of patronage from urban regional centers to the Ottoman court. By World War I, artists had turned to Western art as a representative form of modern expression. As a result, a new separation emerged between traditional art in all its forms and what came to be known as the fine art of easel painting. Traditional arts such as painting on glass and leather, woodwork, glassmaking, metalwork, textiles, and wall frescoes were considered naive and repetitive, relying less on intellect and more on archaic traditions. Painting on glass is one example of a dying tradition that ended with the passing of the last Syrian painter in this genre (Abou Subhi al-Tinawi, Muhammad cAli fi al-Sham).

New expressions emerged in regional art, Islamic art, and between art and poetry.


Cited Works of Art or Images (10)

  • Shakir Hassan Al Said: Objective Contemplations
  • Rafá al-Nasiri: Homage to Al Mutanabi
  • Madiha Umar, At the Concert
  • Jumana El-Husseini: Untitled
  • Abou  Subhi al Tinawi, Mouhamad Antwar wa Abla
  • Wasma'a Chorbachi , The Mystery of Supplication
  • Hashim al Khattat, Untitled
  • Milad al Shayeb,  Icon
  • Wijdan Ali, Karbala Series:Al-Hussein
  • Elias Zayyat, Last Supper


By mid-century, many of the countries in western Asia that were under European dominance gained their independence. These new nations claimed a renewed political as well as cultural identity. Iraqi artists joined poets and architects in advocating a modernity that embraced the rich and diverse local heritage. Reminiscent of Islamic civilization's success in creating a new culture that embraced and synthesized the diverse cultural characteristics of the societies it conquered, modern artists continued to select, reshape, and explore new ways to create contemporary art. They drew from an accumulation of sources: prehistoric, Mesopotamian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Persian, Coptic, and Indian. New expressions emerged in regional art, Islamic art, and between art and poetry.

Religious Art
Christian doctrine and the monastic way of life were first established in Syria and Egypt. In the early Christian era, Syrian artists were among the first to paint icons, illuminated manuscripts, and church murals. In the twentieth century, Christian art continued to flourish in Armenia, Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Sinai, Crete, the Balkans, and Asia Minor. Iconographers followed the canons of the Eastern Orthodox Church with variations in style that reflected the diverse cultures of the region. Twentieth-century Arab iconographers continued this traditional art, passed from one generation to the next (Milad al-Shayeb, Saint Panteleimon). Icons were sought after by pilgrims and tourists to the Holy Land and monasteries in the region. Several modern artists, inspired by this tradition, produced new interpretations that combined the religious and the secular (Elias Zayat, Last Supper).

Islamic Art
While manuscript and book arts such as illumination, miniatures, and bookbinding declined, Arabic writing known as khat (calligraphy) continued to flourish. Since Islam does not favor human-based imagery and limits its use to secular buildings and illuminated manuscripts, Arabic calligraphy continued to be used as the single most prominent element in religious architecture. Because Arabic is the revered language of the Qur'an, Arabic calligraphy, long considered a sacred art, was regarded as the visible embodiment of the divine word. Among the most popular forms of calligraphy were quotations from Qur'anic verses, the Traditions of the Prophet, and Arabic proverbs, as well as representations of God's attributes. The elasticity of Arabic writing permitted an infinite number of forms, allowing artists to explore traditional Islamic calligraphy by using contemporary styles and techniques. These modern calligraphers followed any one of the myriad of classical styles, and at the same time introduced new interpretations in composition and media (Hashim al-Khattat, Untitled). Aside from their aesthetic value, Arabic letters are imbued with meaning and symbolism; their abstracted forms gave Arab artists a means of asserting their heritage within prevailing Western artistic trends.

Twentieth-century artists have explored calligraphy and geometric forms within an Arab-Islamic cultural context, in the process creating a new artistic vocabulary for modern art. Basing their work on Islamic geometric art and mathematical values, some artists revitalized the traditions of harmony and symmetry (Kamal Boullata, Eppur si muove no. IX), while others mastered Islamic techniques of ceramics (Wasma'a Chorbachi, The Mystery of Supplication). The contemporary free-style of calligraphy first appeared in Iraq around 1950. In contrast to formal styles of Islamic calligraphy, artists rendered letters in a free and abstracted form (Madiha Umar, At the Concert). In 1971, a group of Iraqi artists exhibited works that deconstructed the Arabic letter, thereby giving it a new dimension, which sparked a discourse on the theoretical implications of the abstracted Arabic letter. Modern calligraphic artists also used a word or phrase to convey a direct message, or they created compositions from the shapes of Arabic words. Others incorporated indecipherable cursive writing within the body of the work to evoke the illusion of writing (Jumana El-Husseini, Untitled) or used the letter as a structural element (Wijdan Ali, Karbala Series: Hussein). Some have been inspired by the medieval Sufi practice of studying the numerical and symbolic value of Arabic letters (Shakir Hassan al-Said, Objective Contemplations).

Image and Word
With its rich symbolism and imagery, Arabic poetry has captivated generations of Arabs since the pre-Islamic era. Similar to classical calligraphy, Arabic poetry traditionally has been subject to rigid rules. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, the boundaries of poetry gave way to a freer verse. Today, poetry remains a potent and ever-popular form of expression.

Literature, particularly poetry, has had a long and productive relationship with the arts of the twentieth century. Arab artists inspired by poetry have produced diverse works—from fiber art to engraving—devoted to classical and popular Arabic poetry (Rafa Nasiri, Homage to al-Mutanabi). Many modern art critics have been poets and authors who formed close relationships with artists. Collaborations between artists and poets have produced books in which the fusion of image and word manifests an aesthetic synergism that is not meant to be an illustration but rather a transformation of two languages—the visual and the written. Other artists inspired by modern poetry have underscored its visual aesthetic while retaining its literary value (Etel Adnan, Allah).

Salwa Mikdadi
Independent Curator
Objective Contemplations, 1984
Shakir Hassan al-Said (Iraqi, 1925–2004)
Oil on board; 120 x 120 cm
Collection of Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris

Shakir Hassan al-Said was one of the most innovative and mystical of the Iraqi painters. He graduated from the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts in 1955 and continued his studies in Paris until 1959. Upon his return to Baghdad, he co-founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group. His influence is still evident in the work of emerging Iraqi artists. His extensive publications include works on Islamic civilization, al-Wasiti, the thirteenth-century Iraqi miniature painter; and the history of contemporary Iraqi art. From the 1970s, his work focused on the theoretical and philosophical dimension of the Arabic letter and what he called the One Dimension of metaphysical abstraction.

In this painting, traces of time are represented by weathered paint or cracks in the wall. The surface becomes a dimension for visual contemplation, with the use of abstract forms including the Arabic alphabet, numbers, and other Mesopotamian symbols. In these elemental lines, al-Said sees man's unity with God. The Arabic letter ba' is preceded by the numeral 8 (read in Arabic from right to left), which is the numerical equivalent for the letter ha', thus reading hub (love).

Homage to al-Mutanabi, 2001
Rafa Nasiri (Iraqi, born 1940)
Colored etching, tenth edition; 50 x 50 cm
Collection of the Artist

Rafa Nasiri is a painter and printmaker. From 1956 to 1969, he studied painting and graphic arts at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and the Gravura in Lisbon. Nasiri is considered the foremost graphic artist in Iraq. In 1997, he published a book entitled Contemporary Graphic Art which included a review of the development of graphic art in Iraq. He taught art at universities in Jordan and Bahrain and contributed to contemporary art practice in both countries. Chinese influence is evident in his abstract work, which emanates from nature where celestial and earthy tones converge at an infinite horizon. His engravings are distinguished by their irregular shapes; duality often emerges as a central theme through a mixture of print, calligraphy, and painting. Arabic characters and letters are primary elements in this abstract composition. In Homage to al-Mutanabi, the letter and brushstrokes take on a sculptural, physical, and dynamic quality beyond symbolism. The work is dedicated to the legendry tenth-century Iraqi poet Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad al-Mutanabbi.

At the Concert, 1948
Madiha Umar (Iraqi, born 1908)
Ink on white scratch board; 23.75 x 32.5 cm
Collection Hala Kittani

Madiha Umar was born in Aleppo to a Circassian father and a Syrian mother. She studied in Lebanon and Turkey before her family settled in Iraq. In 1933, she was one of the first women to receive a scholarship to study in Europe, where she graduated from Maria Grey Training College in England. She returned to Iraq to teach art at the Teachers Training College for Women, where she later became director of the Department of Arts. She spent the year 1937 in Paris and London visiting galleries and museums. In 1939, she married an Iraqi diplomat and accompanied him to his post in Washington, D.C., where she studied at George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art. In 1949, she had her first solo exhibition, in Washington, D.C., and in 1951 she exhibited her work at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Umar is considered among the first Arab artists to represent a new interpretation of Arabic calligraphy in abstract form, freeing the letter from its geometric and formal elements. Using only four letters—ayn, meem, yaa, and lam—Umar allowed the letter to emerge in a new form, underscoring its elasticity through abstraction and creating a modern language that renders the inherent qualities of the Arabic script.

Untitled, 1991
Jumana El-Husseini (Palestinian, born 1932)
Mixed media on canvas; 77 x 57 cm
Collection H.R.H. Princess Rajwa Ali

El-Husseini studied painting in Beirut and has devoted most of her career to painting images of her birthplace, Jerusalem. Her style evolved from realistic to geometric to abstract. From 1948, she maintained a long correspondence with her mother, which she continued on canvas after her mother's death. In this work, the script is intentionally illegible; it has the characteristics of the Arabic alphabet but on closer examination one can see that other ancient scripts are interwoven with wavelike drawings that reference informal Arabic script commonly used in letter writing. These drawings are interspersed with layers of acrylic, a compositional structure which El-Husseini refers to as an archaeology of childhood memories mingled with the history of Jerusalem.

Muhammad cAli fi al-Sham, 1926
Abou Subhi al-Tinawi (Syrian, 1883–1973)
Painting on glass; 37 x 75 cm
Collection of Mrs. Mouna Atassi

Abou Subhi al-Tinawi, also known as Muhammad Harb, was the most prominent Arab folk artist in the Syria. He learned the art of glass painting from his father, using the same traditional technique of fixing natural colors with gum arabic. The reverse ink drawings of traditional subjects—folklore, religious and historical themes—are painted with bright colors on a background of silver or gold paper. Tinawi painted many popular works based on the legendary tragic romance between the courageous warrior Antar and his love Abla, who embodied beauty and virtue. His glass paintings are sought by collectors and tourists, and much of what is now available on the market are imitations bearing the aritst's signature.

This work portrays the Ottoman governor of Egypt, Muhammad cAli (r. 1805–48), on a visit to Damascus. Considered the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad cAli conquered and ruled Syria for ten years.

The Mystery of Supplication, 2000–2003
Wasma'a Chorbachi (Iraqi, born Egypt, 1944)
Inscription (on tiles): There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God. All praise be to God. God the Great be praised; God; May his majesty be glorified; God is Great (Muslim prayer)
Collection of Wasmaa Khalid Chorbachi

Wasma'a Chorbachi received her doctorate in the history of Islamic art from Harvard University and has studied in Beirut and Florence. Her contemporary ceramic works are embedded in Islamic traditional art, not only because they are inscribed with Arabic calligraphic and Islamic religious phrases but also because they reflect that tradition's techniques and visual repertoire. This modular tile series was inspired by the Kiswa, the black cloth cover of the Kacba in Mecca. The geometry of tile shapes is based on the proportions of one to the square root of two to two for the side length of tiles. The mathematical simplicity of the modular system allows for an infinite variety of combinations, thus making it a powerful design system. Starting with the calligraphy, Chorbachi improvised the design, introducing vegetal arabesques, geometric patterns, and relief modulations, using a wide range of colors in multiple glaze firings. The words that initially dominate the tiles, "the mystery of supplication," gradually interlace with and are nearly subsumed by elements of vegetal and geometric forms. The words never completely disappear, however, for the mystery of supplication is manifested as the spiritual meaning that lingers in the mind of the perceiver.

Untitled, 1950
Hashim al-Khattat (Iraqi, 1917–1973)
Inscription: Sura 112 of the Quran
1370AH (1950)
Azzawi Art Collection, London

Hashim al-Khattat, one of the foremost calligraphers of the Arab world, was also one of the finest practitioners in the thuluth style. Born in Baghdad in 1917, Hashim Muhammad al-Baghdadi, known as al-Khattat (the calligrapher), studied calligraphy in Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey with prominent Islamic teachers, earning numerous diplomas and awards. In 1944, he attained a diploma with honor from the Royal Institute of Calligraphy in Cairo. He was a lecturer in Arabic calligraphy at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, where he later headed the Department of Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Decoration until his death. He published a textbook on the riqac style of calligraphy in 1946, and The Methods of Arabic Calligraphy in 1961. He supervised the printing of a special version of the Qur'an, which was published first in Baghdad in 1951, and later in Germany in 1966. His calligraphic works adorn numerous well-known mosques in Iraq. His calligraphy designs included Iraqi banknotes and coins for Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.

Saint Panteleimon, 1939
Milad al-Shayeb (Syrian, 1918–2000)
Oil on wood; 161 x 63 cm
Collection of the Church of the Sacred Cross, Damascus

Al-Shayeb first trained in painting under Syria's foremost art teacher, Tawfiq Tariq, before starting his career as an icon painter. He studied religious art in Greece and, on his return to Syria, was commissioned by the Church of the Sacred Cross to paint a series of icons, which he executed in the Greek style. He continued his studies in Moscow, where he spent seven years, graduating with a Master's degree in fine arts. He taught at the College of Fine Art at Damascus University and continued to paint and conserve icons.

Karbala Series: Hussein, 1993
Wijdan Ali (Jordanian, born Iraq, 1939)
Mixed media on paper; 61 x 90 cm
Collection of the British Museum, London

For Wijdan Ali, the calligraphic school of art in modern Arab painting is a form of artistic identity through which she is able to gratify her creative instincts and establish her individuality. She believes it to be a continuation of Islamic visual arts. Evolving from the art of traditional Arabic calligraphy, it has developed into its present-day form of expression, drawing on classical heritage while employing modern media and techniques. Wijdan wrote her doctoral dissertation on the subject, the first thesis on contemporary Islamic art to be accepted by the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London.

The holy city of Karbala in Iraq is the site of the seventh-century martyrdom of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. After inviting Husayn to assume their leadership, the people of Iraq were coopted by his rivals, the Umayyad, and turned against him. Knowing of their betrayal, Hussein chose to continue on his journey to Karbala because he had given his word to the people. After three torturously hot days in the city, Husayn was massacred with seventy-seven family members and followers. Karbala has since become the epitome of the greatest human tragedy in Arab/Islamic history. It stands for loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, right and wrong. Each era has had a Karbala, each people has escaped a Karbala, each person has mourned a Karbala: Palestine, the Holocaust, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq are a few among many. Wijdan chose Karbala as a subject for her calligraphic works because she fears a thousand more to come.

Last Supper, 1969
Elias Zayat (Syrian, born 1935)
Oil on canvas; 51.25 x 51.25 in. (130 x 130 cm)
Collection of the Artist

Elias Zayat belongs to the first generation of Syrian contemporary artists. Born in 1935, he studied in Damascus, Sofia, Cairo, and Budapest. From 1982 through 2000, Zayat was a professor in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Damascus. He is well known as a specialist in Christian icons and frescoes, and has lectured, written, and published essays in the history of art, art criticism, and iconography.

Zayat's work is influenced by Byzantine icon paintings and art of the early Christian church, and he has adapted the original techniques used by early Syrian icon painters. His iconography, centered on the economic and political plight of his people, encompasses the visual codes rooted in local folklore and legend. Human figures, horses, and birds are inserted into a flat compositional space, becoming vehicles for meditating on a complex conceptual universe. Although these symbols are derived from Zayat's studies of early iconic art, they represent the ancient culture and history of modern Syria.