The Art of Oil

The fly whisk's handle is carved from jade, inlaid with gold and set with rubies and emeralds. An object used to swat flying pests speaks of the unpleasant realities of life in a superheated clime, but during the Mughal period in India even the most mundane objects were richly ornamented and transformed into spectacular artworks. After all, the Mughal emperors, who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th century, were the same people who brought us the Taj Mahal.

On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, "Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals" has been made possible by your SUV. Our insatiable desire for fossil fuels created the legendary wealth of the Gulf States, and this exhibition spotlights the al-Sabah collection of Mughal objects, assembled by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait's ruling Al-Sabah family. The spectacular jewels that bear "witness to the vast wealth of the legendary Mughal emperors of India" seem like apt objects for Sheikh Nasser to collect with his own vast wealth. Kuwait has more than 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, and during the oil boom of the 1970s even middle-class Kuwaiti homes had marble driveways with fleets of luxury cars. Try to extrapolate the ruling family's wealth from that and the mind quickly boggles. Or look at it this way: When Kuwait's thriving stock market collapsed in 1982, the government established an emergency fund to bail out those "small" investors, whose individual loses were less than $6.8 million. (Too bad Enron wasn't based in Kuwait.)

Adding a frisson of intrigue to the collection, the objects were absconded with in 1990 by the invading Iraqi army, which apparently arrived in Kuwait with detailed shopping lists. Most of the jewels were returned to Kuwait as part of a cease-fire agreement, but several large stones disappeared without a trace, including a fantastic 233.5-carat emerald carved with fluidly swaying trees. Saddam Hussein may be wearing it in his navel as we speak, but it's more likely that the massive stone was cut down into smaller, less identifiable segments for sale. The objects on view have been acquired by Sheikh Nasser over the past 11 years in a selective post-Desert Storm shopping spree.

Given current events and rumors of a springtime invasion of Iraq (apparently the season for desert warfare), the timing of the exhibition is interesting. The show, which opened at the British Gulf War ally of London's British Museum, is hitting four U.S. venues. The Kuwaitis have seized upon the exhibition as an opportunity to call attention to their situation. At the VIP opening, text on a video informed guests that that more than 1,000 Kuwaiti martyrs are still in the prisons of the "tyrant from the north." (No fly whisk needed if you guessed Saddam.) The evening's exclusive guest list and entertainment were Kuwait-centric, with representatives of the Indian community noticeably missing from the preview of Indian jewels.

There are behind-the-scenes stories and politics associated with every major exhibition, but the ultimate focus of a review should be the material being presented to the viewing pubic. And here that material is jaw-dropping for its sheer quantity of precious metals and stones, let alone the display of exquisite craftsmanship. A 17th-century gold finger ring features a jeweled bird that rotates and bobs. Massive chunks of emerald form the hilt of a 16th-century dagger.

An 18th-century shield is created from a sheet of silver that has been gilded, elaborately enameled and decorated with patterns of flowers of Kundan-set rubies, emeralds and diamonds. In Kundan work, hyperpurified gold foil is pressed together in layers that molecularly bond to cover a surface or surround a gem. At the shield's center is a face of vibrant emeralds radiating ruby flames. The ears and nose are of rubies, and the forehead and chin are decorated with brilliant white diamonds. The entire design is outlined by the flowing lines of the gold cloisons that hold the gems and contain the enamels.

A 17th-century curved turban ornament translates the insouciant swoosh of a feather into a stunning construction of emeralds and diamonds. With phenomenal craftsmanship and overwhelming attention to detail, even the backs of many pieces are decoratively enameled and engraved. The reverse of a 17th-century pendant with an oval ruby and dangling emerald is carefully enameled with a pattern of green leaves and white flowers that rivals the jeweled magnificence of the facade.

What's missing from the exhibition and the accompanying catalog is cultural context. The overly detailed technical information about Mughal jewelry construction techniques is of limited interest to the average viewer, although jewelry specialists will be in ecstasy. The objects are spectacular in and of themselves, but what you really want to know is what kind of a culture created them? What economic and cultural climate set the stage for such glorious excess? What was the lifestyle of the ruling elite who wore and used these objects? The companion exhibition, "Imperial Portraits from the Mughal Courts," presents images of elegantly garbed people in lush surroundings, but the modicum of visual information leaves you wanting more.

History, of course, is always the history of the elite. There is something universally cyclical about watching today's elite collect the art objects of the elite of yore. History's manual laborers and even the artisans who created these fabulous objects are generally left out of the equation. People toiling in the fields and living in mud huts don't leave a lot behind in the way of written records, objects and architecture. The voices of those who produce are usually lost, but this exhibition provides scant information even about those who consume. Instead the focus is on the connoisseurship of the objects themselves.

The MFA provides its own opportunities for consumption. The exhibition-specific gift shop, as always strategically placed at the show's exit, features a fairly standard array of Indian tchotchkes but is dramatically contrasted by a display of jewelry specially made by the heirs to a Jaipur jewelry-maker's dynasty. They make for some pretty cool souvenirs, but with price tags soaring to $48,500, it would help if you were Kuwaiti.

Leaving the exhibition, you have to hope that Kuwait's oil reserves hold out and Sheikh Nasser keeps hitting Sotheby's. Oil wealth and art aren't a bad combination -- just look at the spectacular holdings of the abundantly endowed Getty Museum.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer