Laura U. Marks
life from classical Islamic art to new media art, via 17th-century Holland
The nonfigurative patterns of Islamic art have an algorithmic liveliness
that prefigures artificial life. The implicit life and movement of abstraction
attracted Western artists to Islamic images. These patterns were incorporated
into a solidly figurative art form, the Dutch genre painting, as early
as the 17th century. I contend that the Islamic influence on 17th-century
Dutch art was one of the first bursts of algorithmic, non-figurative expression
that slowly led European art to abandon figuration, and in turn to release
the living, performative qualities of computer-based art. Indeed, carpets
and painting have proto-qualities of artificial life, even though their
movement occurs not in software but in the mind of the beholder.
Trade between Venice and the Near East began in the Middle Ages, with
silk damask and other fabrics from Levantine weavers, objects from Egyptian
metalworkers, and carpets from Turkey and Iran reaching European clients.
By the 17th century, textile trade from the Orient to Europe was well
established. Both Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings began to
feature carpets and other imports from Islamic countries in religious
painting, then in secular portraiture and genre painting. At some point,
these luxury objects from the Orient began not only to signify wealth
but also to inspire style. This may have been as early as 16th-C Italian
painting; but it certainly was the case that in 17th C Dutch genre painting,
the Islamic carpets featured in these works became a force of abstraction.
This force injects Dutch painting, injecting them with sensuous, haptic,
material, intellectual, and properly performative meanings. As Islamic
carpets become sources of aesthetic inspiration for European art, abstraction
fights to the surface of these paintings. My central example will be Thomas
Keyser’s Portrait of Constantijn Huyghens (1627), a work that relies
on Islamic abstraction, in a prominently featured carpet, to express its
subject’s mental activity.
Islamic abstraction, dependent as it is on Islamic aesthetic values of
aniconism, latency, and performativity (as I will argue), thus influenced
the European turn toward abstraction before 19th-C forays into abstraction,
and well before the rise of artificial life in computer-based media, which
strikingly reiterate the principles of Islamic algorithmic abstraction.