More than 200 pieces were assembled from 40 collections — not including LACMA and the Met — and many of them are timelessly breathtaking in their formal beauty and craftsmanship. The wealth of illuminated manuscript pages alone — many of them from the Jami’ al-tavarikh, an encyclopedic history of the world including both Old Testament stories (Samson and Jonah are particularly dynamic) and Iranian dynastic folklore re-populated with Mongol-featured figures in distinctly Chinese landscapes — is an absorbing show in itself. Pictures aside, the calligraphy is exquisite — particularly the pages from the now-dispersed Anonymous Baghdad Koran. Textiles, which probably played the major role as viral messengers between the far-flung regions of the empire, are represented by dozens of examples of elaborately patterned silks woven with gold-wrapped thread — including a substantial series of coral-and-deep-red panels with a gold twin-rooster medallion pattern, designed to decorate the interior of a royal Mongol tent. Ceramics include lustrous fritware vessels and glittering ornamental tile work, often colored with gorgeous time-smeared turquoise pigment — my favorites being the two too-poignant Frieze Tiles From Natanz, with their borders of paired birds methodically decapitated by later hard-line iconoclasts.
My deepest impression, though, came from the metalwork — particularly the various vessels made of brass, and intricately inlaid with silver and gold. There are numerous eye-boggling examples, including a pen case with an astrological motif, a number of enormous candlesticks, a bucket signed by the artist Muhammed Shah al-Shirazi, and a gigantic fluted basin. The inlay is impossibly fine and alternates between figural and decorative. There’s one serious problem: While the surviving filigree is clear from a normal point of view, it leaps to life if the viewer crouches down to catch the reflected overhead lighting. If any artworks currently on view in L.A. deserve to be prostrated before, it’s these dazzling testimonials to art’s ability to absorb, adapt and transcend whatever governmental retardation with which it is currently, temporarily burdened.
THE LEGACY OF GENGHIS KHAN: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353 | LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000 | Through July 27