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Art-history detective: examining the art of Islam.

In libraries and collection rooms around the world, you might catch a glimpse of Karin Ruehrdanz scrutinizing miniature paintings and manuscripts. An art historian specializing in Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, she joined the ROM in January. Already, she is deep into studies of the relationship between text and image in hopes of reaching her ultimate goal: to establish an understanding of style and how it relates to specific periods in classical and later Islamic art from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

For some 25 years, Karin has taught Islamic art and archaeology at the universities of Halle, Weimar, Bamberg, and Philadelphia. The East German native first became intrigued with the Orient as a youngster reading about archaeological excavations. Today she does most of her own excavating in libraries, although she also spent a year in Tashkent viewing Central Asian Islamic architecture in situ.

It is only recently that she began to focus on analyzing images for what they can reveal about a text. "You can read from the illustration cycle how people understood the same text over the centuries," she notes. How the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings--the most important poetic Persian text, written around 1000 CE--was interpreted, for example, sheds light on what was important to society at the time. "It makes you wonder what was happening in the 14th century that they liked this text so much." In the following centuries, the text was illustrated in many different ways and later, whole chapters, especially the ones on Sasanian history, were neglected by painters in favour of the mythological and legendary aspects. But even during the same time periods and in the same places, styles of illustrating manuscripts differed. Karin is tracing the larger meanings behind these details, building on the findings that there were distinct styles in the Iranian cities of Herat and Tabriz as well as a completely commercial style.

Part of her work is understanding the intellectual history behind objects, examining questions such as why other empires were so interested in the Persian Book of Kings. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Persian language was shared in India and Turkey. To be recognized as cultured and accepted you had to be educated in Persian, she says. In India it was the court language and in central Asia, poets wrote in Persian.

The idea of intellectual history has strong roots in Islam. After all, it was following the dictum of the Prophet Mohammed to "Show me things as they are" that the Islamic countries were the first to come up with the idea of amassing knowledge and explaining things in encyclopedias. It was these Arabic texts that inspired the Europeans to find the lost Greek and Latin writings on the natural world, another of Karin's interests. One of the oldest Persian illustrated manuscripts on the topic resides at McGill, and she plans to visit Montreal to examine it next year. She is also researching Central Asian painting at the David Collection in Copenhagen. Working on the ROM's Islamic art collection and cataloguing its manuscripts and miniatures is her first ROM project.

"I like to understand objects as testimonies of cultural history," says Karin. She tries to discover how an individual art object can elucidate spiritual history, searching for connections between her own findings and the research in literary and philosophical history and in religious texts in order to create a complete picture of the time. Karin's delight in this pursuit of Islamic understanding is clearly evident: "I still wonder that I'm paid to handle these wonderful pieces of history."
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Title Annotation:Curator Profile
Author:Ruehrdanz, Karin
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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