Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Hybrids in Art – George Manginis

I would like to thank Spyros Mercouris for his kind invitation to participate in this international symposium. I am particularly honoured to address such a distinguished audience this morning among important fellow participants.

My lecture will outline a few examples of 'hybridisation' and will propose a few of the ways in which their study can help us move towards more cosmopolitan narratives for our shared past. Let me begin by defining what a “hybrid” is. According to the dictionary, 'it is something of mixed origin or composition, such as a word whose elements are derived from different languages.' An example of a linguistic hybrid is the word 'television' deriving from the Greek adverb ….for “far off” and the Latin noun visio for “vision,” “seeing.” Identifying art historical hybrids is somehow harder since boundaries are blurred. Nevertheless, certain areas during certain periods developed particular ways of producing and consuming material culture. A careful examination of the historical and archaeological record allows scholar to define individual ways of making and using things. However, even in prehistory these ways were not confined to their birthplace and through the movement of people, goods and ideas they travelled long distances in remarkably short time. Various theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. Convergence, diffusion or acculturation are possible means by which cultures engaged in creative exchange.

However, my focus is not on how these exchanges happened. I aim to explore how their most enigmatic and fascinating products, art hybrids, can help us approach the complexities of the past and can inform our ways of looking at the present. But before I venture into particular examples, I would like to discuss the ways in which hybrids have been examined by the art historical discipline over the past one hundred years.

During the late 19th century the history of art was recognised as a distinct discipline within the humanities. It had three foundations: the study of classical culture in Greece and Rome, both seen as the cradles of western civilization, the art criticism of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (German, 1717 – 1768), and the aesthetics of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (German, 1770 – 1831). Unsurprisingly, pioneer late-19th century art historians taught in German-speaking Central European universities – for example the Swiss “father” of modern art history, Heinrich Wölfflin (1864 – 1945).

At the same time, the history of non-western art was emerging, evolving from the distinct philological tradition of Oriental studies which focused more on languages and texts. The nature of these texts were less rigorous or philosophically-based than in the classical tradition as most were religious, historical, poetic and literary in content. The era of colonialist empires and world capitalism between the 1870s and the outbreak of World War I witnessed a surge of archaeological discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, China and even sub-Saharan Africa. These newly-discovered ancient civilisations as well as the still-living cultures of Islam, India and China (to name but the greatest) differed significantly from the classical tradition, which was seen as the ancestor of the seemingly omnipotent West. They were alien, étrangers, Ausländer.

The availability of this exotic material coincided with the youthful vigour of the newly-emancipated art historical discipline and germinated a generation of scholars in the early 20th century who combined linguistic proficiency, epistemological rigour and the ability to command in depth the (still knowable) material record of immense regions. The possibility to generalise, although inevitably inviting simplification, allowed inclusive approaches which accommodated broad-reaching interpretations and captured the diversity of the most fascinating cultural phenomena of the past. It would be unfair to group the scholarly output of this generation under the sobriquet of “Orientalism” (in the sense introduced by the literature critic Edward Said in 1978), although most of the these scholars called themselves “Orientalists.” Of course they were haughty Western academics, often adopting patronising attitudes towards people in the lands they explored (or, to use one of their favourite terms, “discovered”).

However, at the same time they were well versed in the cultures, ancient and contemporary, of these lands; they were immersed in several of their language, spoken and dead; and most importantly, they had travelled on foot, camelback and horseback between the Mediterranean and Central Asia or between Central Asia and the Far East. These lengthy travels allowed them to acquire a remarkably wide perspective and comprehensive knowledge.

This broad vision made them uniquely suitable to interpret artistic hybrids. We can only imagine the frisson experiences by the Czech Alois Musil (1868 – 1944) when in 1898 he “discovered” the early 8th century frescoes of Qusayr 'Amra in the Jordanian desert. Figures of scantily clad females cavorted around pools, crowned emperors identified by Greek and Arabic inscriptions paid their respects to a seated caliph and camels danced to the tunes of guitar played by a bear. The visual language of this enigmatic bathhouse fused Roman, Byzantine, Sassanid and Arab expressions into a heady cultural mixture. And no survey of this mixture, manifested in other Umayyad (7th - 8th century) monuments as well, has surpassed Ernst Herzfeld's (German, 1879- 1948) bold analyses from the following decades. Herzfeld's syncretic articulations described the cultural amalgamation that gave birth to the hybrids of Early Islamic art.

After World War II art history moved towards specialisation, shunning earlier, generalist scholarship and focusing on study areas increasingly isolated within ever-fragmented sub-disciplines. By the early 21st century, our knowledge has expanded through the discovery of new materials as well as through the questioning and revisiting of established readings.

However, this scholarly explosion and the concurrent focus on ever-smaller groups of material and shrinking geographic areas had deprived scholars of the opportunity to stray outside their comfort zones into the liminal regions and wide expanses by pioneers like Musil and Herzfeld. Museum stores an archaeological sites abound in enigmas left unexamined or under the shady cover of dated arguments which remain unquestioned because they are reassuring or convenient. Although this unadventurous attitude has allowed for the expansion of the material record, it has also obfuscated its complexities.

This new orientation has not solely been connected to the questions and aspirations of scholars. Just as the generalist agenda of early 20th century Orientalists coincided with colonialist narratives of Western powers, post-World War II region-specific studies satisfied the aspirations of modern states to construct identity narratives that uphold the uniqueness and ultimately the superiority of their individual cultures. National archaeological schools emerged, examining “national” cultures which were projected as far back into the past as possible. The cosmopolitan empires of the past, beloved by scholars of the colonialist era, were not easily accommodated by these schools. An interesting example is the relevant atrophy of Roman archaeology in Greece until very recently, especially when compared with the efflorescence of the discipline in ethnically Greek Cyprus. The difference can be explained if the genealogies of Greek and Cypriot archaeology are correlated; the former stemming from a 19thcentury nation-building effort, the latter from a British imperialist tradition.

The antidote to such scholarly and ultimately political isolationism can only be the focus on cosmopolitan narratives, stressing encounters and exchanges between cultures. And no category of the material record claims a more cosmopolitan genome than hybrids, works of art that transcend art historical essentialism, combine elements of various cultural horizons and defy categorisation. Twenty-first century scholars, equipped with deeper understanding, advanced theoretical arsenals and refined vocabularies, should try to challenge established delimitations by focusing on such phenomena of hybridism. I shall now use a few examples from the arts of Islam and China to demonstrate this idea.


I shall first take us to medieval Iran, a country devastated by the hordes of the Mongol invaders who stormed in two waves in the 1220s and the 1250s. By the 1270s the once ruthless warriors had settled in Iran, called themselves Il-Khans (“under the Lesser Khan,” in relation to the Great Khan in China) and had made Tabriz their capital. Mongolian upper class was wildly syncretic in its religious beliefs and artistic expression. It forged diplomatic relations through marriage to the local Iranian aristocracy and neighbouring ruling houses, among which the Byzantine imperial family of Palaeologi. The summer palace of the Ilkhanids was located on the volcanic summit of Takht-e Soleyman south of Tabriz, around a lake of poisonous water and on top of the ruins of earlier Sassanid an Achaemenid sancturies.

It included tent-like pavilions built of brick and was decorated in glazed tiles manufactured locally but based on technology developed by the late 12th century in Kashan, an Iranian pottery centre. The iconography of these tiles is significant. Some are decorated with phoenixes and dragons. The way these mythical creatures were depicted was previously unseen in Iranian art but drew from Chinese sources. Inspiration must have come from textiles imported from the land of the Great Khan and hung around the tents favoured as shelter by the nomadic Mongols; their permanent structures emulated in pottery the luxurious effect of such gold-woven silks. However, other tiles feature scenes from the Iranian epic Shahnama, a story in verse of the kinds of Persia before the coming of Islam. The adoption of Iranian lore signifies the Mongols' wish for legitimisation in a land which twenty years earlier their predecessors had laid to waste.


A few decades later the by-now Muslim Ilkhanid Mongols commissioned several illustrated manuscripts of either historical or poetic texts, like the Shahnama epic. One of the historical texts is the Jami al-tawarikh, translated as “Compendium of Chronicles,” and the copy we shall now turn to was written and illustrated in 1314 in Tabriz. It includes several sequences of historical events aspiring to present a world history. Three miniatures from the life of the Prophet Muhammad combine Byzantine compositions inspired by the Annunciation of the Virgin, the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ with Chinese brushwork in the depiction of rocks and folds. Even the horizontal format of most miniatures and the way I which they are separated in sections echoes the unfolding of long Chinese scroll paintings. The combination is novel and the result strikingly original.


The most lavish of these Ilkhanid manuscripts, the so-called Great Mongol Shahnama, dates from the 1330s and must have featured more than 200 miniatures out of which 57 survive. The 'Bier of Alexander,' depicting the lament of Alexander the Great's mother and his companions around his deathbed, is one of the most remarkable scenes. Painted in Tabriz, it has no precedent in Islamic art as to its complexity, expressiveness and richness of iconographic detail. It is strongly reminiscent of Byzantine art and the mosaic at the katholikon of the Monastery of Chora in Constantinople, dating from approximately fifteen years before the Mongol manuscript, can be juxtaposed in its general composition as well as particular details.

Remarkably, at the narthex of the same katholikon a veiled nun named Melanie is inscribed “the Lady of the Mongols.” She has been identified with one of the Paleologan princesses who married Ilkhanid rulers and moved to Tabriz with their retinues, luxurious dowries and libraries of illustrated books, undoubtedly sources for some of the innovations on Mongol miniatures.

In both manuscripts, Byzantine and Chinese formulae were deployed to illustrate either newly-commissioned or traditional Persian works adopted by Muslim Mongol rulers. These hybrid miniatures, creatively combining multiple influences and agenda, reflect the cosmopolitan flavour of the Ilkhanid court.

At about the same time, the Yuan Mongol rulers of China, cousins of the Ilkhanids, invested considerable resources into the development of a revolutionary new decorative technique for the white porcelain vessels of Jingdezhen 1 in Jiangxi province, southeast China. The use of cobalt to produce a strong blue colour painted under the clear glaze of these porcelains has been attributed to the early 14th century based on epigraphic evidence. However, Chinese scholars have tried to re-date this major technological breakthrough outside the Yuan dynasty. They have opted for either the preceding Southern Song dynasty, or the ensuing Ming, both safely under the supremacy of the Han Chinese. Their efforts reflect the uncomfortable way in which the Yuan Mongols sit within the Chinese historical narrative.

However, a recent archaeological discovery has made their efforts irrevocably redundant. At an excavation in Jingdezhen, the “city of porcelain,” sherds of blue and white bowls, obviously firing rejects from an adjacent kiln, were found in strata dating from the 1330s-1340s. They feature poetical inscriptions in Persian, evidently written by a native speaker rather than copied by a Chinese craftsperson. The use of underglaze cobalt blue had been perfected in Kashan almost two centuries earlier. This discovery proves that the introduction of blue and white was not an adaptation to Yuan taste by the commercially-minded Chinese potters but a palace-dictated innovation based on the know-how of relocated Iranian craftspeople.

The Mongol period was a heyday of artistic hybridisation combining Byzantine iconography, Iranian literary tradition and ceramic aesthetics with Chinese porcelain technology and motifs to satisfy an adventurous elite keen to legitimise its hold on lands with ancient cultures. Their remarkable exploits have fitted easily within the national narratives of Iran and China and it is only recently that the full extent of their experimentation begins to be appreciated.

My last example will be sourced from a later period, the late 18th century. The worldwide popularity of Chinese porcelain was reflected in the transcontinental trade which brought it to the furthest shores of Brazil and Mexico aboard Portuguese, Dutch and, by the 18th century, British ships, the latter controlled by the English East India Company. The earliest multinational company in history operated from London an enormous network which reached Guangzhou (better known as Canton) and featured stations in several places, among them Madras (present day Chennai) on the east coast of India. Clients all over Europe could order porcelains, either isolated items or entire dinner services amounting to hundreds of pieces, to particular shapes and decorations, often featuring their family coats of arms.

One of the rarest families of Chinese “Export” porcelains bears inscriptions or monograms in Armenian. These modestly-sized ceramic come from tea or dinner services reflecting Western rather than Middle Eastern dining and tea drinking habits. Where did the Armenian commissioners of these items live? I have argued that they were rich Armenian traders originating from Esfahan, the great capital of Safavid Iran, and relocated a century earlier to British-controlled Madras. In that East India Company trading post they partook of the opportunities offered by Indian Ocean maritime networks and continued their traditional business of trans-Asian silk trade, this time between China and Europe.


The coats of arms appearing on these Armenian-inscribed wares are enigmatic, some claiming to belong to Armenian kings, obviously fabrications of the fervent Madras patriots. Their surrounds feature mermaid angels, inspired by Portuguese coats of arms, under parasols, traditional symbols of Indian sovereignty, shading Western-style armorial shields or monograms.

These unusual armorial surrounds could have originated from the fertile imagination of the British artist Robert Home (1752 – 1837) who had briefly worked at Madras in the 1790s before moving to Lucknow, where he designed similar armorials for the nawabs of Awadh. The hybridisation here is multi-layered: a British artist employing Portuguese and Indian conventions to create for an Armenian clientele originating from Iran and living under British sovereignty armorials applied onto Chinese porcelain used in European everyday rituals. These simple wares occupy places within several art historical contexts but transcend any geography-defined or modern nation state-based narrative. They paint a more multifaceted picture than any modern national art narrative would feel comfortable with and transcend all notions of early 21st century cultural globalisation.

Through the complex examples discussed above, I hope I have argued persuasively that cultures evolve through dialectic relations. Comprehending their labyrinthine webs of interaction in the past will hopefully allow us to restore our faith in cultural dialogue for the future. 'Hybrids' with their inherent capacity to engage audiences across perceived cultural boundaries, lend themselves to performing as beacons of tolerance and inclusion, as negotiators in war and ambassadors in peace.

1. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/c/the_chinese_imperial_kilns_at.aspx


George Manginis,Teaching Fellow, The University of Edinburgh, UK


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