Currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design is a small exhibition of Doris Duke’s Shangri La. It features architectural drawings, photos, furniture, jewelry and decorative objects from her impressive home in Honolulu which she called Shangri La. Duke was left a sizable fortune at the age of 13 when her father died in 1925. What does one do with a multi-million dollar inheritance? Why travel, collect art and do charitable work naturally.
During her honeymoon in 1935 with her husband James H.R. Cromwell they traveled through the Middle East and South Asia. The artistic traditions of the Islamic cultures in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, India and other countries fascinated her. Before returning to the U.S. they stopped in Hawaii and it was there that Duke decided to build a new home rather than in Palm Beach, Florida. This new home would become a museum to her newfound passion of collecting decorative Islamic works which continued for the next 60 years.
There is an architectural model of Shangri La in the exhibition and although it is small in scale the majesty of the compound is clear. Perched on the coast of the Pacific Ocean Duke was thoughtful in the design and construction of Shangri La allowing the natural landscape and artwork be the focus. A photo of the dining room reveals Duke’s eclectic taste as it mimics the inside of a tent with exquisite textiles and a slightly ostentatious chandelier.
Although there is a smattering of objects on view there are excellent examples of craftsmanship that you could not find today such as a door with about a hundred rectangular niches covered in tiny ivory tiles, or wooden chests with mother of pearl or ivory inlay. Duke had a fine taste for jewelry from Mughal India my favorite piece being a late 17th century ruby, diamond and enameled gold bracelet. The rubies form the petals of 3 vertical rows of flowers which completely circled the wrist in 7 rows when closed. That’s 21 ruby petal flowers with diamond centers and a few diamond leaves! I certainly hope Duke wore that while sitting on the lanai or maybe gardening.
I hope to make it to Duke’s Shangri La one day.
The Museum of Arts and Design is home to a good restaurant with a fine view of Central Park, Robert. They serve brunch, lunch, fabulous cocktails (if you like tangy go for the Marseilles Mule or the Emma Rose for sweet) and dinner. You can ask for a table next to the window but call well in advance. As we sat there eating it was amusing to watch other people being shown to their table away from the window and see how well the hostess handled their request for a better view. If you happen to use the bathroom be sure to go to the one at the end of the hall as it has floor to ceiling windows looking down onto West 58th Street. There are metal ball bearing curtains of a sort so no one from the office building across the way will see you.
This exhibition brings to mind the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the new Islamic Art wing at the Louvre. I haven’t been to the Louvre but according to Souren Melikian‘s review the installation could take a few notes from The Met. The Met organized the galleries more or less by culture or country and chronologically. Instead the Louvre presents all the objects together with no categories or themes. Since I know very little about Islamic art I appreciated the curatorial nudge. This way you could see how each culture expressed themselves.
I’m curious about the little boom of Islamic art. To me it reflects what’s happening in the world and the art market. There’s going to be a Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The major collectors of art, fashion and real estate include a few Sheikhs and Sheikhas. Every day we hear news from Egypt, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan. Perhaps the art can help us understand the people better and maybe the people can reflect on what rich artistic heritages they have instead of destroying 6th century Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan or 600-year old mosques in Timbuktu.