Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Study in Close Looking: Reflections on Herzfeld's Architectural Drawings at the Met

Hello Herzfeld Scholars,

My name is Charmaine Branch and I am a rising senior studying art history at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. I’ve spent the past few months working as an intern here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the first day Matt Saba, a Research Fellow and my supervisor, introduced me to the works of Ernst Herzfeld housed in the Islamic Art Department. Although I had no previous knowledge of Herzfeld’s expeditions in Samarra and other cities across Iran, Turkey, and Syria, I welcomed the challenge of exploring a whole new area of art history.  Matt acted as my guide as I familiarized myself with architectural drawings, watercolors of wall decorations, photographs, and their subject matter.

As part of my internship, I also gave tours in the Met galleries to the general public. The experience encouraged me not only to focus on the historical importance of an object, but to also appreciate the extensive information available through visual analysis. Herzfeld began his drawings with the act of close looking. For me, the task of digitizing a sketch was brought to life by his skill and meticulous documentation of detail. I often invited other interns in our department to join me in admiring a floor plan or study of a column before I moved on to the next.
Shaykh 'Abd al-Samad Shrine at Natanz (Iran): Analysis of Muqarnas Vault. (MMA, eeh1575)
I spent a long while studying Herzfeld’s analysis of the muqarnas vault over the tomb chamber in the shrine of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Samad at Natanz (shown above). In order to understand the complex construction of the vault’s underlying scheme, Herzfeld employed a series of grids still visible in the upper right hand corner. As your eye moves clockwise around the octagon, the dotted squares, triangles and circles give way to fully-inked lines showing the shapes of some of cells, including flower-like compilations of triangles.  The drawing continues to transform as Herzfeld highlights different geometric elements. In the lower left-hand corner, Herzfeld added parallel lines along some of the preexisting lines, emphasizing texture and depth. As a final step, he applied a thicker black strip between those lines and a new series of shapes were revealed. Herzfeld represented a complicated structure, and his drawing allows you to read his process as your eye travels around the octagon.

Working with the Herzfeld papers during the course of the summer, I came to understand what a significant role this project plays within the international study of Herzfeld’s lifework. I find the possibility of reconstructing parts of a madrasa or mosque based on Herzfeld’s drawings incredibly compelling. The global exchange of information is intrinsic to the study of art not only for scholars but also for everyone who is interested in the visual history of our world. All of Herzfeld’s works are in dialog with one another, although they span his career and are now dispersed geographically as part of several collections.  I am very lucky to have joined the conversation. 

Charmaine Branch (Vassar College)

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