Oleg Grabar 1929–2011

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Christine Ferrara

Oleg Grabar, whose research over the past six decades has had a profound and far-reaching influence on the study of Islamic art and architecture, died at the age of 81 of heart failure on January 8 in Princeton, N.J. Grabar was Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he served on the Faculty since 1990. The extraordinary originality, depth and range of his research and teaching made an enduring impression on the study of Middle Eastern culture, and he was chiefly responsible for the growth and development of historians specializing in the history of Islamic art within the United States.

Through his extensive archaeological expeditions and research trips, across the vast expanse of the Islamic world in Africa, the Middle East and Muslim Asia, Grabar documented, interpreted and extended the meaning and significance of Islamic art, history and culture.

Peter Goddard, Director of the Institute, noted, “Oleg Grabar was a profound, prolific and influential scholar who has been an essential part of the Institute community throughout the last two decades. We will greatly miss his generosity of spirit, playful humor and vital presence.”

Giles Constable, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies, who was a classmate of Grabar’s at Harvard University and a colleague both at Harvard and the Institute, commented, “Oleg Grabar was an admired colleague and beloved friend, whose far-ranging mind, vivid character and strongly held views contributed to any discussion in which he took part. He was in every sense a life-enhancing personality. Through his teaching and publications he left an indelible mark on almost every aspect of the study of Islamic art and architecture. The Institute, and Princeton, will not be the same without him.”

Grabar’s appointment to the Faculty of the Institute brought Islamic studies to the School of Historical Studies, and over the past two decades he drew both emerging and established scholars to the Institute, where, both before and after he became Professor Emeritus in 1998, Grabar continued to cultivate and advance fundamental research in a field in which he posited questions that challenged Western perspectives. In November 2010, he was awarded the Chairman’s Award by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his lifetime achievement in greatly widening and enriching the understanding of the Islamic world’s architecture, emphasizing its geographical and chronological diversity, as well as positioning it within wider political, social, cultural and economic contexts. Last fall, Grabar noted of his scholarly output over the course of his career, “This considerable production can easily be divided into three groups, whose chronology raises interesting conclusions about the path of research traveled by a historian of the arts of the Islamic world who came into academic existence in the middle of the twentieth century. Whether this path is unique or typical is for others to decide.”

Grabar was born in Strasbourg, France, on November 3, 1929. His father André Grabar was an international expert of Byzantine art who published over 30 books on the early and medieval art of Bulgaria, Crete, France, Italy and Turkey. “Intellectual activity came almost with the cradle,” recalled Grabar in 1995, “and throughout my formative years I was surrounded by books.” Attending the Lycées Claude Bernard and Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Grabar went on to receive, in 1948, a certificat de licence in Ancient History from the University of Paris. In 1950, Grabar graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Medieval History from Harvard University, and that same year received two certificats de licence from the University of Paris in Medieval History and Modern History. Grabar continued his education at Princeton University, where he developed his interest in Islamic art, obtaining an M.A. (1953) and a Ph.D. (1955) in Oriental Languages and Literatures and the History of Art.

Upon earning his Ph.D., Grabar obtained a teaching position at the University of Michigan, where he began as an Instructor in 1954, then became Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Art and Near Eastern Studies (1955–59), Associate Professor (1959–64) and Professor (1964–69). He was Honorary Curator of Near Eastern Art for the Freer Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution (1958–69) and Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (1960–61), later serving as the Schools’ Vice President (1967–75). In 1969, Grabar was appointed Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, where he taught for 21 years. He was Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts (1977–82) and held the newly created post of Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture from its inception in 1980 until 1990 when he retired from Harvard to join the Faculty of the Institute.

Grabar was the author of some 20 books and more than 120 articles in leading journals. His first book, The Coinage of the Tulunids (1957), which focused on the ninth-century dynasty in Islamic Egypt, was reviewed by H. A. R. Gibb of Harvard University, who noted, “The chief value of the monograph for the historian, therefore, is the confrontation of the literary with the archaeological evidence, a much-neglected and much-needed exercise for every period of Islamic history. The latter may, and in certain respects does, focus events more clearly or somewhat differently even when they coincide to a large extent in substance; it is scarcely less valuable when, as more than once in this study, it raises problems to which neither it nor the literary evidence supplies a clear answer.” Grabar’s seminal work, The Formation of Islamic Art (1973), evolved from the Baldwin Lectures at Oberlin College, delivered by Grabar in 1969, which were based on an article, “Earliest Islamic Commemorative Monuments,” in Ars Orientalis that addressed the origins of Islamic art. This landmark study, which has been translated into German, Spanish and Turkish, with expanded editions in French and English, presented an original and imaginative approach to the complex and elusive problems of understanding Islamic art.

Grabar, who was fluent in English, French and Russian, traveled extensively throughout the Islamic world and was Director (1964–72) of the excavations at Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi—a medieval Islamic town partially buried under the sands of Syria in a region previously not thought to have had a significant history of human habitation. Work at the site resulted in a number of articles and ultimately a collaborative two-volume book, City in the Desert, Qasr al-Hayr East (1978), with Renata Holod, James Knustad and William Trousdale. The research resulted in a groundbreaking interpretation of the original constructions, dating from the first half of the eighth century, which were radically different from what had been assumed in the past. Epic Images and Contemporary History: The Illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama (1980), coauthored with Sheila Blair, marked the first publication of an early fourteenth-century manuscript, which was meticulously reconstructed by Grabar and Blair, and inspired scholars to focus on the interpretation of unexplored aspects of Islamic art and culture. In 1987, nearly 30 years of collaboration between Grabar and Richard Ettinghausen was published in the highly regarded survey The Art and Architecture of Islam 650­–1250 (a second edition was published in 2001).

During his time at the Institute, Grabar was able to devote himself fully to research, writing and travel, and published prolifically within the realm of Islamic art, architecture and culture. In The Mediation of Ornament (1992), he persuasively examined the role of decoration as the instrument, or mediator, between the viewer and the object itself, and the methods by which writing, ornament and architectural and natural motifs each play a role in elucidating their purpose and intent. Grabar’s The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem (1996), lushly illustrated with detailed architectural history of the city, employed computer modeling to present the material in a new and engaging way. That same year, The Dome of the Rock (with Saïd Nuseibeh) was published as a comprehensive visual documentation of one of the holiest places for Muslims, Christians and Jews (this structure was an ongoing source of intrigue for Grabar, who in 2006 published a book also titled The Dome of the Rock). He was remarkably prolific even after his retirement in 1998, continuing to author or edit more than ten volumes. With Glen W. Bowersock, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies, and Peter Brown of Princeton University, Grabar edited Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (1999), which redefined Late Antiquity by broadening understanding of this important time in history, and quickly became a standard resource for scholars and the general public alike. Mostly Miniatures: An Introduction to Persian Painting (2000) provided a thorough historiography of Persian painting and included insights into the various contexts for how and why the works were produced while highlighting the visual pleasure of the objects. Much of Grabar’s scholarly output was captured through the 83 articles gathered in four volumes under the title Constructing the Study of Islamic Art (2005–06). In his final book, Masterpieces of Islamic Art: The Decorated Page from the 8th to the 17th Century (2009), Grabar elucidated a wide range of illuminated manuscript masterpieces from museum collections around the world with his incisive commentary and reflections on some of the primary hallmarks of Islamic art and culture.

Grabar’s work earned him wide recognition throughout his career, including the College Art Association Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in Art (2005), the Charles Lang Freer Medal (2001) and the University of California, Los Angeles, Giorgio Levi Della Vida Medal (1996). From 1957–70, Grabar was Near Eastern Editor of Ars Orientalis, a scholarly journal on Asian art and archaeology, and was founding editor of the journal Muqarnas from 1979–90. Grabar was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Medieval Academy of America; an honorary member of the Austrian Academy; a corresponding member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Institut de France; and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.

Grabar is survived by his wife of 59 years, Dr. Terry Grabar, a retired professor of English, and his son Nicolas, daughter-in-law Jennifer Sage and grandchildren Henry, Margaret and Olivia of New York. His daughter Anne-Louise predeceased him in 1988.

A funeral service was held on January 11 at Trinity Church in Princeton, N.J. A memorial service organized by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Historians of Islamic Art Association took place on April 23 at Memorial Church at Harvard.