Oleg Grabar: The Scholarly Legacy

By Hillenbrand, Robert | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Oleg Grabar: The Scholarly Legacy


Hillenbrand, Robert, Journal of Art Historiography


Valediction

It is safe to say that the flood of reminiscences, obituaries,1 and various kinds of public necrologies that have marked the death of Oleg Grabar are quite without parallel in the history of Islamic art history.2 They complement the numerous appreciations of him that were published in his lifetime,3 and indeed his own reflections on his career.4 In the months following his death in January 2011 a series of meetings was convened at which scholars spoke about his work,5 and the anniversary of his death was marked by a symposium in Istanbul to celebrate his contributions to the understanding of Turkish Islamic art.6 Other great figures in the field of Islamic art have had their full meed of honour, with memorial services7 and colloquia,8 and tributes from the great and the good, as well as obituaries not only in academic journals, where one would expect to find them, but also in broadsheets.9 But the reaction to Oleg Grabar's death has been at once more widespread and more profound than this. The sense that an era has ended runs through many of the comments made in both public and private.

The obvious question - 'why?' - does not have a single obvious answer. It has several, and at times they may seem to contradict each other. Most of his younger colleagues have emphasized above all the unforgettable impact of his colourful and multi-sided personality, and more than one of them has noted that it was hard, on reflection, to disentangle his personality from his output.10 For while he expressed himself with equal ease in both the spoken and the written word, it was talking that was essentially his instrument of suasion. That was what made his lectures so memorable;11 but perhaps it worked best in free-ranging one-on-one conversations. For the period of that conversation you knew you had his unflagging attention. And you leftthe meeting with a full tank. That is quite some giftfor a teacher - and a colleague - to possess.12

His scholarly output: general reflections

But of course most Islamic art historians alive today did not know Grabar personally,13 and it is here that what he wrote ought in theory to come to the fore.14 The purpose of the present paper is precisely to try to assess more what he wrote than what he was - though the sheer weight of personal reminiscence from those who knew him has made that a difficult task. There is, moreover, a further obstacle to that apparently simple project thanks to the many listings of his achievements: the honours, awards and prizes heaped on him, the films he made, the exhibitions he curated, his membership of prestigious academic societies across the world, his key work as editor of the major journals in his field,15 the positions of responsibility that he held, the institutions or enterprises that he directed and - above all else in its direct human impact - the students he taught and the practical ways in which he encouraged so many of them to stay in the field. While it is thoroughly appropriate to celebrate these multifarious successes, they can easily have the unintended effect of casting his publications into the shade. And yet for decades past, and especially outside the United States, it has been his written work that has propelled him to pole position on the international stage among Islamic art historians. In his own words, set down a few months before his death, that written work comprised, apart from material that had not yet appeared,16 'some twenty books, several of which were translated into at least seven languages, and over one hundred and twenty more or less significant articles'.17 That latter number, incidentally, represents a very severe judgment on his part of the long-term value of a good deal of his published articles, chapters, and occasional pieces. And since the material he selected for republication in the four volumes of his 'collected' - it should be 'selected' - articles comprises only eighty-three items, it follows that he rejected a third even of those that he himself regarded as 'more or less significant'. …

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