Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rediscovering Shangri-La: Doris Duke’s Middle Eastern Retreat, Part II

Duke, with her Middle-Eastern jewelry in a box on top of a Syrian tabouret inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Vogue 1966; A hall is paved with a marble geometric pattern.

In 1938, Duke visited Iran with art adviser Mary Crane. There they obsessively sketched and photographed a 17th-century Safavid royal pavilion in Esfahán known as the Chihil Sutun. Duke had a scaled-down version built at Shangri La, which she called the Playhouse and used as a combination guest and pool house. Hanging on its walls is an impressive collection of early 19th century Qajar oil paintings from Iran. While in its arcaded courtyard, an oasis of tile and ancient pillars, one will find a 16th-century chest inlaid with mother of pearl from Damascus. In it Doris kept the brushes she used to clean the tiles.

The prize of the collection is a large, exquisitely crafted mihrab, or prayer niche. The fixture came from the tomb of Imamzuda Yahya, a 13th-century religious figure in Veramin, Iran and dates to 1265. Its surface is composed of luster tiles, a luxurious, hard-to-work medium that shimmers with metallic blue tiles inscribed with Quranic verses. Duke’s mihrab is significant not only for its monumental size and superb craftsmanship but also because it’s signed and dated by a member of the Abu Tahir family, an illustrious line of Kashan potters who passed down their glazing secrets from father to son and dominated the industry for over four generations. “This is one of the most important works of Iranian art and possibly of Islamic art in North America,” explained Marianna Shreve Simpson, a former curator of Islamic Near Eastern art at the Smithsonian.

The living room of the Playhouse features artworks created during the 19th-century reign of Iran's Qajar dynasty; In the early 1960s, Duke turned the dining room into a tent-like environment with Egyptian and Indian textiles.

Yet despite its old world splendor, Doris Duke was a die-hard modernist and incorporated the latest technological innovations of the 1930’s into her dream home. The most spectacular of these can be found in living room, where an entire wall is composed of a single 21ft pane of glass that, with the push of button, disappears into the floor below; revealing jaw-dropping views of the Mogul garden, a smaller version of the Shalimar Gardens in Pakistan, with its swimming pool and fountains as well as the ocean beyond. The fact that the glass wall was even built is testament to the power and influence Duke yielded. When she initially planned on building it, she was met with resistance by the local authorities. But a call to President Roosevelt managed to pull the necessary strings to get the project moving forward.

Duke spent nearly 60 years filling her secluded Hawaiian home with more than 3,500 art objects, almost all from the Arab world: ceramics, textiles, carved wood and stone architectural details, metalwork and paintings. The oldest pieces date from the 7th century, but the majority came from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Duke in her Mughal-inspired garden in the 1960’s; Shangri La’s “Baby Turkish Room,” displays Islamic ceramics and glassware in lighted niches.

Before her death at age 80 in 1993, Duke established the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture.” The foundation transformed her Hawaiian hideaway into a museum, which opened in November 2002. Tours have been sold out ever since, hardly surprising in light of Americans’ newfound hunger to understand the Arab world. An additional lure is the chance to step inside the dream house of one of the wealthiest, most eccentric and reclusive public figures of the 20th century.

Reservations are made a year in advance and access is limited to a dozen visitors at a time, who arrive by van four to six times a day from the Honolulu Academy of Arts, about six miles away, where a new Duke Foundation-funded gallery of Islamic art serves as an introduction to the museum.

Images Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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