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About Aga Oglu

Mehmet Aga-Oglu (18961949)

Mehmet Aga-Oglu was one of a number of émigré scholars who helped forge art-historical study in this country as we know it today (like his colleague, Ananda Coomaraswamy, author of “Ornament,” the earliest Featured Article from the "Centennial Anthology"), although a main historiographic impetus to date has been to chronicle the impact of German-speaking expatriates. Aga-Oglu, of Turkish descent, earned his first PhD in Moscow, and later studied in Berlin, Jena, and Vienna, where he earned a second PhD. By the force of his intellect, he was able to cross national and cultural borders to sustain a successful career and make instrumental contributions to the formation of the academic field of the history of Islamic art. He held positions at the National Museum in Constantinople and the University of Constantinople (now Istanbul) from 1927 to 1929 and at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1929 to 1933, where he built the foundation of the museum’s collection of Islamic art. Beginning in 1934, Aga-Oglu held the first chair in the history of Islamic art in America at the University of Michigan. Following his resignation in 1938, the position was held subsequently by fellow emigré art historians Richard Ettinghausen (1938–1944) and Oleg Grabar (19541969). Aga-Oglu later served as a consultant for the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. His papers are archived at the Freer Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Art (finding aid). 

Notably, in the 1920s and early 1930s, publications by Aga-Oglu and his colleagues in the emerging field of Islamic art history were more evident statistically in The Art Bulletin (and other cross-field journals for the discipline, such as PantheonBurlington Magazine, CAA’s Parnassus, and the journals of major museums) than in subsequent decades perhaps, in part, due to Aga-Oglu's own efforts. In 1934, he founded the journal Ars Islamica, now Ars Orientalis, in which he then published more frequently than in The Art Bulletin. (Ananda Coomaraswamy was a member of the original international consultation committee for Ars Islamica.) 

Aga-Oglu had a profound appreciation for cross-cultural commonalities and complications that were virtually ignored mid-century but later came to take center stage in theoretically focused considerations of hybridity and colonialism (or, for Aga-Oglu's subjects, imperialism), along with issues of audience, response, and market. As a consequence, perhaps, in the articles culled for The Art Bulletin's "Centennial Anthology" this Featured Article, “About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner,” published in 1945, is the last cited before a gap of nearly twenty years, from the mid-1940s and mid-1960s.  Aga-Oglu also explored possibilities of schools of artisans whose products exhibited distinctive formal tendencies discernible in ornament and style, often in accord with characterizations of ethnicity and religion, an approach grounded in long-held expectations for the history of art. (See C. R. Morey, "Sources of Medieval Style," 1924, vol. 7, no. 2 [pdf] and Oleg Grabar, "The Object of Art History," 1994, vol. 76, no. 3 [pdf]. Grabar paid homage to Aga-Oglu's 1945 text through his titular reference, even as he explored open-ended contextualizing alternatives to searches for sources and attributions in his essay "About a Bronze Bird" [in Sears and Thomas, eds., Reading Medieval Images: The Art Historian and the Object (2002)].) 

In the 1945 "About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner," Aga-Oglu deployed his remarkable language skills and knowledge of even the most obscure private collections in a tour-de-force charting of formal tendencies across the millennium-long development of a type of the "minor arts" that were more frequently represented in the journal in the decades before the 1950s. Nowadays, databases, that incorporate many generations of documentation efforts have not only relieved scholars of much of the individual burden of the collection and publication of information about objects, they have opened the way as well for new approaches to the conception and analysis of trends. (See Richard Brilliant, "Banking on Data Banks," 1992 vol. 74, no. 3 [pdf]; and in the Editorial Series, "A Range of Critical Perspectives, Digital Culture and The Practices of Art and Art History," 1997, vol. 79, no. 2 [pdf].)


MEHMET AGA-OGLU publications in The Art Bulletin

(For a fuller bibliography, see the obituary by ADÈLE COULIN WEIBEL published in Ars Islamica, vol. 15/16 (1951) 267-271. For a fuller account of his scholarly contributions, see Zeynap Simavi, "Mehmet Aga-Oglu and the Formation of the Field of Islamic Art in The United States," Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012).

About a Type of Islamic Incense Burner (pdf)
1945 vol. 27, no. 1

Is the Ewer of Saint Maurice d'Agaune a Work of Sasanian Iran? (pdf)
1946 vol. 28, no. 3

Letter to the Editor (pdf)
1947 vol. 29, no. 2 

Letter to the Editor (pdf)
1948 vol. 30, no. 2  

MEHMET AGA-OGLU recently cited in The Art Bulletin

SHEILA S. BLAIR and JONATHAN M. BLOOM The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field, 2003 vol. 85, no. 1 (pdf)
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