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Oleg Grabar papers, 1898-2009

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Grabar (Oleg) Papers

Biographical/Historical Note

Oleg Grabar, the distinguished scholar and professor of Islamic art and architecture, was almost destined to be an academic. By the time he was born on November 3, 1929, his father André Grabar, who had left Russia after the Revolution, was teaching art history at the University of Strasbourg in France and well on his way to becoming the pre-eminent Byzantinist of his generation. In 1938, André Grabar accepted the chair of Christian Archaeology at the École pratique des hautes études and the family moved to Paris. The young Oleg Grabar, fluent in French and Russian, grew up in this intense, highly intellectual, French academic environment, immersed in the ideas of his father's friends and colleagues, including scholars such as Jean Sauvaget, Marc Bloch and Ernst Kantorowicz.

Oleg Grabar developed a philological and historical interest in Eastern cultures as a teenager. After attempting to learn Chinese on his own, he was introduced to the Arab world by Sauvaget. Preparing for the École normale superieure, Grabar attended the University of Paris from which he earned three certificats de licence in Ancient (1948), Medieval (1950) and Modern (1950) History. When André Grabar accepted an appointment at Dumbarton Oaks in 1948, Oleg accompanied the family to the United States. He enrolled at Harvard University, staying in the United States when his family returned to France, and received a B.A. in Medieval History in 1950. In January of 1951 Grabar enrolled at Princeton University, planning to continue his study of history. Soon, however, Grabar's dissatisfaction with Princeton's history program led him to move toward the department of Art and Archaeology, and it was there that he developed his interest in Islamic art. Grabar received an M.A. in 1953 and a Ph.D. in 1955 in a special combined program of Oriental Languages and Literature and the History of Art, with a dissertation on the art and ceremony of the Umayyad court.

Grabar had a long academic career. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1954 as an instructor in the History of Art and progressed through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor in 1964. Grabar left Michigan in 1969 to return to Harvard, where he was the first professor to teach Islamic art. In 1980 he was appointed to the newly created Aga Khan Professorship of Islamic art, a position he would hold until his retirement from Harvard in 1990. Grabar then joined the faculty of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, from which he retired for a second time in 1998. A charismatic teacher and inspiring mentor, Grabar supervised over 60 doctoral dissertations, literally staffing the ranks of professors, curators and scholars of Islamic art and architecture, in the United States and abroad, in the later twentieth century.

A prolific scholar, Oleg Grabar authored over 20 books and 120 articles. His early work was notable for applying a more contextualist approach to the study of Islamic art than his predecessors. Informed by his historical training, Grabar generally focused on what art could tell us about Islamic culture as a whole, rather than on objects solely as works of art. In a world of ever-increasing specialization, perhaps the most striking aspect of Grabar's scholarly output is its range: from standard reference works, like his contribution to the Pelican History of Art series, to detailed scholarly books and articles, to lavishly illustrated books attractive to a more general readership. He worked on areas and topics ranging from architecture to manuscript illumination to aesthetics, from Moorish Spain to Mughal India to Jerusalem.

In addition to teaching and publishing, Grabar took on numerous other duties, serving as an excavator, a curator, and an administrator at various times. In 1982, Grabar founded Muqarnas, a journal devoted to Islamic visual culture, and he had earlier served as an editor for Ars Orientalis (1957-1970). He served as an advocate for all aspects of Islamic art and architecture, contemporary as well as historical, working to rid the art history canon of its Western bias. He had longstanding relationships with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and with the organizations under the aegis of the Aga Khan Development Network. He also sought to popularize Islamic art with a general audience through public lectures and films. In recognition of his service to the study of Islamic art, Grabar was the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Charles Lang Freer medal (2001) and the Chairman's Award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2010), as well as two festschrifts (1993 and 2008).

After his retirement in 1998, Grabar remained active in the field. He continued to publish, lecture, and travel extensively throughout America, Europe, and the Middle East until shortly before his death on January 8, 2011.

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