DURHAM — The Taj Mahal has inspired countless flights of fancy over the last 31/2 centuries, but most of them pale when compared to how the fabled Indian palace fired Doris Dukes imagination. The billionaire heiress first visited the Taj Mahal in 1935 while on her 10-month honeymoon trip, and she decided shed like to build something like it. And she spent the next six decades until her death in 1993 doing just that.
You can see the fruits of her labor in Doris Dukes Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art, an exhibition on display at Duke Universitys Nasher Museum of Art through Dec. 29. Shangri La was Dukes personal Taj Mahal, her oceanfront estate in Hawaii. One of four residences she maintained throughout the U.S. (and now a museum), its a fascinatingly lavish showcase that combines modernist architecture with Muslim art against a stunning tropical backdrop.
Money was no object for Duke, daughter of Duke University founder James Buchanan Duke, who assembled one of the countrys largest private collections of Islamic art and furnished Shangri La with it. But her motives for doing so remain something of a mystery.
Doris Duke was not much of a letter-writer and didnt keep a diary or anything like that, said Katie Atkins, assistant curator at the Nasher. So we dont really know why she was such an avid collector, other than that she became very interested in Islamic art on her honeymoon. She was a very private woman, and its not clear what, if anything, she thought about the Muslim faith. But its not always necessary to get caught up in why, which I think people get stuck on. These are beautiful works, even if theyre not your typical oil paintings on canvas that people might collect.
Indeed, while Shangri La has plenty of paintings, sculptures and other decorative artifacts, the complexs architecture is as much a work of art as the objects it holds. It includes several complete rooms transported to Hawaii and integrated into the structure, intricate stonework and all.
The Doris Dukes Shangri La exhibit includes numerous photos, dresses and jewelry owned by Duke and architectural sketches that trace the estates evolution from design to fully realized masterpiece. The picture of Duke that emerges is of someone who wanted to live not just with her art, but within it.
Much of Dukes archive consists of pieces she commissioned as well as collected, and she continued tinkering with the compounds visual elements for more than half a century. Some of the shows more eye-opening works include the poolside playhouse, where visiting artists-in-residence stay nowadays; the Mughal Suite dressing room, in which even the simplest household artifacts were constructed with dazzling artistic precision; the tent-like dining room; and many of the ornate tile patterns throughout.
Shangri La was a continually evolving being, Atkins said. All these works, when you look at the level of craft and detail that were put in, its amazing to think about the people who made them.
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