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Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925

DATES October 13, 1998 through January 14, 1999
  • June 1, 1998 The first major exhibition to explore visual arts in Persia during the Qajar Dynasty, focusing on extraordinary large-scale court and popular religious paintings, will be presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from October 23, 1998, through January 24, 1999. Providing a window into imperial as well as daily life of a vanished culture, Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925 will comprise 106 exceptional works. It includes important loans from thirty-six internationally renowned private and public collections in seven countries. Among the lending institutions are The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institutions, Washington; and the Musee de Louvre in Paris. Also included in the exhibition will be a selection from the Museum’s collection, which contains the most important holdings of Qajar art in North America.

    The exhibition was organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It will travel to UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where it will be on view from February through May 1999, and to the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London, where it will be presented from July through September 1999. Royal Persian Paintings will be accompanied by the first full-length scholarly catalogue on the subject of this extraordinary art from a country that has been closed off to the West for two decades.

    The exhibition includes works that range in size from miniature to monumental that will be presented using a thematic approach within a chronological framework. Along with court and religious paintings, many of which were integral elements of decorative wall treatments, the exhibition will include a variety of works embellished with narrative scenes. Among them will be small-scale manuscript illumination, works on paper, decorative arts, and an exquisitely painted ceiling that measures more than twenty-two by nine feet. Royal Persian Paintings will also include works from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Safavid, Afsharid, and Zand dynasties and from modern-day Iran. The exhibition will explore the influences of the artistic traditions of the preceding dynasties and of increased contact with Europe.

    The major artistic achievement of the Qajar period was the flowering of a tradition of life-size figural painting rarely seen in the rest of the Islamic world. The use of the human figure in these large-scale paintings and in smaller works was an anomaly in a culture that generally forbids human representation. In Persia, however, life-size imagery evolved from a heritage dating back to antiquity, when a tradition of figural painting and sculpture associated with royalty first emerged. Much of this legacy had been destroyed or driven underground with the advent of Islam in 637 A.D., although the figural tradition continued in small-scale book illustration, metalwork, and ceramics.

    During the Qajar regime the long-dormant tradition of wall paintings reemerged. The ancient tradition of rock reliefs was revived, and at least eight were created in various parts of Persia. Ceremonial images were used as propaganda to promote the Qajar dynasty. The rising sun behind a lion, the Iranian national emblem, was reproduced in many ways, including an exceptional enameled gold dish from the Victoria and Albert Museum and an enameled gold order from the Nasser D. Khalili collection, both of which are included in the exhibition. Dazzling commissioned portraits of the second Qajar ruler, Fath‘Ali Shah, were sent as diplomatic gifts to European and Russian rulers and to provincial centers ruled by his sons.

    Two themes that dominated Qajar court art were enthronement and battle. Among the thirteen oil paintings from the State Hermitage Museum are a monumental, two-part battle scene that depicts an imperial military review and the Persians defeating the Russian army and two remarkable portraits of Fath‘Ali Shah. To explore the influence of Western art on Persian artists two portraits of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck are being loaned for the first time by the State Hermitage Museum. The role of women in Persian society will also be explored through paintings depicting women in a variety of roles, from princesses to entertainers and harem girls, among them rarely seen partially nude figures.

    This sweeping interpretive exhibition will conclude with the remarkable developments of later Qajar court painting, including strikingly expressive court portraits and democratized imagery in the form of heroic paintings of religious martyrdom and biting newspaper caricature.

    The exhibition design will include three re-creations of the original architectural context in which Qajar painting flourished: a three-sided pavilion, which will contain images from pictorial cycles of Qu’ranic biblical and Persian literary themes; an evocation of the royal palace created by a grouping of life-size paintings of Fath’Ali Shah surrounded by images of the women in his harem, displayed under a painted ceiling; and a coffee-house setting, complete with popular paintings, in which visitors may browse through the exhibition catalogue.

    Royal Persian Art is the result of nearly five years of planning and research that included a 1994 colloquium at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Historical and Cultural Issues of Post-Safavid and Qajar Persia, in which fifteen scholars from the United States, Europe, and Persia participated. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s commitment to the arts of Qajar Persia dates back to 1970, when Charles K. Wilkinson, an authority on Iranian art, was appointed Hagop Kevorkian Curator of Middle Eastern Art. Wilkinson established the Museum’s collection of Qajar art, which was recently enriched by a bequest from his estate, portions of which will be included in the exhibition. The Brooklyn Museum of Art also organized the first international symposium on Qajar art, which took place in 1987.

    The exhibition will be accompanied by a wide variety of public programs including a symposium, film series, music, a series of public lectures, and storytelling.

    Historical Background
    Safavid Period (1501–1722)

    The art and culture of Qajar Iran evolved from traditions established during the latter part of the Safavid period. During this time a monumental figural tradition reemerged more than 1,000 years after its pre-eminence in the Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties. Life-sized imagery, in both murals and oils on canvas, was revived for palace and bazaar decorations and in royal summer retreats. In the mid-seventeenth century, Isfahan, the capital of Safavid Iran, was founded. It became a cosmopolitan center of trade and international diplomacy where a lavish court culture and artistic patronage flourished. During this period figural representations also were increasingly utilized in the decorative arts.

    Afsharid Period (1736–1747)

    A brief period under the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar, a military leader who conquered the Mughal Empire and brought back the Peacock throne and Mughal jewels as spoils of war. The Shah had little interest in painting beyond its usefulness as a record of his conquests and glorification of his person. During his reign no new artistic traditions were created and there was a cultural isolation from the international scene that lasted until the early nineteenth century.

    Zand Period (1750–1779)
    Karini Khan Zand, another tribal leader, ruled as regent, during which time political and economic stability returned. Shiraz became the capital in 1765. During Zand’s reign the tradition of life-sized painting was reinvigorated, and by the second half of the eighteenth century a distinctively Shirazi painting style had emerged. Painting now had an emotional expressiveness that had not been seen since the peak of Safavid painting. Although much of the artistic legacy of the Zand period has been destroyed, during this period painters honed skills that would later be used in nineteenth-century Qajar palaces.

    The Qajar Era (1785–1925)
    Its beginning roughly coincided with the French Revolution and the drafting of the American Constitution, and its end, after a period of foreign occupation and political turmoil, with World War I. The Qajar dynasty brought a long period of political instability to a conclusion. During this Qajar regime Iran escaped from Europe’s colonial domination but was influenced by its diplomacy, intimidated by its armies, and affected by its commercial, cultural, and ideological lure. It began as a tribal society ruled by warlords and evolved into a traditional Persian monarchy with an elaborate court. Like the neighboring Ottoman Empire, Qajar Iran tried to accommodate its political and economic institutions to Western modes.

    Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925 has been organized by Dr. Layla Diba, Hagop Kevorkian Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, with Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, Senior Research Associate.

    Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925 is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and by Massoumé and Fereidoun Soudavar in memory of their sons Alireza and Mohammad. Major support provided by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, National Endowment for the Arts, the Aryeh Family, Hashem Khosrovani, and Nasser D. Khalili. Additional support provided by Afsaneh Al-e Mohammad Dabashi and Mr. and Mrs. Dara Zargar. Planning and research supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Foundation. Funds for the catalogue provided through a publication endowment created by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1995 - 2003. 01-06/1998, 151-155.
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