Exhibition: HUNT FOR PARADISE: COURT ARTS
OF IRAN, 1501-1576
October 16, 2003 through January 18,
Media Preview: October 14, 2003, 12:00
This fall, the Asia Society presents a major
exhibition of spectacular works of art from the influential Golden Age of
Persian art in Iran. The first comprehensive international exhibition of the
exquisite arts produced in sixteenth-century Safavid Iran, Hunt for
Paradise: Court Arts of Iran, 1501-1576, brings together rarely seen
objects from more than 30 public and private collections from around the world.
Standard of pierced steel inlaid with
Focusing on one of the greatest periods of Persian culture, Hunt for
Paradise presents some of the finest examples of art produced in the early
reign of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1786). The exhibition comprises more than 75
objects-including miniature paintings and arts of the book, ceramics, carpets,
textiles and metalwork-and will be on view at Asia Society and Museum from
October 16, 2003 through January 18, 2004.
According to Vishakha N. Desai, Senior Vice President of the Asia Society and
Director of the Museum and Cultural Programs, "The Safavid court fostered an
artistic flowering of extraordinary brilliance and refinement leading to the
creation of some of the most important and influential works of art in Iran.
While the miniatures from this period are well-known, scant attention has been
paid to the consistent aesthetic language employed across different artistic
media. At a time when the world's eyes are focused on geopolitical issues in the region, it is important to highlight the incredible artistic heritage of Iran through exhibitions and related public programs."
Hunt for Paradise is co-organized by Asia Society and Museo Poldi
Pezzoli in Milan. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Sheila Canby, Curator of the
Department of Oriental Antiquities, The British Museum. A curatorial advisory
committee includes other leading specialists in the field: textile expert Jon
Thompson; noted scholar Ralph Pinder-Wilson; and William Robinson, Islamic
historian and metalwork specialist. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly
illustrated catalogue presenting current research and analysis by leading
scholars in the field of Persian and Islamic art.
The Asia Society and Museum is the exhibition's only U.S. venue. It will be
presented concurrently at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli and the Palazzo Reale in
Milan, from March 4 through June 27, 2004.
Organized historically, the exhibition explores the development of the
Safavid artistic style and the context in which it emerged, with a focus on the
reigns of Shah Isma'il I (1501-24) and his son, Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576).
Khusrau on his throne
Khamseh of Nizami, 1524
The Metropolitan Museum of
The Formation. The first section of this exhibition focuses on early
Safavid court art under Shah Isma'il I, who united Iran for the first time since
the Arab invasion of the seventh century. An emerging national and Shi'ite
identity was reflected in the development of a distinctive artistic style that
emerged from the embers of the Timurid style. Works represented in this part of
the exhibition include some of the finest creations by early Safavid court
artists and craftsmen, including a complete manuscript, silk textiles, knotted
pile carpets and functional metal objects.
The Golden Age: Shah Tahmasp at Tabriz (1524-55). Safavid court art
flourished as a new artistic synthesis, permeating nearly every aspect of
Iranian culture under the patronage of Shah Tahmasp. The first three decades of
his rule were characterized by conflict and insurrection necessitating constant
movement. During this time, his peripatetic court developed and transmitted a
distinctive Safavid style as a means of underscoring the ubiquity and legitimacy
of their rule in Iran. Painting styles of the Turkmen court of Tabriz and the
Timurid court of Herat were synthesized into a new Safavid idiom characterized
by greater figural depiction and floral and filigree ornament. This section of
the exhibition includes some of the most important objects from this high point
of Safavid art, including delicate drawings on paper, gold inlaid daggers and
swords, and breathtaking book illuminations.
New Patrons and Shah Tahmasp at Qazvin (1555-76). The second half of
Shah Tahmasp's long reign witnessed the maturity of this brilliant artistic
flowering, as well as its spread to neighboring Muslim empires. As Shah Tahmasp
himself gradually became more interested in spiritual matters and moved away
from art, the Safavid style was patronized by other members of the royal family
and the court. It was also disseminated to commercial artists through the
artistic centers of the empire, as the Safavid capital was moved from Tabriz to
Qazvin, located on the east-west trade route leading from India in the east and
Anatolia in the west. During this time of relative peace, prosperity and
increased trade, Safavid arts continued to thrive, and styles and techniques
were transmitted with the flow of goods to Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India.
The objects in the Hunt for Paradise exhibition have been chosen for
their exceptional quality and historical importance, and have been loaned from
more than 30 public and private collections in Europe, North America and Asia.
Major loans include: "The Hunting Carpet," from the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in
Milan, one of only three surviving dated sixteenth-century Persian carpets; the
sumptuous illuminated dedication page and several miniature paintings from the
renowned national epic poem Shahnameh (Book of Kings), finished under
Shah Tahmasp; and folio-sized paintings from the Falnameh (Book of
Divination), commissioned by Shah Tahmasp, unusual for its oversize pages and
atypical text and illustrations. Lavishly crafted precious metal objects, such
as a sword and standard of steel inlaid with gold, demonstrate the extraordinary
quality of steel craftsmanship in the sixteenth century. In addition, the
exhibition includes the British Library's collection of world-famous miniatures
from Shah Tahmasp's Khamseh of Nizami, including the Majnun Brought
in Chains to Layla's Tent and one of the best-known Iranian paintings, the
Ascent of the Prophet.
The exhibition draws its title from notions of paradise and its image as a
garden, the journey of the faithful to a heavenly world and the effort by the
Safavid court to evoke a secular parallel equivalent through the depiction of
the garden. In Islamic art, the depiction of hunting-which played a major role
in Safavid court life and was a favorite pastime of the monarchy-is a metaphor
for the lover's pursuit of the beloved and the soul's search for the Divine. In
Persian poetry, the hunt appears in many guises, both literal and mystical,
involving both the killing of animals with weapons and the metaphor of the snare
or trap. The term "hunting carpet" originally referred to Persian carpets from
the 15th-17th century depicting hunting scenes or animals in combat all within
an intricately designed floral background.
The arts of the book-calligraphy, illustration and binding-were of paramount
importance in Safavid life and culture. The appreciation for manuscript
production during the reigns of Shah Isma'il and Shah Tahmasp led to new styles
and innovations in decoration and binding. The Safavid rulers so valued the
practice and connoisseurship of calligraphy that they conferred on their scribes
the status of court officials. Scribes helped to prepare official documents and
to produce beautifully written copies of literary texts for dynastic members.
Similarly, manuscript painting reached a zenith under Shah Tahmasp as court
artists explored new methods of and inspirational sources for their
illustrations. Miniature painters created designs used in textiles, carpets,
wall paintings and other art forms. Motifs reflected royal imagery such as
hunting, banquets in the open air, and mounted figures in military conquest.
Though royal manuscripts of legend, history and poetry have illustrations
depicting the range of human activity, royal patrons particularly liked to see
themselves clothed in the epic or romantic events of past times. Illustrations
of love and of lovers often show them in a garden with the flowering trees,
silken carpets and cushions, fruits and running water described in the Koran,
combined with sequences of music-making or the hunt. Manuscript paintings can be
interpreted on three levels: they illustrate a specific narrative, they reflect
the traditions of courtly love and they evoke the heavenly garden, with its
chaste and beautiful inhabitants.
A unique feature of the exhibition will be a touch-screen manuscript program
developed in Sweden, which will allow visitors to 'virtually' examine all of the
pages of Jalal o Jamal, one of the important complete manuscripts in
the exhibition. Jalal o Jamal (Majesty and Beauty) is an allegorical
love poem with Sufi undertones composed in Herat by the poet known as Amin,
during the reign of the Timurid Shahrukh (1405-1447). The present handwritten
manuscript is written in a fine nasta'liq (a flowing script used for copying
verse that was developed during the fourteenth century) by the hand of Sultan
'Ali Qa'ini in 1502, and lavishly illustrated with 34 miniatures. While the
manuscript will be displayed open to one page, the touch-screen desk will allow
viewers 'virtually' to turn, view and enlarge additional pages and miniatures,
as well as read commentary on each of the miniatures.
Related Exhibition - TOOBA: Shirin Neshat
As a unique component of the programming related to Hunt for
Paradise, the Asia Society will present the U.S. premiere of Tooba
(2002), a double-screen video installation by the renowned artist Shirin Neshat.
A leading contemporary artist whose videos and photographs draw upon her Iranian
heritage for inspiration, Neshat uses her artwork to explore her very sensitive
and complex relationship to her country of origin. Tooba, one of her
most recent works, is both inspired by Shahrnoush Parsipour's contemporary
novel, Women Without Men and drawn from the story of the Tooba tree in
the Koran. She uses the garden (a recurring motif in Persian art) as a symbol
for both a spiritual longing for paradise and a quest for political power. The
12-minute video is projected on two screens on opposing walls.
According to Melissa Chiu, curator of the exhibition and the Asia Society's
Curator of Contemporary Asian and Asian American Art, "Neshat draws on her
cultural heritage to create works that communicate universal ideas about loss,
meaning and memory. In Tooba, she engages the viewer in a visual
conversation that explores issues such as the immigrant experience, tradition
versus modernity, the position of women and the complexities of Islam. The
exhibition provides an intriguing counterpoint to the historical works of art in
Hunt for Paradise."
Neshat was born in 1957 in Qazvin, Iran, where the Golden Age of Islamic art
flowered. She left Iran in 1974 to study art at the University of California,
Berkeley, and did not return to Iran until 1990. She has held solo exhibitions
in England at Tate Gallery, London (1998), Serpentine Gallery, London (2000) and
in the United States at Walker Art Center (2002) and the Whitney Museum of
American Art, Philip Morris (1998). Tooba was commissioned by Documenta
11 in Kassel, Germany and was the first of Neshat's pieces to be shown in her
native country, at an exhibition in Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art.
TOOBA: Shirin Neshat is on display at Asia Society and Museum from
October 12, 2003 through February 15, 2004.
The Asia Society will present a number of performances and public programs to
coincide with Hunt for Paradise and TOOBA: Shirin Neshat,
providing audiences with an additional contextual framework for enjoying the
exhibitions. As part of its popular "Tea House Series," in which audiences sit
in an intimate bazm-like setting with carpets on the floor, the Asia
Society will present two concerts of Hossein Omoumi, a master singer and one of
the best ney (Persian flute) players from Iran. Through a program of
music, song and recitation, the concerts will bring to life the works of Persian
mystical poets Sa'di, Hafez and Rumi. Additionally, a series of lunchtime
lectures will examine Iran's unique artistic heritage throughout the ages. A
panel discussion will explore ethnic and religious diversity in Iran, past and
present. Another panel will examine contemporary Persian culture and creativity.
Film programs will include Iranian and Iranian American features and
documentaries, ranging from dramas to a rare look into mystic rituals and
religious ceremonies. Programming on the current politics and social issues that
are shaping contemporary Iran are also planned.
Major institutional support for exhibitions and related programs is provided
by The Starr Foundation, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and The Folger
Fund. The exhibitions are supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on
the Arts and Humanities, and supported in part by a grant from the National
Endowment for the Arts, as well as generous contributions from individuals.
About the Asia Society
The Asia Society is America's leading institution dedicated to fostering
understanding of Asia and communication between Americans and the peoples of
Asia and the Pacific. A nonprofit, nonpartisan educational institution, the Asia
Society presents a wide range of programs including major art exhibitions,
performances, media programs, international conferences and lectures, and
initiatives to improve elementary and secondary education about Asia. The Asia
Society is headquartered in New York City, with regional centers in Washington,
D.C., Houston, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia, and
representative offices in San Francisco, Manila and Shanghai.
Asia Society and Museum
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street),
New York City.
(212) 517-ASIA, www.asiasociety.org
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Closed on Mondays and major holidays.
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evenings, 6:00 - 9:00 P.M.