By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov, Washington
In this illustration from the Great Mongol Shahnameh from the 1330s, Alexander the Great seeks wisdom from a mythical tree at the end of the world.
The curator says she can't help using superlatives in talking about the exhibition, which runs at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington through April 17, 2011.
"Even though it's not a large show, I think it's probably one of the finest shows we've put together in terms of quality. The paintings that you see here are the envy of every museum in the United States," said Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler's chief curator and its curator of Islamic art, as she guided reporters around the exhibition of illustrations from royal editions of the Shahnameh, Iran's Book of Kings.
Most of the 33 paintings on display are "from two of the most celebrated copies of the Shahnameh," Farhad said. Both were created in the royal court in Tabriz, one copy believed to be from the 1330s and the other the 1520s. The earlier one "is considered a watershed in the history of Persian painting," she said. The latter "is considered by some the finest illustrated text ever produced in the Islamic world."
"In terms of refinement and sophistication," she said, the book's illustrations are "the apogee of Persian painting."
The Shahnameh is not widely known to Americans who have no personal connection to Iran. Farhad stressed its importance in Persian literature and life: as a source of children's stories - including some scary ones - and "wonderfully colorful characters" and as an expression of Iranian myth, legend and history. It covers the reigns of 50 kings, real and imagined, from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century.
"Every household has a Shahnameh," she said of Iranian families. "So if you are literate, you can read the stories, [and for a child] the stories would be read to you. Even if you are illiterate, Shahnamehs were recited in coffeehouses, or there were wandering storytellers who would go from village to village and tell these stories," continuing the oral tradition from which the poet Ferdowsi drew many of his stories in the first place.
Farhad conceded that the museum can't be precise about marking the Shahnameh's 1,000th anniversary: Little is certain about Ferdowsi and his masterwork, and no first edition with a publication date is available. Ferdowsi is said to have written the Shahnameh over nearly 30 years for the Samanids, "the first dynasty to encourage the revival of Persian literature" after the Arab conquest, Farhad said. But the Samanids were out of power by the time he finished the work, and he presented it to the Ghaznavid ruler, Mahmud, who was less interested in a book that would celebrate Iran's culture and language.
Nonetheless, Farhad said, it became important for Iranian kings of all sorts to have a personal connection to the Iranian Book of Kings, long before the advent of movable type, by having their calligraphers and artists produce elaborate copies for the king's use. The earliest surviving illustrated copies of the Shahnameh date to the 14th century, when Mongols controlled the area; Farhad referred to the copy from the 1330s as the Great Mongol Shahnameh. The 1520s version is known as the Tahmasb Shahnameh, for the king for whom it was made.
Among the other editions represented at the exhibition is a book made for Tahmasb's son Ismail; that book was not completed because Ismail reigned for only a year.
"It was almost like a badge of honor: You come to the throne, you make yourself a copy of the Shahnameh," Farhad said.
This illustration from the 1520s shows the hero Zal in the simurgh's nest, with the great bird bringing food to its young. A caravan in the foreground has spotted Zal.
Although kings are responsible for the copies of the Shahnameh most prized as works of art, Farhad said, it wasn't kings who made the book popular, and illustrated editions eventually appeared in every Iranian home that could afford one. "The Shahnameh is the most frequently illustrated text in the Islamic world, bar none. And the reason for this is quite obvious: because Ferdowsi's text really appeals to or has appealed over the centuries to everyone, from rulers to ... schoolchildren," she said. "You have a whole host of characters who really lend themselves to illustration, as you see on these folios."
With the artists who produced the royal copies of the Shahnameh, though, the book truly blossomed.
The creation of as elaborate a volume as the Tahmasb Shahnameh is thought to have taken as much as 20 years. Farhad said the royal librarian would have planned the book, deciding which scenes would be illustrated. Each illustration would typically occupy most of a page, with verses above it ending with the scene on the page, and the calligraphers would map out their work so that each verse fell in the proper place.
A team of artists and assistants would paint the scenes in microscopic detail directly onto the paper with opaque watercolors plus gold and silver. The assistants would prepare the materials, the younger artists would paint the backgrounds, and the master artists would paint the main sections.
The artists and calligraphers are anonymous; Farhad said the tradition of signing works did not begin among Persian painters until the end of the 16th century.
Farhad pointed out details in the Tahmasb painting of Zal in the nest of the simurgh. The hero Zal, rejected and abandoned by his father because Zal was an albino, was taken and raised by the mythical bird on a remote mountaintop. In the painting, members of a caravan have spotted the remarkable young man; what they don't see, and what the casual viewer will miss, are the remarkable creatures and spirits hidden in the rocks and bushes of the magical landscape.
"It's hard to believe that anyone can actually paint so finely," she said.
Farhad suggested that while examining the paintings in their frames on the walls of the Sackler Gallery, visitors should imagine them in their proper place: in a book they are reading.
"You have to remember that this [Tahmasb] manuscript, even though it was a big manuscript - this manuscript originally had 258 illustrations, so it would have been quite a hefty tome - but still, the king would probably ... sit down and sort of hold it in his hands." When holding the book, "you have a much closer relationship and you can really focus on the details," she said. "It's a very different visual experience than seeing a painting hanging on the wall."
Unfortunately, she said, "we cannot have these folios and sort of pass them around from one person to the other."
Farhad lamented the "desecration" that had brought the paintings from centuries-old books to the museum's walls. The French art dealer Georges Demotte obtained the 14th-century Great Mongol Shahnameh in the early 20th century and cut out illustrated pages to sell individually. Rare-book collector Arthur A. Houghton Jr. did the same with the Tahmasb Shahnameh beginning in the 1960s, and some of those ended up at the Sackler. The bulk of the book, with many of the illustrations remaining, eventually was bartered for a modern work - a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Willem de Kooning - and became the property of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.
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