Monday, November 7, 2011

Stories in Miniature

By Heidi Noroozy

Persian art comes in so many varied and rich traditions, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite. Would I choose carpet weaving, examples of which adorn the floors in every room of my house – and even some of the walls? Or mina, the lovely enamelware with geometric designs that could have come straight off a blue-tiled mosque? I'd consider khatam, the fine marquetry that consists of tiny bone and precious metal inlays arranged into intricate patterns. And ghalamzani, the art of metal engraving I wrote about a few weeks ago, would definitely be on the list.

But if I were honest with myself, I’d skip over all those lovely art forms and pick Persian miniature painting, which is probably also the Iranian visual art form best known in the West. If you've ever wandered through the Islamic art section of a museum, you may have seen many examples of Persian miniatures. While this style of painting originated in Iran, it is found today in many other regions, from Turkey to Central Asia to India.

The term “miniature” is a bit misleading, since many of these paintings are quite large, even covering entire walls of a building. The word really refers to the fact that the pictures are so packed with rich detail and multiple scenes, that the figures they portray must be quite small.

Barbad Plays for Khosrow
by Mirza Ali, 1539-43

Persian miniature painting dates back to the early days of Islam (7th century), when wealthy patrons commissioned them as book illustrations (many of which were illuminated with real gold and silver). The patrons certainly had to be rich as Croesus, since it could take a miniaturist up to a year to complete a single picture.

Battle of Timur and the Egyptian King
by Bezhad, 15th/16th Century

This art form flourished during the Timurid era (1387—1502), a dynasty ruled by the descendants of Mongolian invaders who'd arrived 100 years earlier (think: Genghis Khan). The Mongolians promoted Chinese art, and the Persian miniatures of this period were heavily influenced by themes from the Far East, including Asian mythical elements such as dragons.

Bahram Gur's Battle with the Dragon, 14th Century

The Chinese influence waned during the Safavid period (1502—1722). Miniatures moved away from book illustrations to artwork that stood on their own. Shah Abbas I, who established Esfahan as the Safavid capital in 1598, was an amateur miniaturist and summoned many great masters to his court. Among them was Reza Abbasi, who is still considered one of the greatest miniaturists of all time. He advanced the form by painting the human form in a more natural way (read: not always beautiful), adding perspective and shadow to the two-dimensional style of earlier eras.

Two Lovers, Attributed to the
Court of Shah Abbas I

The 20th century saw another shift in Persian miniature painting, starting with Mahmoud Farshchian (born in 1930). His paintings have a more mystical feel, with ephemeral figures, flowing lines, and a sense of constant movement. (I can practically feel the wind in my face when looking at some of his work.) Having studied and worked in Iran, Europe, and the United States (he currently lives in New York), Farshchian combines Eastern and Western styles in his paintings, which makes his work more familiar to the Western eye.

Mahmoud Farshchian

The themes explored in Persian miniatures are drawn from religion and mythology as well as portraying hunting scenes, polo matches, historical events, and lovers. In traditional miniatures, colors are bold and high contrast, with little shading and no perspective, while those in the Farshchian school are more muted and varied, contrasting shadow with light.

Mahmoud Farshchian

But what fascinates me the most about these works of art is their richness of detail. I can lose myself in a painting, always discovering new figures and motifs I’d missed the first time around. And the second. And the third. These paintings have tales to tell, and the longer you look at them, the more layers of narrative you’ll find. The right medium for a storyteller, don't you think?

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