Archive for June, 2011

Persian painting part 2

June 25, 2011

Due to my stunning inability to find decent reproductions of Jalaryid work, it seems most expeditious to jump forward to the work of the most famous Persian minaturist, Bihzad.

Kamal ul-din Bihzad. Yusuf and Zukhaleia. From a Bustan of Saadi, the so-called "Cairo Bustan". c. 1488

This paticular illustration is from a manuscript of  Saadi’s Bustan that is the only thing universally accepted as being by Bihzad. The situation with him is a bit like the situation with Giotto: a tiny number of certain pieces, a somewhat smaller handful of works that are probably but not certainly by him, and a whole mass of work that historians fight over.

On to the painting: First off, this painting shows the mark of the shift that happened under the Jalaryids(one of the states from after the Ilkhanate fell apart) and under the Timurids in its elaboration. It’s fairly clear if you compare it to the foilo from the Great Mongol Shahnama how the setting has been elaborated much more than the very sketchy Illkhanid manner and there’s also much more finely painted detailwork. It’s also noticable how much more of the page the image has taken over. Where Bihzad’s contribution to Persian painting comes through is first in the organization of the mansion and second in the relation shown between the figures. As becomes clear once the Persian convention that “up is back”, Bihzad has worked out how the mansion depicted is organized in space. This is particularly visible with the projecting balcony and the presence of a stairwell. Bihzad’s other notable contribution is the depiction of human behavior in a way that reflects the figures depicted. This is detectable in the gesture of Zukhalya grabbing Yusuf’s arm. That she is shown going so far and not simply gesticulating may profitably be contrasted with the attitudes of Iskander’s attendants in the previous post’s image, who  do not seem to take very much notice of Iskander himself. Overall, therefore, what is new in Bihzad is a strengthend commitment to the naturalistic depiction of human life. It may seem a bit odd to suggest this as a goal of Persian painting but there is literary precedent for the idea that art should be realistic. Nizami, in his Khamsa, makes several references to painters that compare them to mirrors and suggest that a goal of painters is to use the intellect to correctly reproduce the physical world.

Persian Manucscripts part 1

June 16, 2011

Hello! Now that I’m reasonably free of schoolwork and need to spend less time on a certain website, I’m getting this blog back on track. As part of a general program of more non-Italophilic material, I’m starting a short little series on Persian manuscript painting. We’ll start by looking at the Demotte or Great Mongol Shahnama as an example of the Illkhanid period work in this post. The next three posts will be on the later Ilkhanid and Timurid schools, then on Bihzhad, and then a concluding post on the Houghton Shahama

Iskandar and The Talking Tree. From the Great Mongol or Demotte Shahnama. Tabriz, c. 1330-40. Freer Gallery, Washington

A note on the name: This leaf comes from the so-called Demotte Shahnama, which was cut up and suffered a variety of other indignities* by that art dealer in the late 19th cetury and the surviving leaves wound up in various institutions. Because of this, some scholars prefer to call the manuscript the Great Mongol Shahnama. I tend to call it the Demotte Shahanama, mostly because it’s faster to say/type.

This paticular illustration is of Iskandar (Alexander the Great, who occupies a remarkably prominent place in the Shahanama). This image in part draws on extant persian and mongol artwork. The moon face (oval, small mouth, almond eyes) of Iskandar and the other two figures
*fun fact: It took a conference in the 1980s to realize that the text of some leaves didn’t have images matching text. Turns out our friend Demotte moved images onto image-less leaves so he’d have more to sell.

Now there are two especially noteworthy features of this image. The first is the face of Alexander, and of the two male figures. The notable almond eyes, small mouth, and oval face are features of the moon-face that is the conventional ideal of beauty in mideval persian art. It’s fairly standard on bowls. Related to this is the comparative simplicity of the landscape, which is much less detailed and subtilzed as later Timurid and Savafid landscapes would be. The other notable thing is that there is a landscape. We don’t see  one in early painted pottery and we don’t see one in the only surviving pre-Illkhanid manuscript, a Varqa wa Gusha now in Istanbul( Topkapi MS. 841, if you are curious). My guess is that the landscape came in from chinese influences. Certainly the Chinese painters were held in great esteem(along with the Rumi painters). There are fairly clear chinese features in the rocks and to some extent in the tree trunk; other manuscripts are even more strongly Chinese-flavored. This introduction had a major effect on Persian painting; it seems to my untrained eye to have united illustration and depiction in a way that had happened in the Maqamat illustrations for the Baghdadi school. At this moment, the little page stands out as striving for the monumental in a way that is also distinct from what will come later in the Timurid period.

NEXT: The Timurids and their sucessor states.