HUNT FOR PARADISE: COURT ARTS OF IRAN, 1501-1576
OCTOBER 16, 2003 THROUGH JANUARY 18, 2004
Media Preview: October 14, 2003, 12:00 p.m.
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.
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).
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