Songs of the world
Eager to see the Louvre's new exhibition of Safavid art? Best arrive early to beat the crowds, writes David Tresilian in Paris
The Louvre museum in Paris is presently hosting two exhibitions of Islamic art, the first a major show of the art of Iran under the Safavid dynasty evocatively entitled "song of the world", le chant du monde, and the other a selection of pieces from the collection of His Highness the Aga Khan before it makes its way to Toronto for exhibition in the Aga Khan Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2011. Both exhibitions are very much worth seeing, the first spectacularly so, but both necessitate arriving early in the day. Even outside the summer season the Louvre still manages to attract enormous crowds.
The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran between the early 16th and mid 18th centuries, and it was under the Safavids that the country took the shape that we know today. Safavid rulers established Shi'ism as the state religion, and they successfully unified the various ethnic and linguistic elements then living on Iranian territory, defining the country's borders to the east with the Uzbeks and Afghans and to the west with the Ottomans. Rivalry with the latter dynasty, rulers of a vast Sunni empire that stretched in a great sweep from eastern Europe to Algeria, was a feature of Safavid history, and Safavid shahs, such as Ismail I (reigned 1502--24) and Abbas I (1588--1629), the greatest of them, were at first defeated by and then victorious over the Ottomans.
It was under Shah Abbas that Iran became a great power, reversing Ottoman territorial gains and annexing what is now Iraq to the Safavid empire. It was under Abbas, too, that Safavid art and culture reached its height, with Iranian culture stretching across a vast area from Baghdad in the west to the plains of northern India in the east. While the central and south-west Asian dynasties that grew up and flourished during the Safavid period in Iran often acted as that regime's great rivals, among them the Mughal emperors in India who were originally from what is now Afghanistan, all of them looked to Iran for cultural leadership, as did the Ottomans. Mughal court culture in particular was closely modeled on that of Safavid Iran.
Visiting north-west Pakistan with a party of Iranians some years ago, I remember being struck by the ability of my Iranian co-travelers to make themselves understood to speakers of the local dialects, as well as by their interest in the Persian inscriptions decorating public and religious buildings, including the palaces of the region's former princes. But of course I shouldn't have been: Persian was the language of culture across the region for centuries, at least until well into the British incursions in the 19th century, India's Mughal emperors routinely composing poetry in Persian and decorating their buildings with inscriptions in Persian as well as in Arabic.
Mughal buildings, among them structures such as Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, are developments of the Iranian architecture that flourished at Isfahan in Iran, which was established as the Safavid capital by Shah Abbas in 1592 CE. Anyone who has ever visited Isfahan will not need to be reminded of the magnificence of this city with its gardens and river bridges all laid out around the famous central square and bazaar area, the Naghsh-i Jahan ("half the world"), renamed Imam Khomeini Square after the 1979 revolution. Memories of Isfahan make themselves felt in the Louvre exhibition through shimmering reflections of the Mosque of Lutfallah and the Khwaju Bridge in Isfahan, recreated through an elaborate system of projection.
It is the portable artistic remains of this great culture that are on show in the Louvre exhibition, which has been organised in cooperation with the Iranian authorities and features loaned items from many of the world's great museums, among them the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the Hermitage. Several Iranian museums have lent items, including the Iranian National Museum in Tehran, as has the British royal collection. The Louvre, supported by the oil company Total, has produced a sumptuous catalogue written by curator Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani that shows off the exhibits in page after page of magnificent colour photographs. These bring out particularly well the jewel-like qualities of the Safavid paintings on display.
As the exhibition material explains, Safavid paintings typically presented an enhancement or idealization of the world, and in his catalogue essay Melikian-Chirvani writes that for the Iranian painters the "real world" was "a metaphor for the higher reality of the spiritual world," the contours of which were partly visible in poetry and could be "visually transcribed" in painting. In earlier times such paintings were closely linked to the books they were designed to illustrate, but later free-standing leaves could be admired without reference to an accompanying text.
The subject matter of many of the paintings on display is taken from the Shahnameh -- the "Book of Kings" -- the Iranian national epic recounting the country's history written by the poet Ferdowsi in around 1000 CE. (One episode from this, the story of Sohrab and Rustum, used to be widely known among English-speaking schoolchildren, Matthew Arnold's feeble mid-Victorian version once enjoying the status of an educational "set text".) The colours are brighter and more vivid in these illustrations than they are in reality, making fitting backgrounds to the legendary deeds of the characters of the Shahnameh and to the beautiful youths and maidens that populate the designs.
Melikian-Chervani says that the paintings are best understood as "visual responses" to Ferdowsi's stories rather than as direct illustrations of them. Among the illustrated versions of the Shahnameh represented are leaves from a copy produced in Tabriz in northern Iran in the early 16th century for Shah Tahmasp (reigned 1524-76). This copy, the so-called "Houghton Shahnameh " named after an American collector, is one of the most famous of those produced, and when it was complete it featured some 258 separate paintings. The Louvre exhibition includes some magnificent leaves from the Houghton Shahnameh (lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian), but it makes little of the sad story of the manuscript's dismemberment. Intact until the 1960s when it was owned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, it was acquired by Houghton who sold off the illustrations, the rump of the text eventually finding its way to Tehran, having been "swapped" for a painting by Willem de Kooning.
Apart from the book illustrations, the "Song of the World" exhibition also contains various artifacts of Iranian Safavid court culture, among them ceramics, metalwork, and objects used in festivals and celebrations. I was amused to see fine examples of the kind of decorated pen-boxes that have now taken on a brisk after-life as souvenirs sold at Iranian domestic airports. There are few carpets on display, even though it was during the Safavid period that carpet-making became a national industry in Iran, Shah Abbas setting up workshops at Isfahan and Kashan. The two exquisite silk carpets displayed, lent by institutions in Lisbon and Cincinnati, were made in 1529 for the mausoleum of Imam Reza in Mashhad.
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The second of the Louvre's two exhibitions consists of a selection of objects from His Highness the Aga Khan's collection of Islamic art, and some of the items here are also Iranian, notably leaves taken from the same "Houghton" copy of the Shahnameh that features in the "Song of the World" exhibition. Intended as a panorama of Islamic art from the 8th to the 19th centuries and containing objects made in countries from Spain to India, the Aga Khan collection contains ceramics, metalwork objects, textiles, architectural items, book illustrations and larger paintings, including two striking full-length portraits from the Qajar period in Iran.
There are also some remarkable curiosities, such as a page from a truly monumental copy of the Qur'an made in the 8th century CE and, at the other end of the scale, a complete copy of the Qur'an inscribed onto two more-or-less foolscap-size pages. Made in India in 1866-67 as a work of piety, this is just about legible with the naked eye, but a powerful magnifying glass would be needed for anything approaching comfortable reading.
The Aga Khan Museum is scheduled to open in Toronto in 2011 to a design by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. An architectural model is included in the exhibition. Taken together, a visit to the "Song of the World" exhibition and to the exhibition of items from the Aga Khan collection makes for a fascinating and rewarding excursion, the former exhibition in particular being very well designed and displayed.
Le chant du monde: L'art de l'Iran safavide, 1501-1736, 5 October 2007 to 7 January 2008. Chefs-d'oeuvre islamiques de l'Aga Khan Museum, 18 October 2007 to 14 January 2008. Both at the Louvre Museum, Paris.