Bookbinding with Flowers and Birds Iran, late 18th to early 19th century Musée du Louvre, Paris

Aga Khan Museum shows trends merging with tradition in 19th century Iran

The masterpieces of Iranian art now on exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum tell the story of a society at a crossroads between tradition and transformation, through pieces from the Louvre, Houston’s museum of fine arts, Sackler gallery and McGill University’s special collections vault. The trends are seen in a painting of the first Persian ruler to take full advantage of large-scale portraits as a symbol of power, a gift from Napoleon I, in rare book bindings, European military influences, pre-Islamic Iranian symbols, to Christian references in Persian art.

A microcosm of life in 19th century Iran on a pen case.

The show is not only a collection of beautiful artifacts, but it “provides thought-provoking insights into a dynamic, creative, and sophisticated country much constricted by turbulent realities and western misperceptions, then as today,” says Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, Director of Collections and Public Programs.

The art of 19th century Iran tells powerful stories of a society, like any other, caught between the desire to maintain time-honoured local traditions against the increasing pressure to engage outside influences and currents of innovation. The social and political changes in turn influenced the artistic tradition. In reaction to change there was a conscious revival of Persian traditions. At the same time, these stories reveal how newly imported ‘western-style’ art-forms and technologies, like lithography and photography, not only transformed but transcended traditions and often ushered in new artistic styles by merging with traditional forms of artistic expression.

The title of the exhibition, Transforming Traditions: The Arts of 19th Century Iran, A Country at the Crossroads Between Tradition and Transformation, is a play on words, says Henry Kim, Director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum. It refers to artistic traditions that were transformed by the complex realities in Iran at the time.

“Some societies are able to revive local traditions and convictions, others enthusiastically adopt state-of-the-art ideas and technologies. Many represent a successful fusion of tradition and the latest contemporary trends,” adds Kim.

Transforming Traditions consists of select pieces of art created under the Qajar dynasty between 1785 and 1925. You’ll find rare portraits, paintings, lacquerware, lithographed manuscripts, photography, ceramic tiles, musical instruments, and textiles from a host of international and national collections that give us one portrait of life in Iran around the 19th century.

The pieces are from Iran, during a century of unprecedented change, and perhaps that’s why many of them are on loan from different parts of the world, a majority from the Louvre Museum and other institutions including the musée du quai Branly, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts – Houston, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Textile Museum of Canada, McGill University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, as well as from private collections, featured alongside the Aga Khan Museum’s own collection.

Portrait of Prince Abu'l Fath Mirza Salar al-Dawla (1881-1961)
Sevruguin, Antoin; b&w ; 17.6 cm x 23.8 cm; Myron Bement Smith Collection: Antoin Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Gift of Katherine Dennis Smith, 1973-1985

Taken in the courtyard of the Prince’s house, this photograph captures the Qajar elite’s blending of local traditions and Western elements. The Prince, accompanied by his attendant in traditional attire, is dressed in a European uniform but poses, sword in hand, as his ancestors did in portrait paintings.

Fath Ali Shah, shah de Perse (1771-1834)
Fath Ali Shah, shah de Perse (1771-1834) Ali Mihr (19e siËcle) (atelier de) Paris, musÈe du Louvre

An oil painting depicting Fath ‘Ali Shah enthroned. He was the first Persian ruler to take full advantage of large-scale portraits as symbols of power. He commissioned the painting, which shows him seated on his jewelled throne, as a diplomatic gift for Napoleon I.

Paris, Musée du Louvre. AD12131.

A bookbinding from the late 18th to early 19th century, painted and lacquered with flowers and birds, which were common themes in Persian mystical poetry. This more naturalistic style was inspired by European engravings and botanical manuals.

Order of the Lion and the Sun medal
Order of the Lion and the Sun Iran, ca. 1840 Copyright © Aga Khan Museum

The rulers of 19th-century Iran were inspired by European systems of military hierarchy and decoration. This is reflected in a medallion that takes its star shape from British and French designs and its lion and sun theme from Iranian royal symbols going back to pre-Islamic times.

Mirror Case  Iran, ca. 1825-1850 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Mirror Case Iran, ca. 1825-1850 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of A. Soudavar in memory of his mother Ezzat-Malek Soudavar S2014.17.90

Painted and lacquered artworks of all kinds were popular in mid-1800s Iran, but an exhibition highlight is a mirror case which shows a scene – a mother and child surrounded by angels – that echoes Christian themes and is painted in a European style.

Pen Case. Signed by the court painter Muhammad Isma‘il
Pen Case. Signed by the court painter Muhammad Isma‘il Iran, 1864-65 Copyright © Aga Khan Museum

A microcosm of the artistic, literary, and spiritual preoccupations of 19th century Iran, the pen case shows scenes from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the early 11th century Persian epic poem, and from Sufi poems, along with portraits of famous Sufi mystics, and of the Shah and his courtiers.

Transforming Traditions runs from September 22, 2018 to February 10, 2019 at the Aga Khan Museum  with a diverse series of events, and public programs.

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