Before it was known by its modern name in 1935, Iran was known for centuries—at least in the Western world—as Persia, a name that reflected the language of the same name and the culture that was part of it.
In the 1970s, academics coined another term – Persianate – to describe a society based on or influenced by Persian language and culture, as well as literature and art. This influence, scholars say, extended far beyond the physical borders of Persia/Iran for hundreds of years.
A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art takes a closer look at some of that art, tracing work that in many cases dates back hundreds of years and connected people and ideas across a region stretching from Iran to Today’s India and Bangladesh. .
“Painting the Persian World: Portable Images on Paper, Cloth and Clay” includes illustrations from manuscripts, dyed textiles and decorated ceramics, mostly from the 13th to 19th centuries, that display a range of mediums and tell a story in which artistic motifs and ideas traveled thousands of kilometers across mountains, deserts and rivers.
SCMA officials say the new exhibition is the first comprehensive project at the museum to examine Iranian and Indian art from the perspective of multiple mediums.
“Portability was a big part of what enabled these motifs to move across borders,” Amherst College professor Yael R. Rice said during a recent tour of the exhibit.
Rice, who specializes in the art and architecture of South Asia and Greater Iran, co-curated the exhibition with Yao Wu, curator of Asian Art at the SCMA.
Rice noted that a recent graduate from Smith as well as a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst also assisted with the exhibit, while the artwork itself, though drawn primarily from the SCMA collection, includes material from Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges ( and some other sources).
“So it’s at least a four-college effort,” she said with a laugh.
Rice and Wu say that painting in the Persian world had a different meaning than in the West. The painted works in the exhibit are mostly drawn from what are known as “scattered manuscripts,” for which they were used as illustrations to help tell a story, Wu said.
Wu noted that as these manuscripts—an early form of literature—were carried by various people in the vast region of present-day Iran and Afghanistan to present-day Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, they helped spread many artistic ideas and storytelling styles.
“These were not large paintings that could not be easily moved,” Wu said. “They were portable, their ideas and styles were portable.”
Some of the earliest illustrations and writings in the exhibition date from the “Book of Kings” or “Shahnama”, an epic poem – 50,000 rhyming couplets – by the Iranian poet Abu’l Qasim Firdawsi that he began around 977 AD and did not was not completed until about 1010 AD.
It is a history of the kings of Iran from the beginning of civilization until Islam arrived in the country in the 7th century. As the exhibition notes explain, that story became so popular that many Iranian and non-Iranian “elites” commissioned their own copies in the following centuries, making the Book of Kings a key element in the formation of the Persian world.
A number of the exhibition’s illustrations appear with text or some kind of support, indicating that they were once actually part of a larger manuscript. Most are composed on paper, art created from opaque watercolors, ink and gold, and they are notable for both their rich colors and imaginative story lines.
For example, Rice pointed to a late 18th-century illustration from India, “The Battle Between Hanuman and Kumbhakarna,” that she said used a technique known as “continuous narrative,” in which the artist “combined multiple events in a single frame”. (In the work, Hanuman is a monkey god who fights a great demon, Kumbhakarna.)
“The artist plays with scale to show the passage of time,” said Rice, who noted that Hanuman and his monkey army appear three times, while Kumbhakarna, because of its size, is depicted only twice.
Wu and Rice noted that artistic ideas and motifs also traveled from Iran in textiles, such as tapestries and other wall hangings, and in ceramics.
In an exhibit that features many small illustrations that were once part of manuscripts—some artworks have magnifying glasses placed nearby so visitors can better examine the details—two of the largest works on display are collections of plates of painted.
“Garden Party,” for example, consists of 12 colorful panels, previously separated but now arranged in a square, that were likely painted in Iran in the 17th or 18th century. They depict a female dancer and several musicians performing for a number of men drinking tea or wine in a walled garden.
An even more interesting display is constructed of seven somewhat larger painted panels, arranged on the gallery wall in the form of a rough key, depicting a “saqi” (a cupbearer), an Iranian court officer from the 16th, whose duties would have included serving at royal tables.
The artwork — stone paste with paint and polychrome glaze — is beautiful, but what’s more interesting is the work’s provenance. Wu explained that the tiles were once part of an elaborate design on the front of a pavilion in Isfahan, the capital of Iran’s Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722).
The exhibition notes include a photograph taken of the original tile design in the pavilion by the Dutch photographer Albert Hotz sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century.
This is worth noting, says Wu, as a reminder that many of the works in the SCMA exhibition came to the museum (and other museums) from 20th-century Western art collectors who bought them unknowingly, or perhaps without took care of their original contexts.
“That’s one of the things we wanted to do — show this art the way it was originally presented, or explain how it was presented,” she said.
“Painting the Persian World” runs through July 7 at the Smith College Museum of Art.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected].