Images of Power and the Power of Images

The central theme of this article is that throughout the constant picturing of himself, his court, and his accoutrements, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar sought to establish his power as leader of the Shi`ite community, mediator between social orders and heir to the ancient traditions. Life-size painting of this period was the visual expression of a self-consciously historicizing ruler and culture. These images provided Persians with an idealized view of their past, parallel to the better-known epic and oral tradition. Thus, Fath ‘ali shah constantly utilized as a vehicle for the formulation of a Persian self-image-albeit centered on his person-well before the better-known manifestations of the Nasiri period.

According to the author, therefore, Fath ‘Ali shah must be recognized as the precursor of the later Persian search for identity. Until primary texts of the period are more accessible, early Qajar imagery- through the intermediary of the imperial and tribal dynastic imagery invented for its greatest patron- provides us with an idealized visual history of how the period pictured itself.

In the final analysis, early Qajar representations present an artificial image of splendor, which did not reflect historical reality. Early Qajar pianting and imagery actually constituted a visual divorce from reality. The indifference of Fath ‘Ali Shah’s successor, Muhammad Shah, to the monuments of his grandfather, the destruction of Fath ‘Ali shah, palaces in the Tehran citadel by Nasir al-Din Shah in the name of progress, and pure neglect all but obliterated this chapter of the Persian figural tradition.

In seeking to understand the function and impact of royal imagery in the early Qajar period, it is imperative to recall that the emotional and psychological power of these images was based on a great visual heritage. Fath ‘Ali Shah’s bas reliefs an images elicited the same reverence accorded to religious images and drew on a tradition of submission to stylized and idealized images of ancient Iranian rulers and their successors. At the same time the vivid palette, rich materials, and decorative patterning of these images was intended to evoke an aesthetic admiration usually reserved for Persian manuscript painting and conjure up images of immense power, boundless wealth, and potency.

Layla S. Diba
Current Issue: 
Past Issue