The Hidden Eye: An Approach to Persian Painting

Oleg Grabar

March 2003

Over the past ten years or so, an unusually and unexpectedly large number of intellectually significant and scholarly books and articles have appeared which deal with whatever it is that we call Persian painting. Why this is so after two or three decades of relative dearth is a bit of a puzzle with which I shall not deal except a little bit toward the end of my talk. In fact, I wrote one of these new books and the story of that book, an elementary introduction to the study of Persian painting, can serve to present the topic of my lecture. The book began in French, as the editors of a series called Islamiques, destined to present short but scholarly introductions to aspects of Islamic studies that are not usually part of standard surveys, asked me for a book on Persian painting, about which nothing existed in French. I was allowed to provide only 16 black and white illustrations, because, as the editors emphasized, they wanted a work of scholarship, not an art book. The editors of the American version, a literal translation, on the contrary, not only wanted many pictures, but even color pictures made possible eventually through a gift from some of my wealthier former graduate students. And, from being called simply but accurately “Persian Painting,” the book became “Mostly Miniatures,” which is a bit meaningless but catchy enough, I am told, to sell well. Have color pictures of fairly high quality diminished the intellectual value of the text? Probably so, since one can look at the book and even enjoy it without reading a word of it, hardly a possibility with the drab pictures of the French edition belonging to the only kind that had existed until the sixties and through which the History of Art was taught everywhere. But, then, are seeing images and reading about them entirely different pursuits which start from different premisses and lead into different sensory and intellectual directions? Is the historian of cultures satisfied with words which only need a fleeting black and white trigger to make their point? Is the historian or critic of art primarily affected by visual impressions and in little need of verbal expression?

These questions are not, at least should not be, peculiar to Persian painting. But, in other fields, they have been diluted by decades of practice and habits. With Persian painting, the sudden appearance of books and articles which range indeed from collections of words to collections of pictures, from beautifully illustrated studies to articles accompanied by perfunctory visual appendices, this appearance does raise more substantial questions than whatever occurs when new sets of images are suddenly available to the public of students and amateurs of art. Why is that so? Something special about Persian painting? Or simply new, post-modern, attitudes towards the arts?

Let me first set the stage of how and what we know about that painting.

For over a century the study of Persian painting has been the concern of a small number of wealthy and educated men, most of them European and American. It was dominated by the needs, ambitions, and vanities of private collectors and by the history and background of public collections. Museums and libraries, being public institutions were, and still are, responsible for the preservation of whatever is in their care and for making it available to all those who wish to see them. Museums have concentrated on paintings, in whatever shape they appear, frescoes, single pages, or illustrations in books; libraries have, most of the time, limited their interest to manuscripts, because of their primary concerns for the written text. Private collections have reflected the variety of purposes any one owner may have: financial investment and, as a result, keeping works of art in Swiss banks, personal pleasure and enjoyment, or serving as guardians of a national heritage. Most of the time, only close acquaintances know what is in private hands and I can provide you with half a dozen stories of the social, political, or personal obstacles for access by students and scholars to these hidden treasures often controlled by unusual, if not always attractive, personalities.

There is nothing new about collecting paintings in Iran itself or in most of the other major centers of Islamic culture under Iranian influence, at least since the thirteenth century, as the gathering and sponsoring of paintings in books, and later albums, has been for centuries a major aspect of court patronage. In the past, this traditional collecting was closely connected with the production of paintings and of books; the institution most directly connected with painting was the kitabhane, atelier, treasure house, and library-museum, all wrapped up in one. This is quite different from the collecting of the past one hundred years which is almost totally independent of art schools. The owners now are, usually, interested in works of art of old, not in the creativity of today, at least not from Iran or the Islamic world. Most of the new collectors have been westerners and, more or less until the thirties of last century, they could profit from a time of political, psychological, and cultural decline in the Islamic world. As a result, with the exception of Istanbul and some parts of India, where many treasures still remain, the vast majority of the great works of Persian painting lies outside of Iran or of the broadly construed Iranicate world. One of the nefarious results of collecting has been to remember pictures according to the place where they are now rather than who painted them and where. By grouping paintings into collections, scholarship concentrated on accidentally selected individual items. Chronotopic exhibitions are rare and, as is usually the case with loan exhibitions, the catalogues that exist were written before the objects were gathered for study and avoid comparative studies, a few exceptions notwithstanding. An important and slightly more learned approach favored by collectors is that of attribution. A variety of Persian texts have provided lists of names of painters, occasionally brief biographies and judgements, and sometimes rather cryptic information about what made them better or different from each other. We are told about schools and teachers and a sort of tree can be drawn of a succession of dominant talents or of centers of patronage suggesting an evolution in the art of painting. Signatures exist as well, but many have been added later and only a small number can be assumed to have been put there by the artists themselves. These difficulties did not hinder the attribution of many paintings to specific artists, because methods for the identification of hands have been well honed in the study of western and Chinese painting. Books and articles devoted entirely or in large part to individual painters –Behzad, Riza-i Abbasi, Siyavush, Sultan Muhammad, Mo’in, Muhammad Zaman– have come out in recent years and, in assorted studies, the personalities of these painters have been explored at some length.

To study individual artists requires jumping from one collection to the other and favors those students and scholars who are fortunate enough to be able to travel and to accumulate photographs, slides, microfiches, transparencies, and other cumbersome means of access to images. In recent years, such investigations into Persian painting have become more and more difficult and expensive. Countries have restricted access to their treasures or have themselves become less accessible. The taking of pictures is often forbidden and the acquisition of photographs prohibitive. The bureaucracy of permissions surrounding the rights to reproduce anything requires a brigade of helpers that exist for movies or TV shows, but not for graduate students or academics. On the whole, one can only regret, in fact scream at, the difficulties and expenses which surround any work on Persian painting, difficulties and expenses which affect most particularly young students who are not financially privileged. Largely independently of these obstacles, a third way of dealing with Persian painting has developed. It is the monograph based on a single manuscript. Suddenly the painting is seen not as an independent image, but as part of the enhancement of a book. Together with writing or calligraphy, illumination, and binding, a painting appears as one element in the making of a particular object, the book, for which reading and looking, reciting and silently musing, can all be imagined. The important point, however, is that with the book as its home, the image, the miniature, the illustration acquires a very special physical and social context. It can be kept closed on a shelf or on a table, it can be looked at by one’s self or, at best, in a group of two or three, it becomes part of personal or collective rituals which we are only beginning to understand. Several recent books, articles, and doctoral dissertations have initiated such codicological analyses of illustrated books. Many more are needed before it becomes possible to put together a very different commentary on Persian painting than that of collectors and connoisseurs, one that integrates that painting with history, with every moment of the times in which paintings were made, seen, treasured, and possibly imitated, and with the complexity of viewers’ responses to these paintings. But, however important this approach may be, its holistic purpose of understanding and explaining a book, a codex, may well be different from the purpose of understanding painting.

To be complete, I should add a fourth way of dealing with Persian painting –beyond collecting and connoisseurship, individual artists and attributions, illustrated books and their context. It is the thematic study of elements like landscapes, compositions, representations of people, esoteric and other symbols. Such iconographic and stylistic studies are included in some of the existing surveys, but they are still too few in numbers and quality to lead to significant conclusions.

I could develop any one of these approaches, especially the last two –codicological or iconoformal- with which I am in particular empathy, and either proceed with the deep analysis of one manuscript, one image, or one theme, or else I could skip from one example to the other and provide a sort of partial survey of the ways in which they operated on those who ordered them, made them, and saw them. I chose, however, to try something else, to deal with a query that has intrigued me over the past fifteen years or so and for which I have not found an adequate solution or answer. The issue is this. Everyone recognizes certain paintings as being Persian or Persian-related, even if one can learn to distinguish the separate strings it wove in Mughal India or the Ottoman court. Why this recognition? Can it be articulated in words? Or does it have to remain an inchoate “feeling,” an acknowledgment that cannot be expressed in simple words, an obvious defeat for a professional intellectual and academic, unless one follows James Elkins’ recent book on paintings and puzzles and simply acknowledge that no words can ever do more than evoke something seen? Is, then, the only language accurate for high painting that of poetry, that is to say of a parallel discourse rather than a translation into descriptive or explanatory prose? And, even if we say that there is a Persian or Iranian “style” (whatever this confusing term means), how is it identified and how does it contrast with other “styles”? Is the originality of that art something that lies inside the paintings themselves –their subjects, the manner of their execution– or in the reaction of certain categories of viewers –the involvement with rich color schemes that so fascinated Matisse, Kandinsky, or Goncharova? Is it perhaps altogether wrong to try to define the “persianness” of Persian painting, unless one feels it necessary to return to nationalistic times, like those of World War II, when Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who was not English by birth or training, felt compelled to write about the “Englishness” of English art? Should one not talk instead about the beauty and effectiveness of an artist’s accomplishment, regardless of who the artist was and where he worked? And, on another level, what are the components of this painting from a sixteenth century miniature in the Freer Gallery? Who can see what, beyond color and shapes, from a distance? I shall not even try to answer these questions, although ultimately historians and critics of this century will have to deal with them. What I will try to do is to outline an approach to the Persian art of painting which has been suggested to me by a peculiarity found in illustrations of two well-known stories within the Persian lyrical-epic tradition and in a peculiar detail of one painting. One miniature from a fifteenth century Anthology shows a body of water separated from the rest of the world by high mountains. A group of strange females in bathing suits made of feathers and endowed with feathery bird wings is depicted enjoying a sort of beach party. But it is not we, the observers standing or seated outside of the picture plane, who are the only witnesses to the scene. It is also Alexander the Great and a few of his followers who are hiding behind the rocks. In other words, we are shown someone else in the picture looking at the main scene and in fact justifying its depiction. We are supposed to see Alexander the Great looking at these fantastic women, not simply to look at them ourselves.

And here is another example from a somewhat later illustrated Nizami manuscript. Once again a group of women, this time not covered with feathers, have shed and dropped their clothes in an enclosed space and are having a pleasurable time in and around a pool of water. But behind the blinds of a window we can barely detect an eye, the eye of the heroic Persian king Bahram Gur secretly contemplating a vision of erotic beauty. We are shown what a strange periscope, the hidden eye of a hero, can see. The subject of this painting is not what we are looking at but the wonderment of the king who sees it all from his secret vantage-point. And to make my argument even more artificial and contrived, in a large miniature published recently by a young colleague and myself, we discovered, very late in our endless survey of the painting, a small key on the floor, lying next to a pen-case and with no apparent iconographic purpose. It is as though it was hidden from view because it was like a secret key that could open up the meaning of this picture or of something else. And, to show that the problem is a vaster one than being simply Persian, let me quote a passage from Thoreau’s Walden Pond, which I discovered with pleasure in a forthcoming article by another young colleague dealing with Islamic art theory: ”A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” An eye, that hides and yet opens up into one’s soul and a barely accessible key without a purpose are the themes around which I will weave my talk and argue that the main achievement of Persian painting, at least at its highest levels of success and quality, was, wilfully or not, to help the viewer discover something about him and herself.

My argument is going to be that the grand tradition of Persian miniature painting, as it developed between circa 1300 until the seventeenth century, can best be understood if we imagine that each major painting (more routine examples are to be studied in a different way) has a secret, a hidden eye or something else that can take the viewer on and lead him or her to an understanding of a work of art. For, there is, at first glance, something forbidding in the festival of colors in a typical Persian miniature: dozens of personages, male and female at times difficult to distinguish from each other, prosaic activities that hardly seem to matter, minuscule charades reproducing events that hardly make much sense, unreal flatness of the spaces involved with theatrical effects for a costume party rather than a meaningful work of visual art. Is that really so? Or is there something else in these tantalizing images? Let me jump into these miniatures by using the opportunities offered by a photography which has replaced the eye of the beholder and show you a selection of details from paintings ranging in date from the first third of the fourteenth century to the latter part of the sixteenth. I shall go rapidly through these images largely in order tp dazzle you with visual impressions organized in a more or less chronological way:

-an angel floating through space and carrying the model of a city, Jerusalem in this case, with its mosque and even a river crossing it; – a bearded man kneeling either in adoration or in search of a favor, with a striking face and beard;

– a rather obtuse-looking ruler with a look of surprise or simply boredom on his face, in his royal attire depicted with much precision;

– a window opening inward with the bust of a woman belonging to some external world peeking into the image, and with the gesture of the long forefinger to the mouth saying “I have an emotion,” drawn and painted in a very impressionist way;

– a knight in shining armor with a ridiculous stick as a weapon that should not scare anyone;

– a beautiful horse’s head with precise details clearly emphasized; – a chorus of men of many ages who have put on sack clothes, with pained faces lamenting a death;

– another ruler, this time resplendent in his youth and elegance with white and blue combinations of color and without the slightest hint of emotion;

– a more mature ruler in conversation with some one and inviting through the arrangement of details to imagine the topic of their talk;

– an adolescent prince standing in a landscape of weird colors and unusual shapes of people and animals (blue camel); a dream or a nightmare?

– two lovely women, one a princess, standing like floral arrangements between blossoming bushes; their heads are pushed forward beyond their bodies, as though they were looking for something or someone;

– genre scene of a boy on a roof and a man carrying a light; – a woman doing the laundry with hands decorated with henna and being entertained by an old man whose intentions may not be entirely pure;

– a sill for the making of alcohol tended by two black personages; – the ways of making paper in an artisan’s shop;

– a couple fighting it out in a brilliant architectural setting; – another couple, this time in bed, with their slippers neatly arranged at the foot of the bed; a sort of bourgeois scene of blissful love except for the crown of the man;

– a boy with his pet animals shown in striking technique of paint;

– an angel flying down elegantly to watch over poor humans;

– a single, heavily composed, personage acting out mourning pain by leaning heavily on an almost invisible staff;

– a face of sadness or concern for something that can only be imagined through our own imagination;

– a monstrous bird of many joyful colors hiding an albino baby in the midst of a rocky landscape;

– frolicking and frightening (or are they really?) monsters;

– expressionistic figures of monstrous human figures, possibly caricatures, but, more probably visions from some fantasy world; – subdued monsters looking like children that have been punished; – a quizzical old lady with a finger to her mouth in the midst of lively rocks;

– a strange old man, half-naked and either frightened or mad, peeking out of a rocky landscape;

– composition of animals in nature;

– two examples of landscape alive with people and animals;

– people and animals in the midst of a fantastic nature; are they part of nature or separated from it, intrusions from a human world in a transcendental one?

The point of these examples, which can easily be multiplied, is simple, even if not one of them is simple to explain by itself. We saw a wide variety of personages, monsters, attitudes, landscapes, buildings, and a few women and animals as well. We saw humor and tragedy, sadness and vanity. We saw brilliance of design and wild imagination with colors. More deeply, we saw pictures that are strikingly powerful in penetrating in our minds and in becoming fixed, almost like leeches, in our memories. Like items highlighted or discovered by searchlights projected on to apparently undifferentiated surfaces, our details have transformed segments (each one is only a few centimeters square) into wholes, ends in themselves. They seem artificial and arbitrary or made possible by the talents of photographers and the sophistication of photographic technology. But in fact they reflect two amazing features of Persian painting which allow us to identify two important approaches to the History of Art in general.

The first one is that these details bring to the fore the creators of these images, the artists themselves. One can feel in them the movement of the pen or of the brush, as a flower, an animal, or a person acquires flesh, is constructed on paper. And Persian writers from the Timurid and Safavid periods always acknowledged and praised the technical mastery of details that defines the quality of a painter. Here is one example in the wonderfully flowery style of the sixteenth century writer Khwandamir as translated by Wheeler Thackston: “Most accomplished of all artists in the world, acknowledged master in his craft, Behzad, unique in his age, in whose time Mani has been relegated to fable, Through his mastery the hair of his brush has given life to inanimate form. In precision of nature he is hair splitting……..Ever since the album of the celestial spheres has been painted with the light-shattering shapes of the moon and sun, the ray of imagination of no insightful geometer has ever fallen upon the likes of the shapes that adorn these folios. Every drop that the diver of the pearl-raining pen brings forth from the murky depths of the inkpot to the shore of these folios is a priceless pearl, and every picture that the artist of the mind has transformed from the tablet of the heart to the pages of this book is a houri that delights the spirit..” It is easy to scoff at and make fun of these images and metaphors, but it is impossible to feel the paintings without something of the mind-set that appreciated them.

And my second example comes from the fascinating manual for artists composed in the late sixteenth century by Sadiqi and translated by the late Martin Dickson “For the making of the brush, you must procure the hairs of a squirrel’s tail {in another text, a three months old kitten’s neck}. Be sure these are taken from the softer parts of the fur. Detach a tuft sufficient for the needs of your brush and vigorously comb out its separate hairs, ranging side by side those which do not show a hair’s breadth of difference in their lengths. A perfect brush is now in the making , provided that torn hairs have not inadvertently been included..” Then he proceeds to explain how a painter operates, by learning sets of formulas for individual things and by having at his disposal an array of technical aids like gold plaques, silver, and so on. There are different categories in these formulas. For animals and plants, you follow masters. For individuals you can go to nature. Yet most of the manual deals with how to make a ground, how to set glue for colors, how to obtain certain hues, and so forth. There is no talk of a whole painting or drawing nor of compositions, not to speak of meanings, technically iconographic, metaphoric, or mystical, only of the ways to make the myriad of details which make up a painting.

Persian painters and writers have acknowledged something that has been true of all artistic traditions until the twentieth century. Much in classical Chinese painting consists in endless variations on simple themes and Flemish painting from the fifteenth century onward has similarly become a show case of artistic refinement in developing a painting’s surface, including at times, just as with contemporary Persian painting, most incongruous and unexpected details. Why did this happen? Although the matter needs further elaboration, let me provide two possible reasons. One is the operation of the kitabkhane, the atelier of classical Persian painting. Set at or around a princely court, it consisted of teams of artists and artisans, probably also apprentices, each one with a speciality in a technique (this or that color), in a subject (animals, for instance), or in a detail, such as beards in which, according to one source, Behzad was somewhat weak. Any one painting is, most of the time, a collective work that may have been designed or eventually approved by a master, the ustadh of so many signatures and attributions, but which bears the imprint, at times identifiable, most of the time incorporated within the mood of the image, of several hands. The recognition of a given artist or technician could, of course, only come through the awareness of and feeling for these masses of details, although the fact of many hands did not necessarily mean that the recognition of such hands was important; it meant rather that a certain standard of quality was expected which was not meant to be seen and recognized by the viewer, but by the patron and producer of the painting. In short, and I can be shor by many of my colleagues, the search for individual hands or for attributions is a mistaken endeavor in Persian painting, unless one only seeks to understand a manufacturing process, not the originality of the image. It is also possible, on a more mundane level, that the economics of an atelier was regulated through some accounting of these details, as has been suggested recently by studies on Mughal miniatures, but this aspect of the question still needs further elaboration.

The other reason for this manner of creating paintings may lie in the unique way of Iranian (but also in related ways Arab, Turkic, Mongol, and Hindu) creativity in the arts in general, especially in poetry. There, a common exercise was (and at times still is today) to gather as a group and to compete with each other in exchanges of verses or of hemistiches, of compliments, and of songs, the whole often accompanied with food and drinks. The pleasure of the arts was a collective achievement and in a collective creativity any one individual’s contribution may well drown the chorus of those around him, but it is meaningless without that cheer. Each major painting of Persian art is thus a paradoxical contrast between the recognized importance and uniqueness of an artist’s talent and the subjugation of his own work by the work of many helpers and colleagues. These are further reasons why traditional connoisseurship bent on the identification of the hand of the artist has so rarely been successful in dealing with Persian painting. It is also why signatures are so rare and so well hidden within pictures. The image could not succeed without the work of individuals, but no individual except a master designer was entitled to be recognized. I should add here that my hypothesis applies to illustrations in court sponsored books up to the end of the sixteenth century. There is a whole other tradition beginning in the sixteenth century which does give priority to individual artists, but this is another story and another lecture.

But there may well be more. In a fascinating book entitled “The Detail,” the French historian of art Daniel Arasse argued that, beyond demonstrating the quality and character of artists and, in our case, artisans involved in making pictures, details are the concrete locus of what he calls “truth in painting.” What he meant by this is that details, far better and more surely than whole compositions, represent what things are and, in a more subtle way, the way in which an artist or a patron wants them to be seen (the eye) or discovered (the key), and then remembered. The whole picture is superficial and standardized, as it drowns details under more or less set compositional devices or slick presentations. The detail is always true, even if imaginary, because the meaning of the whole image depends upon the impact made by a score of small, individualized, units. In linguistics, these would be equivalent to phonemes and morphemes, but they are not quite equivalents, for one main reason. Phonemes (sounds or letters), morphemes (words or syllables) are neutral and can be transferred from one text to the other. And this is indeed what happens in routine and repetitive paintings which are numerous indeed. In the masterpieces of Persian painting, the detail is more than a segment in a sequence of details. It is an invitation to contemplate the whole. As one studies these paintings, one can begin to learn how an artist moves from one detail to another through glances, gestures, or poses and invites the viewer to a trip within the image.

Let me give you two examples. One is fairly early, from the so-called Great Shahname of the 14th century. Within a rigid architectural framework a large number of personages are seated or standing, making gestures without apparent purpose. But then from the head in the upper left window opening on to the picture to the window on the upper right that opens to the outside, there is a constant movement of eyes and gestures directing the viewer through the whole image and centering on the bewilderment of the court at the sight of the two snakes in the shoulder of the mean king Dhahhak and finally letting him escape through the window whose shutters open to the outside. My other example is the dream of Dhahhak in the Shahname of Shah Tahmasp from the 16th century, where a mass of different reactions greet the scream of the evil king’s awakening from his nightmare. You can begin with any episode here and work yourself up to the king awake. My point of the power of details is made most tellingly in a celebrated painting from a manuscript of Nizami’s Khamseh in London showing Khosro and Shirin happily enthroned in the midst of their brilliant court. In front there is a personage holding a candle who turns toward the audience and beckons us into the picture, an invitation to partake, vicariously, in the feast, to abandon whatever we are at that moment.

Such analyses can be made around dozens of the major masterpieces of classical Persian painting between 1300 and 1650. Each analysis requires a lot of effort and patience and the help of a magnifying glass and of micro photography. It leads to the very heart of what makes these miniatures so attractive and so unique: they invite the viewer, through the trickery of a detail, to plunge into an image, to feel its pulse, to forget what is around it and around the viewer, and to revel in its mysteries. By doing so, the viewer also enters into the solitude and uniqueness of his or her own soul or mind; the external, zaher, truth can lead to the invisible interior, batin, reality of each one of us. This experience cannot be easily repeated many consecutive times and this is why many of the masterpieces of Persian painting are sparsely spread through manuscripts. For, just as one cannot taste everything on a fancy menu or a lavish buffet, so here too one learns to savor one or two visual experiences, and then return to the text or close the book until one wants again to enter into the magic world of the visual senses. Once one has walked one’s eyes and one’s emotions through the group of people mourning without the presence of the deceased in this miniature or through the exuberant landscape of Khosro’s discovery of Shirin bathing in a pond, the sensory impact of what one sees is a sort of drain on one’s capacity to see more. What makes the experience of Persian painting particularly unique is that that experience is a private one; it cannot be shared with more than one other person except vicariously now through slides and photographs. It is an individual and personal trip without other intermediaries than one’s own senses and one’s belief in the truth of what one sees. Such are in fact the attitudes developed by classical Persian literature, by certain forms of Islamic piety in Iran and elsewhere, and probably also by the very special social contract in the use of set formulas in speech with minute variations in human relations which so characterizes social intercourse in the traditional Persian world. It is a painting that has been seen by some scholars and amateurs as a mystical, quasi-religious, experience, by others as the depiction of the luxurious wealth of an aristocratic world. Both are true if we understand their messages to be what viewers see in them rather than what artists meant to create. Many of these characteristics are fading away under the relentless march of global change, of a search for simplification and dramatic power. Is this search necessary? Can the practices of contemporary art accommodate the equilibrium between the mastery of technique and the complexity of esthetic desire which so ferociously endows these paintings with their beauty and their attraction? How the private, secret,purpose of the detail in Persian painting will survive is a problem for a new generation of artists and of viewers to figure out. The moral question for the rest of us is whether an equilibrium of this sort should be sought because it belongs to a tradition or because it has transcendental values needed by all those who seek something in the visually perceived creation. But this question also deserves another lecture, whose significance would extend beyond Persian painting to the very operation of art in the minds of men and women.