Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran (Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art)

Author: Yuka Kadoi

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press (31 July 2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0748635823
ISBN-13: 978-0748635825


It has long been accepted that the formation of the Mongol Empire by Chinggis Khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century was one of the defining moments in world history. The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history, connecting the two edges of the Eurasian land mass under a single political authority. The direct and effective Mongol rule was rather short-lived in Iran and China, until 1335 and 1368 respectively, but the descendants of Chinggis Khan through his eldest son Jöchi continued to rule in different parts of Central Asia and the Kazakh steppe until the mid-nineteenth century. The Mongol rulers favoured interregional long distance trade at the expense of agriculture, and introduced new techniques of politics, law, and warfare in the places where they were in power. After more than two centuries of scholarship on the Mongol Empire, we now have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the empire itself and of its organization, but we still know very little about the Mongol legacy in the regions where they ruled in the late medieval and early modern periods. Yuka Kadoi joins the discussion at this point.

Product Description

The Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century marked a new phase in the development of Islamic art. Trans-Eurasian exchanges of goods, people and ideas were encouraged on a large scale under the auspices of the Pax Mongolica. With the fascination of portable objects brought from China and Central Asia, a distinctive, hitherto unknown style - Islamic chinoiserie - was born in the art of Iran. Highly illustrated, Islamic Chinoiserie offers a fascinating glimpse into the artistic interaction between Iran and China under the Mongols. By using rich visual materials from various media of decorative and pictorial arts - textiles, ceramics, metalwork and manuscript painting - the book illustrates the process of adoption and adaptation of Chinese themes in the art of Mongol-ruled Iran in a visually compelling way. The observation of this unique artistic phenomenon serves to promote the understanding of the artistic diversity of Islamic art in the Middle Ages. Key Features covers various media of decorative and pictorial arts from Iran, Central Asia and China deals with a diverse range of issues related to the East-West artistic relationship in the Middle Ages features in-depth studies of style, technique and iconography in Iranian art under the Mongols includes 125 illustrations, 24 in colour.

"Islamic Chinoiserie"

The lecture on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 was given by Yuka Kodai, a scholar at the Department of Asian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kodai was previously a curator at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. The lecture was based on her most recent publication Islamic Chinoiserie: The Art of Mongol Iran.

“Islamic Chinoiserie,” a term Kodai had coined herself, examines the Chinese contribution to artistic explosion in Islamic Iranian art under the Mongols.

Iran was conquered by the Mongols and was ruled by the Ilkhanids meaning “subordinate to Great Khan of China”. This resulted in a significant amount of cultural interaction between East and West. The lecture focused on how Chinese artistic styles were evident in Iranian art under the Mongols through textiles, ceramics, metalwork and paintings.

The Mongols were very interested in textiles and used it as a form of art propaganda. Textiles were portable objects and this allowed the Mongols to use them as symbols to express their social status. When Eurasia was conquered by the Mongols, there was an exchange of people, goods and ideas between East and West. Textiles were one of the products that most aided in the transmitting of ideas and artistic style between East and West. Through imported textiles in Iran, Chinese artistic concepts were adopted. Examples are images of dragons and phoenixes.

The typical Chinese dragon is depicted having a‘s’ shape body with an emphasis on the flames from the snout and its four legs with large claws. Iran depicted dragon-like creatures as a snake, but after the Mongol invasion, Iranian depiction of dragons incorporated Chinese style but was combined with their own decorative motifs. The dragon symbolized the emperor of China, but Iran transferred the symbol to refer to the Mongol rulers in Iran.

The Chinese phoenix was also reworked in Ilkhanid Iran. The typical Chinese phoenix would be depicted with a long impressive tail and a distinctive face within a naturalistic setting or background. Iranian depictions of the Chinese phoenix were more geometrically composed and symmetrical.

Ceramics are another important export from China. Many of the Chinese ceramic pieces, designs and styles were copied by Iranian potters as well as adopted with more added decorative elements.

One interesting image that was adopted in Islamic Iran from China was the lotus motif, which appears in textiles, manuscripts, metalwork and architectural decorations. The lotus motif originates from Buddhist China. It had a strong symbolic meaning referring to purity and the Buddha. Islamic Iran adopted this lotus motif and adapted it to their designs creating a more stylized version than the Chinese lotus. Perhaps the lotus acquired a new symbolic meaning in the Islamic Iranian context.

Iconography in paintings clearly displays the multi-religious environment that was taking place in Ilkhanid Iran. Paintings combined Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic iconography. The example Kadoi discussed was a painting of The Annunciation (a Christian subject matter). The painting depicts the Virgin Mary surrounded by Islamic architecture with a Buddhist style influence.

Kadoi concluded by explaining how her research in Islamic Chinoiserie examines the Islamic admiration and understanding of Chinese style and techniques and how that was fundamental in developing Iranian Islamic art during and after the Mongol invasion.

The lecture was very interesting and I find it fascinating to discover how Islamic art is diverse and how Islamic artists had absorbed artistic styles from different cultures and religions and incorporated them into their own style. The result is a mixture of different elements, iconography and motifs each with its own history brought together under the art of Islam.

About the Author

Yuka Kadoi received a PhD in the History of Art from the University of Edinburgh in 2005. She is currently Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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