Master of Persian Miniature

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Compiled By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi
Deputy Editor of Iran Review

Active ImageWhile Iran has produced a number of eminent miniature painters, none has been so prolific in producing such consistently excellent work as Mahmoud Farshchian. Born in Isfahan on January 24, 1930, Farshchian grew up surrounded by architectural masterpieces that subliminally sharpened his awareness of proportion, color and form.

His masterpieces have been hosted by several museums and exhibitions worldwide.

 He's the most modernizer of the field of miniatures, an art form which was first established in Ancient Persia and later spread to China and Turkey and other Middle eastern countries.

At the age of five, it became evident that his life would be devoted to art and painting. His father, the owner of a leading carpet business, encouraged his interest in design.

While still in school, Farshchian was invited to learn painting from the famous masters of the time. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Isfahan, he traveled to Europe to study the works of western artists.

Upon his return to Isfahan, Farshchian began working in the Directorate of Fine Arts (affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Art). He was later appointed to serve as administrator of National Arts. He joined the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran University as an art professor. It was there that he created many of his unique masterpieces.

Active ImageFarshchian later moved to the United States and currently resides in New York. He took with him many of his works that were welcomed by Bibliotheque National, the British Library, Freer Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum and Harvard University.

His works continue to be exhibited in galleries and museums throughout Asia, Europe and the United States, as well as in private collections.

Receiving many awards throughout his life, including a doctorate in fine arts, Farshchian has won much praise from European academies and museums.

Farshchian’s distinctive style has given rise to a school of his own in painting. This school is marked by his wonderful creativity, his inspiring designs and his powerful lines and undulating colors.

His works are a pleasing combination of both nobility and innovation. His themes are rooted in classical poetry, literature, Qur’an, other divine books and his own deep imagination.

Active ImageSome of his most outstanding works overflow with human affections and embodied in graceful figures.

While painting, Farshchian often listens to music and these beautiful rhythms set the mood for his bounding, splashing, sometimes wire-thin brush. His pictures urge us to listen with inner ears to the ‘sound’ of his lines and forms.

There is a rich interplay of birdcalls, trickles, cascades, gurgles, swoops and swooshes. His tempests, chilling blasts, raging fires and blood-curdling cries are expressed so artfully that they never cross the threshold of horror. So graceful is the whiplash that it cannot sting.

Farshchian has told many tales on canvas in his unique expression of what he calls ‘sur-naturalism’.

Farshchian is the founder of his own school in Iranian Painting, which adheres to classical form while making use of new techniques to broaden the scope of Iranian painting. He has brought new life to this art form and has freed it from the symbiotic relationship it has historically had with poetry and literature, to give it an independence it had not previously enjoyed.

His powerful and innovative paintings are dynamic, expansive and vibrant canvases with an appealing fusion of the traditional and the modern, which are constituents of his unique style of painting.

Active ImageFarshchian’s work “Shams and Rumi,” has been inspired by one of Rumi’s poems. Special colors have been used in the painting to feature the mystical and spiritual relationship that existed between Shams and Rumi. The painting took two months to complete in the U.S. and was unveiled at the Farshchian Art and Cultural Complex in Isfahan on August 2, 2007.

The design of the Zarih (the box-like latticed enclosure which is placed on top of the tomb), roof, door and cellar in the shrine of the 8th shiite Imam, Ali ibn Mus'ar-Reza in Mashhad and his membership in the committee supervising the construction of the glorious shrine, is another artistic work of the master.

Unveiled in 2001, the Farshchian Museum is nestled in the central gardens of Sa’dabad Palace located in Tehran. It is surrounded by various other museums exhibiting historical Persian artifacts and modern artworks.

These museums are housed in monuments located in a lush landscape dating back to late Qajarid and the first Pahlavid rule. All have been restored and transformed into modern museums.

Farshchian was allocated this museum due to his tremendous contributions to the world of art. Open six days a week to the public, it contains several galleries, which exclusively exhibit early and contemporary original works by Farshchian.

Art students visit the museum daily to study his paintings that have also been reproduced in art textbooks, while tourists from all over the world arrive for a firsthand viewing of these stunning works of fine art.

Origin of Persian Miniatures
Active ImagePersian miniature is a richly detailed miniature painting which depicts religious or mythological themes from the region of the Middle East now known as Iran. The art of miniature painting in Persia flourished from the 13th through the 16th centuries, and continues to this day, with several contemporary artists producing notable Persian miniatures. These delicate, lush paintings are typically visually stunning, with a level of detail which can only be achieved with a very fine hand and an extremely small brush.

Persian miniature is a small painting, whether a book illustration or a separate work of art intended to be kept in an album of such works. The techniques are broadly comparable to the Western and Byzantine traditions of miniatures in illuminated manuscripts, which probably had an influence on the origins of the Persian tradition.

Several features about Persian miniatures stand out. The first is the size and level of detail; many of these paintings are quite small, but they feature rich, complex scenes which can occupy a viewer for hours. Classically, a Persian miniature also features accents in gold and silver leaf, along with a very vivid array of colors. The perspective in a Persian miniature also tends to be very intriguing, with elements overlaid on each other in ways which sometimes feel awkward to people who are accustomed to the look and feel of Western art.

Originally, Persian miniatures were commissioned as book illustrations for Persian illuminated manuscripts. Only the wealthiest of patrons could afford these illustrations, with some Persian miniatures taking up to a year to complete. Eventually, people also began collecting these works of art on their own, binding them into separate books. Many of these collections fortunately survive to this day, along with other examples of Persian art such as Iran's famous pile carpets.

Active ImageThe Persian miniature was probably inspired by Chinese art, given the very Chinese themes which appear in some early examples of Persian miniatures. Many of the mythological creatures depicted in early Persian art, for example, bear a striking resemblance to animals in Chinese myth. Over time, however, Persian artists developed their own style and themes, and the concept of the Persian miniature was picked up by neighboring regions.

Many museums of Asian art have Persian miniatures in their collections, and it is well worth visiting to see examples of this distinctive art form in person. Persian miniatures also merit undivided attention; the longer one looks at a Persian miniature, the more details and themes emerge. The study of a single miniature can take up an entire day, as more and more details unfold, and many museums conveniently have detailed guides to the figures and themes in their Persian miniatures so that visitors can learn more about what they are seeing.

Miniature painting became a significant Persian form in the 13th century, and the highest point in the tradition was reached in the 15th and 16th centuries. The tradition continued, under some Western influence. The Persian miniature was the dominant influence on other Islamic miniature traditions, principally the Ottoman miniature in Turkey, and the Mogul miniature in the Indian sub-continent.

Though at various stages it has been affected by Chinese and Eastern influences, Persian miniature art has developed its own distinctive features. Iran’s miniature artists are recognizable for their emphasis on natural and realist motifs. Also worth noting is the Persian technique of “layering” perspectives to create a sense of space. For example, in the miniature piece at right, the variety of views is noticeable in the arrangement of objects: birds inhabit both the foreground and background of the piece, with the floral objects positioned in between. This gives the viewer a sense of three-dimensional space and the ability to focus on certain aspects of the piece to the exclusion of others.

Active ImageContent and form are fundamental elements of Persian miniature painting, and miniature artists are renowned for their modest, subtle use of color. The themes of Persian miniature are mostly related to Persian mythology and poetry. Western artists discovered the Persian miniature around the beginning of the 20th century. Persian miniature uses pure geometry and a vivid palette. The allure of Persian miniature painting lies in its absorbing complexities and in the surprising way it speaks to large questions about the nature of art and the perception of its masterpieces.

The history of the art of painting in Iran, goes back to the cave age. In the caves of Lorestan province, painted images of animals and hunting scenes have been discovered.

In the paintings of Achaemenid era, profile work was preferred by the artists. The proportion and beauty of colors of this era are remarkable. The colors are shadeless, and have the same tune. In some cases, black stripes limited the colorful surfaces.

Active ImageThe paintings of “Torfan”, discovered in the desert of “Gall”, a region situated in the Turkistan province in China, belong to 840 to 860 AD.

These mural paintings exhibit Iranian scenes and portraits. Images of tree branches also exist in these paintings. The most ancient paintings of the Islamic period, are quite scarce, and were created in the first half of the 13th century.

China, perhaps since the 7th century, as an artistic center, has been the most important incentive for the art of painting in Iran. Ever since, a relation has been established between Buddhist Chinese painters and, Iranian artists. From the historic viewpoint, the most important evolution in Iranian art has been the adoption of Chinese designs and coloring that were mixed with the specific conception of Iranian artists. In the first centuries, after the emergence of Islam, Iranian artists began adorning books.

The preface and the margins of books were adorned. These designs were passed on to the next centuries, together with precise principles and rules, which is known as the “Art of Illumination.”

Paintings from the beginning of the Islamic period had the reputation of belonging to Baghdad school.

Active ImageMiniatures of Baghdad school have totally lost the style and methods of the usual paintings of the pre-Islamic period.

These primitive and innovative paintings do not possess the necessary artistic stress. The miniatures of Baghdad school are not proportional. Portraits show the “Sami” race and light colors are used. Artists of the Baghdad school, after years of stagnancy, were eager to create and innovate. The particular views of this school, is in drawing animals and illustrating stories.

Although the Baghdad school, considering the pre-Islamic art, is to some extent, superficial and primitive, but the art of Iranian miniature, in the same period, was widespread in every region in which, Islam was propagated: Far East, Africa and Europe.

Among illustrated books in the Baghdad style, “Kelileh and Demneh” can be named. Images are painted larger than normal and are not proportional. Only few colors are used in these paintings.

Most of the handwritten books of the 13th century are enriched with images of animals, vegetables, and illustrations from fables and stories.

An example of the most ancient Iranian miniature is the drawings of a book called “Manafe-alHayvan” (1299 AD). This book describes the characteristics of animals. The natural history is mixed and narrated through the ancient fables in this book.

Active ImageDiverse subjects of this book, require numerous images that are so important in familiarizing the reader with the Iranian art of painting. Colors are bright and laying step after the old style of the Baghdad school.

After the invasion of Moguls, a new school appeared in Iran. This school was totally under the influence of the Chinese and Mogul style. These paintings are all minute, dry, motionless, and pure, in the Chinese style.

Mogul emperors, after the invasion of Iran, were impressed by the Iranian art and encouraged the painters, initiating the former kings of Iran. Among the characteristics of the Iranian art which can also be observed in the paintings of Mogul style, we can enumerate, subtleties, decorative compositions, and fine short lines. The style of the Iranian paintings is linear and not dimensional. Artists in this field have demonstrated a particular creativity and genuineness.

Artists of the Mogul royal court honored not only the techniques but also Iranian themes. A part of their work consisted of illustrating Iranian literary masterpieces such as “The Shahnameh” of Ferdowsi.

Active ImageContrary to Baghdad and Mogul schools, more works remain from Harat school. The founders of the style of painting called the Harat school, were Teimoor’s ancestors, and the school was named after the place in which it was founded.

Art experts believe that during Teimoor’s era, the art of painting in Iran, had reached a climax. During this period, outstanding masters, such as Kamal-ul-Din Behzad, contributed a new touch to the Iranian painting.

During the Safavid era, the artistic center was moved to Tabriz. A few artists also settled in Qazvin. However, the Safavid School of painting was established in Isfahan.

The miniature of Iran, in the Isfahan of Safavid era, was detached from the influence of the Chinese out and stepped on a new road. The painters were then more inclined towards naturalism.

Agha Reza Reza-e Abbasi (also Reza Abbasi) (1565 - 1635) was the most renowned Persian miniaturist, painter and calligrapher of the Isfahan School, which flourished during the Safavid period under the patronage of Shah Abbas I.

Miniatures created under the Safavid School, were not exclusively aimed for adorning and illustrating books. The Safavid style is softer in form than those of the Teimoorian School, specially the Mongolian. Human images and their behavior are not vain and artificial, in the contrary quiet natural, and close to reality.

Active ImageIn Safavid paintings, the splendor and the grandeur of this period is the main attraction. The themes of the paintings are about the life in the royal court, the nobles, beautiful palaces, pleasant goodness, scenes of battles and banquets.

Humans are drawn in sumptuous garments, handsome faces and elegant statues colors are glowingly bright.

Artists paid more attention to generalities and, avoided unnecessary details, as used in Harat and Tabriz styles. The smoothness of lines, the quick expression of feelings, and condensing the subjects are the characteristics of the Safavid style of painting. Since the end of the Safavid era, perspective and shading, a result of the European style, appeared in the Iranian paintings.

Paintings of the Qajar era, are a combination of the classic European arts and Safavid miniature techniques. In this period, Mohammad Gaffari Kamal-ul-Molk, pushed forward the European classical style of painting in Iran. Under the qajars, a kind of painting known as the “Teahouse” painting found its place. This kind of painting is a new phenomenon in the history of the Iranian art.

Source: Iran Daily & Iran Review

Links for Further Reading:

Persian Miniature:
Watch the PowerPoint:
Mahmoud Farshchian :