There’s something very pure and fundamental about the art of Safavid Iran, which is given perhaps its fullest-yet exploration in an extensive exhibition at the Louvre.
This comes, I’d suggest, from its primary art form – the one from which the others drew their inspiration and idiom, which was small-scale paintings on paper. There’s nothing purer than a simple brush stroke – it leaves an artist nowhere to hide sloppy technique or inadequate composition.
The exhibition begins with the stunning “Banquet of Letters in the Garden”, an early 17th-century tile mosaic in rich greens, blues and yellows. Two poets write as two attendants wait. It is a picture of courtly, civilised life in a garden in which each leaf has its place.
For behind the centrality of manuscript painting was artists who were trying to depict characters with features matching those of the ideal beauty that was sung in poetry. The sky is painted in gold, turquoise or lapis blue and the grass emerald green. Patterns on bronze vessels and painted on pottery translate literary images that are symbols of the “celestial vault” that is the universe.
But that doesn’t prevent genuine, close exploration of the real world. One of the highlights, right at the start of the exhibition, is a joyous 15th-century blue and white ware vessel shaped in the form of a fowl. This is a bird that has just glorious ruffled up its feathers and with a full crop is about to settle down for a nice sun bath. There’s something right about that, since the text explains that this tradition of such wine vessels dates back to the start of the first millennium, when the Zorostrian practice of blood sacrifice was replaced by libations of wine, which would have flowed from this bird’s beak.
But generally with the ceramics it is the colours that impress – a green lotus plate from Azerbaijan from early in the 16th century is not so much vivid green as impossible green. The blues and greens in particular have an intensity that I doubt we could match today, for all of our technology.
The scale is almost always small, intimate, for a court clique of intimates, and that hugely privileged life is reflected in many of the themes. In one small but hugely detailed book painting of a court banquet from Tabriz in about 1530, the occasion is made into a picnic, and no effort is being spared to create the perfect environment. Musicians play, great torches of incense are lit and a servant climbs high into an autumn tree to suspend a song bird’s cage.
With the stories told so vividly by the pictures the text almost seems superfluous. In a page from Shah-Name of shah Tahmas of Tabriz from about 1530. A sleeping knight, still in full armour, perhaps exhausted after a battle, is protected by his loyal steed, which savages a lion that menaces him.
Late in 16th century there was a change in style that manages to make the paintings curiously both more Chinese and more Occidental. Often get a single figure, much larger than before, drawn with more sense of individual portraiture. A rather fine example of this is in the “Banquet of the Solitary Ascetic”, signed by Torabi from Herat. The ascetic takes up a good quarter of the page and half the painted space, something not seen in the earlier works, but is in his conception, if not execution, distinctly reminiscent of Chinese Ming paintings.
If you’ve read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red you’ll be taken into this period, as Western influences get stronger (in his case in Istanbul), but the trend it seems was continued throughout the Islamic world. Works are increasingly single paintings and independent leaves rather than books, and there are clearer western influences.
The curators here complain that the art is “increasingly decadent” with “mealy mouthed sentimentality”. It is hard to argue with that conclusion, although sometimes the melange of styles does work out.
There is something delightful yet not at all twee about, for example, “The Goldfinch and the Narcissus” (Le chardonneret et le narcisse), signed Shafi Abbasi, August 1653. The influence of ornithological Western works is clear, yet something of an earlier tradition of flowers and birds has given it a warm truth. And even in these late times the colours of the ceramics are just as vivid – clearly the technology had not been lost.
The exhibition continues until January 7. (And if you won’t make it to Paris, following that link to the fine exhibition website won’t be a bad substitute.)