Art: The Masters of Persian Paintings

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Our contributor Ben Mirza shares with us the History of Art in Iran:

Three Kings of the Beautiful Aesthetic

Recently, I picked up a book, published by Batsford London in 1947, the book was titled ‘Persian Paintings’ and inside were 12 colour plates depicting Persian art, ranging from the time of the Safavid’s to the Qajar’s, this was no academic tome either, it was meant for the masses. It struck me then that Europe has had a long love affair with Persian art. Although this love affair had somewhat cooled following the 1979 revolution, it still smouldered in artistic and academic quarters, God willing, with recent developments in international relations, we will see an en masse revival in Europe and the rest of the world. 

The story of Persian painting, and the creative masters that led the way throughout the centuries is a long one. It underwent numerous transformations with the rise and fall of dynasties, convulsing with a rhythmic joie de vivre.

Of the old masters, those artists whose perspicacity and creativity superseded that of all others, it is Mir Sayyid Ali, Kamaleddin Behzadand and Mihr ‘Ali we are going to focus on.  The influences of Persian art spread across Europe, the Middle East and South Asia as time went by. So strong was its appeal that it had Muslims, Christians and Hindus united in admiration. Each culture saw something innately special in Persian art, Christian traders from Europe saw a strength of form, the neighbouring Muslim countries, and in particularly the Ottomans of Turkey recognised an artistic integrity, especially when it came to religious painting, and the Hindu’s of India were inspired by its versatility.

Mir Sayyid Ali

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Mir Sayyid Ali

Beginning with Mir Sayyid Ali, son of Mir Musavvir and painter to a King then a Prince – Shah Tahmasp and his nephew Sultan Ibrahim Mirza. He was an artist who achieved what few other artists have, being recognised as greater than his father.

Like many artists before and after Mir Sayyid Ali focussed much of his attentions on illustrating stories, whether it be from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, poetry or the Holy Quran. This type of painting requires an astute understanding of both art and storytelling, as often the verbal pyrotechnics of certain stories didn’t lend themselves easily to illustration. By the time Mir Sayyid Ali came of age, Persian art was burgeoning into a major force, influences mixed from classical Persian to European, with access to European art, such as that of the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, coming via Tabriz. His miniature paintings are where he really flourished as an artist, injecting a genuine personality into each scene, which makes a point of igniting the imagination from all angles.

Kamaleddin Behzadand

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Kamaleddin Behzadand

His biography reads like a fairytale, an orphan adopted by a prominent court painter, Kamaleddin Behzadand then rose to become one of the most famous painters of the early Safavid dynasty, shifting Persian art into an entirely new direction.

Kamaleddin Behzadand’s individuality in the field of manuscript illuminations is what sets him apart. With his peers applying geometric style framework to the art, Kamaleddin took this to another level, by regularly injecting action scenes into each creation, and like Mir Sayyid Ali he went to great lengths to make sure each character portrayed an individuality separate to each other.

Kamaleddin liked to work with a rich palette, conjuring up a great deal of vibrancy and lavishness in each painting. His use of exquisite detailing and deeply layered narratives is similar to that of the Baroque in 17th century Europe. Kamaleddin also wove a great deal of spirituality into his work, adding numerous Sufi symbolism into a number of paintings.

Mihr ‘Ali

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Mihr’ Ali

From the ashes of the Sasanian Empire rose the Qajar dynasty, and with them came a new and refreshed approach to painting. As interactions between Persians and Europeans increased, a cultural exchange began to take place, with the introduction of new painting styles and techniques such as painting with oil pigments on canvas.

Mihr ‘Ali was one artist who began to use this technique specifically, painting for the Qajar King Fath ‘Ali Shah. ‘Ali is famous for his ten full scale portraits of the King, which merged together the distinct Persian and European styles of human representation.

As the Qajar dynasty sought to solidify their power and prestige, Mihr ‘Ali made a point of painting in deep pulsating hues, adding a great deal of symbolism into the mix to bring about the feeling of strength and prominence. As a painter he was a master at portraying realistic physicality and strength, indeed a genius of his craft.

These are just three artists who explored the beautiful aesthetic in its many forms, pushing the very foundation of Persian art to new heights.