May 21, 2015

At the Met: Feasting and Fighting in Persian Art

"Timur before Battle", folio from a dispersed copy of the Zafarnama of Sharaf al-din Yazdi; Iran, 1436; ink, opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper; 11 1/2 x 8 in. 

I love manuscript painting––whether Indian, or Persian, or Islamic, or Medieval European––for its intimate size, its clarity of form and attention to detail, its beautifully wrought storytelling. So I was happy to see the small exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bazm and Razm: Feast and Fight in Persian Art. These two activities were important to kingship; how surprising to learn that the ruler was valued for his ability to engage in battle and to hunt, but also to enjoy the bounties of the table, of wine and of music. It is hard to imagine our contemporary leaders being expected to excel at feasting. From the wall label at the show I learned:
In the bazm mode, the king's ability to savor worldly pleasures such as food, wine, poetry, and music was praised.  The opulence and ceremony at court, with lavish displays of dress, jewels, luxury objects, and textiles, as well as the maintenance of an extensive entourage and harem, wer all measures of the shah's distinction. In the razm mode, a ruler's success was marked by his ferocity, courage, tenacity in battle, and ability to defeat the most brutal enemies as well as his prowess in riding, hunting, weaponry, and strategic games. 
The commemoration of these events has brought us many beautiful paintings. In "Timur Before Battle", the artist repeats curves, behind which are soldiers, the king, and a golden sky. The diagonals of banner staff and umbrella emphasize those curves. Within this simple structure are fine details of armor; all is joyously colored.

Prince in a Garden Courtyard, Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper; 
8 9/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

The elements of feasting are shown in this painting: food, wine, and music in a lovely setting. Persian painting is almost miraculous in its depiction of precise, complex details. The attention paid to every aspect of the scene is intense, and close to magical in the painting's small size.

"Preparation for a Feast", folio from a Divan of Jami; Iran, late 15th century; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; painting 6 15/16 x 4 3/4 in. 

Getting ready for a large feast could take days; this tiny painting shows many parts of the meal being prepared, from slaughtering of animals, to making bread, to various cauldrons on the boil.

"Preparation for a Feast" detail

On the lower right, food is being ladled into bowls. The composition of the painting, structured only by the sky at top bisected by a tree, and a small stream towards the bottom, emphasizes the hectic activity.

"Entertainment in a Garden", folio from a Khamsa of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, Matla' al-Anvar, detail; Iran, second half 16th century; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; painting 12 5/8 x 7 1/8 in.
See the entire painting on the Met's website

At the bottom of this busy scene of a feast are musicians and guests. The painting is surrounded by a geometric and floral pattern, made more precious with gold.

Tile, Iran, second half 17th century; stonepaste, polychrome glaze within wax resist outlines; 8 x 8 in.

Included in the exhibition are objects related to the twin themes; here, a tile showing a shallow wine cup and a bowl of fruit.

Kamanche and Dayere, Iran, 19th century

The kamanche, a bowed instrument, and the drum, the dayere, can be seen in the painting above, "Entertainment in a Garden". They are beautiful objects in themselves, and though of a later date, are traditional in form and use.

"Bahram Gur Shows His Skill Hunting while Fitna Watches", folio from a Haft Paykar of Nizami; Iran, mid 16th century; opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 13 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. 

Even in a scene of death, the artist presents the action within the vitality of flowering plants.

Hunting Scene, detail; Iran, mid 16th century; ink, transparent watercolor, and gold on paper; 7 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. 
See the entire painting at the Met's website.

There is also a great sensitivity in the depiction of animals and of plants.

Artist 'Abd al-Vahhab, "Zal Slays Khazarvan" from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp; Iran, 1525-30; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; painting 11 1/16 x 7 3/16 in. 

The symmetry of the grouped armies and the two leaders locked in battle enhances the drama of the event.

"Zal Slays Khazarvan" detail

Even in paintings of mortal combat, Persian artists revel in the decorative: the violet hillside, the pool surrounded by flowers and roiling rocks. This attention to the loveliness found everywhere makes these paintings a pleasure to look at, to wander through, no matter the subject.

Mace, Persian, 19th century; steel, gold; 32 1/2 in. 

Here is a later example of the ox-head mace with which Zal slayed Khazarvan. It is a lovely thing, and the wall label tells me that it: mentioned in Iranian myths and epics as a symbol of the victory of good over evil and order over chaos. 

Helmet, Persian, 18th-19th century; steel, gold; height with mail 28 in., without mail 6 7/8 x 8 in diameter. 

It is so interesting to see objects that are the models for those in paintings of an earlier time. There is as much beauty in these things of war as in those of music, and as much grace as in the paintings.

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