Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 19, 2009
Sheila Canby, ed. Shah 'Abbas: The Remaking of Iran Exh. cat. London: British Museum, 2009. 274 pp.; 240 color ills. Paper £25.00 (9780714124520)
Exhibition schedule: British Museum, London, February 19–June 14, 2009
Inna Vishnevskaya The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin Exh. cat. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009. 145 pp.; 111 color ills. Paper $29.95 (9780934686136)
Exhibition schedule: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, May 9–September 13, 2009
Ceramic Ewer. Mashhad (1616, with nineteenth-century metal spout). Signed ‘work of Mahmud Mi’mar Yazdi’ and ‘the humble Zari is its decorator.’ From the Mashhad section. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

It is unusual for major “Western” museums to host simultaneous exhibitions involving the arts of the Islamic world, and more unusual still for any such Islamic art exhibitions to cover similar regions and historical periods or concern related themes. While the overlap of the two shows on view in London and Washington may have resulted from a scheduling fluke, it perhaps also reflects the growing commitment of European and North American museums both to highlighting Muslim arts and cultures within their collection, exhibition, and education programs (also evident in the number of institutions from New York to Paris to Copenhagen that recently have undertaken or are in the midst of major overhauls of their Islamic galleries) and to appealing to the constituencies and communities that identify with Muslim cultures and that support Muslim cultural, artistic, and educational activities. One might even hope, although this is possibly too optimistic, that the fortuitous coincidence of these two exhibitions is in response to a growing public awareness in the United Kingdom and the United States of the need to know more about Islam and the Muslim world in general and about past cultural traditions in particular. Be that as it may, the British Museum and Smithsonian exhibitions provide the opportunity for the public and scholars alike to focus on artistic developments in one part of the Islamic world, specifically Iran and Turkey, during the early modern period, especially the late sixteenth through seventeenth centuries, and on gift giving and gift exchange as practices of both dynastic politics and international relations.

Their substantive similarities notwithstanding, the two exhibitions differ significantly in terms of concept and impact. The Tsars and the East is essentially about and of treasures, and it features sixty-five pieces, including ceremonial arms and armor, horse trappings, small-scale objects, and textiles, comprising an exquisite selection of the many costly gifts from Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran presented to the Russian court and Russian Orthodox Church, as well as some equally luxurious works of Russian origin variously inspired by or created in response to Turkish and Persian production. Representing a much larger collection of “orientalia” safeguarded in the Moscow Kremlin Museums, the works on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery radiate pure “bling” through their materials and techniques of manufacture—watered steel inlaid with gold; rock crystal and nephrite encrusted with rubies, pearls, emeralds, and other precious stones; velvets and silks shot through with gold and silver threads—with which Turkish sultans and Persian shahs (and their various emissaries) obviously intended to impress and delight Russian tsars and patriarchs and which have the same effect on Smithsonian visitors today. The aura of opulence is enhanced by the exhibition’s elegant installation in five comfortably proportioned galleries, their walls painted in rich, distinctive colors and with well-spaced cases lined in color-coordinated fabric. Careful spotlighting throughout enhances the jewel-like quality of individual works. There is little to detract from all this visual splendor; a discrete number of wall texts introduce the historical and cultural context for each gallery (e.g., The Protocol of Gift Exchange; The Golden Horde) and explain their specific groupings (Tsars and Safavid Iran, Tsars and Ottoman Turkey, the Russian Response), and each work has a concise label commenting on its significance, often including the circumstances of its gifting. The exhibition is accompanied by a handsome, compact catalogue with a general introduction to the tsarist collection of “eastern treasures” by Inna Isidorovna Vishnevskaya, a Kremlin curator; a short discussion of Russian-Iranian relations in the mid-seventeenth century by Rudi Matthee, a historian of early modern Iran at the University of Delaware; and detailed entries for the objects on display, ordered by the same themes as their gallery arrangements.

The overall impression of the Sackler show is dazzling, and the documentation (derived from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Russian inventories and related historical sources), regarding which sultan, shah, diplomat, or merchant gave which object to which tsar, undeniably fascinating. However, visitors already familiar with the Kremlin collections and/or with recent discussions of early modern gift exchange may experience a sense of déjà vu. Indeed, the Sackler exhibition is a focused version of one held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2001–2002 and yet another in Moscow in 2005 (Barry Shifman and Guy Walton, eds., Gifts to the Tsars, 1500–1700: Treasures from the Kremlin, New York: Harry Abrams, 2001; “In Confirmation of Friendship:” Ambassadorial Gifts to the Russian Tsars, Moscow: Moscow Kremlin Museum, 2005). Although these previous exhibitions had a broader cultural scope (featuring a wide range of European gifts to Russia), each also contained a selection of major objects from the Ottoman and Persian empires, including some of the very same works now on view at the Smithsonian. In several instances the entries in the Washington catalogue repeat almost verbatim, or at least paraphrase, those in the Indianapolis publication, a substantial volume that also contains a half-dozen scholarly essays on various aspects of transcultural ambassadorial and diplomatic gifts and gifting. Thus, although it may be technically true, as claimed in directorial remarks at the beginning of the Sackler catalogue, that this show “marks the first time these beautiful pieces have been presented so comprehensively in an exhibition outside Russia” and that “most of these works have never been presented together in Europe or the United States” (emphases added), it can not really be said that the American public has never had the opportunity to see comparable objects, particularly given that many now in Washington are not one-off masterpieces but instead belong to generic craft typologies found in U.S. and other collections. Furthermore, with the possible exception of the Matthee contribution, it is hardly the case that the Sackler catalogue provides unique ideas about or insights into the dynamics or mechanisms of political, economic, social, or cultural relations between Christian Russia, Shi’ite Iran, and Sunni Turkey during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The exhibition has high visual appeal and makes low intellectual demands—in short, a perfect summer show in the U.S. capital.

Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, by contrast, is at once more ambitious, challenging, and confounding. As the title proclaims, this British Museum exhibition centers around the Safavid ruler ‘Abbas I, also known as ‘Abbas-i buzurg or ‘Abbas the Great, who ruled Iran between 1527 and 1629 and who during his long reign initiated or encouraged various commercial and diplomatic interactions with European powers and representatives, in the process offering and receiving many gifts. (The Kremlin collection contains numerous treasures made during the shah’s time and probably in Safavid court workshops, as evidenced in the Washington show by a bejeweled and golden staff that ‘Abbas gave to the Russian patriarch Filaret in 1629.) And while relations with the Christian West, as well as with Iran’s Muslim neighbors, notably Mughal India, do figure in the London show, they are thematically subsidiary to Abbas’s connection to three major sites of Muslim, and specifically Shi’ite, pilgrimage: the Shrine of Shaykh Safi, founder of the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty, at Ardabil; the Shrine of the Iman Riza, the eighth Shi’ite imam, at Mashhad; and the Shrine of Fatimeh Ma’sumeh, Imam Riza’s sister, at Qum. Indeed, the exhibition’s original concept, as developed by British Museum curator Sheila R. Canby, a specialist in Safavid Iran with other important exhibitions and publications about this period to her credit, was precisely to explore the shah’s patronage of and gifts to these shrine complexes as manifestations of his personal piety and dynastic authority. (Canby’s considerable research on this topic is evident already in her article “Royal Gifts to Safavid Shrines,” in Soussie Rastegar and Anna Vanzan, eds., Muraqqa’e Sharqi, Serravalle, Repubblica San Marino: AIEP Editore Srl, 2007, 57–68.) At some point, this innovative curatorial direction was reformulated with Shah ‘Abbas joined to an ongoing British Museum series devoted, as accompanying promotions put it, “to rulers who have shaped the world and whose legacy is still significant today.” (The other such personages forming part of this exhibition series include China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi; the Roman emperor Hadrian; and the Aztec ruler Moctezuma.) Thus the little-known story of ‘Abbas and the Shi’ite shrines is interwoven here with the more familiar history of the Safavid dynasty in general and cultural developments during the shah’s reign in particular (as recounted, for instance, in the 1973–74 exhibition Shah ‘Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan and in the related two-volume publication Studies on Isfahan [Iranian Studies, Summer–Autumn 1974]), including his architectural expansion of the capital city of Isfahan, his relocation of Armenian silk traders to Isfahan, and his “vision” for a new, unified style expressed in certain specific ornamental motifs and modes of figural representation.

Although these developments, and the growing importance of the three Shi’ite pilgrimage sites, are clearly charted in the exhibition catalogue (about which more below), their progression is quite difficult to follow within the exhibition itself. This may be due in large part to the installation, located on a cantilevered platform beneath the soaring Great Dome of the museum’s (actually the British Library’s) former Reading Room rotunda. While the domical expanse overhead nicely evokes the domes that top some of the major monuments built in Isfahan and elsewhere in ‘Abbas’s time, and the exhibition scheme looks clear enough in the visitor’s guide, the plan of eight variably configured and presumably thematically coherent spaces laid out within a circle is in reality quite complex and in places downright awkward. In general, it is difficult to tell where one theme ends and the next one begins (a transitional problem exacerbated by the uniform and strangely dull bronze color used to cover the multitude of solid and latticed wall surfaces) and, even more’s the pity, to follow the narrative that the exhibition’s 125 or so works of art are notionally intended to tell. The visual and thematic confusion is compounded by an absolute plethora of didactics and graphics, including multiple wall texts with headings, subheadings, historical quotations, time lines, dynastic genealogies, and maps, as well as individual case texts and individual object labels, not to mention blown-up images of seventeenth-century city views, stenciled designs replicating interior wall surfaces, and, in the middle of it all, four screen-like plinths on which are projected artfully moving images of selected monuments in Isfahan, Ardabil, and Mashhad.

The space indicated as 2 on the plan (but not evident in the space itself) gives a fair idea of the challenges that the installation poses for the visitor. It begins with a wall text entitled “Armenians and the Silk Trade” that precedes a long case of religious objects made and used by the Armenian Christian community in Isfahan. This vitrine also includes a letter from Shah ‘Abbas to Charles I of England and a group of European coins—both apparently representing the vital importance of international commercial and financial contacts during Abbas’s reign but with little obvious association with the adjacent Christian objects (except that they were of Armenian provenance and Shah ‘Abbas relied on Armenians for the marketing of Persian silk). All this is followed by a wall text explaining the Safavid empire and a map representing the territory that ‘Abbas reclaimed from Iran’s Ottoman and Uzbek enemies. Another text on the diagonally opposite wall discusses Shah ‘Abbas’s personal faith, accompanied by a photo of the Shaykh Lutfallah Mosque in Isfahan begun by ‘Abbas in 1603, and overlooking a central floor case with two beautiful carpets and labels referring to their manufacture in silver and gold threads and to their use of cross-shaped designs as aspects of the shah’s new style—i.e., nothing about either the shah’s faith or the mosque he built in honor of his father-in-law, Shaykh Lutfallah. The same space contains a sequence of additional wall texts explaining the distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, Shi’ism and state building (with a detailed image of the Chihil Situn Palace in Isfahan), and Shi’ism and ‘Shah Abbas. The works of art on view here consist of a manuscript doublure (interior book cover), a prayer rug, three lamp stands, and a sample of calligraphy, consisting of the first sura (chapter) of the Qur’an, signed by the famous seventeenth-century artist Imad al-Hasani. Once again, the individual labels here dwell on the objects’ technique and decoration as exemplary of ‘Abbas’s new style, with little if any reference to the broader points about sectarian differences and religion as a personal practice and as state policy set forth in the wall texts. In short, the few visual and many verbal components compete rather than compliment one another, leaving this admittedly somewhat jet-lagged visitor with the impression of having fallen, Alice-like, down a museological rabbit hole.

Greater clarity, coherence, and word-object correlation is achieved in those spaces devoted to the pilgrimage sites supported by ‘Abbas I, with pride of place going to a large selection of Chinese, primarily blue and white, porcelain vessels of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries that the shah, along with certain Safavid courtiers, gave to the dynastic shrine at Ardabil and displayed here, along with a late thirteenth- to mid-fourteenth-century Chinese celadon jar, a fifteenth-century Vietnamese serving dish, two ceramic dishes made in late seventeenth-century Kirman after Chinese prototypes, two jade cups from late fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Iran or Central Asia, a Persian tinned copper bowl of 1590–91, and a couple of seventeenth-century Persian paintings, in one extremely long case that does double-duty as a room divider. While these objects are among the most striking in the exhibition and the formal qualities of each signaled in its own label, visitors are left at something of a loss to understand the circumstances through which Shah Abbas and other Safavid officials came to possess Chinese porcelains and other works and their motivation(s) and purposes for donating them to the Ardabil shrine. The notion that such high-value luxury-type vessels, particularly the Chinese pieces, might have been actually used by pilgrims, as suggested in one label, also cries out for further explication, particularly since a big point is made about the way the vessels were stored in a special room (called the chini-khaneh or China room) at the shrine and set into niches piercing the room’s upper walls. Of course, we know that the Ottoman Turks amassed even larger holdings of Chinese porcelains and other ceramics and used them as table ware in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where they remain on view today. It would have been interesting, therefore, to learn more at the London show about the cultural and artistic value placed on these Eastern objects at Muslim courts.

Be that as it may, it was a great coup for the British Museum to be able to borrow so many splendid items documented as having been part of Abbas’s waqf or charitable endowment to the Safavid dynastic shrine in 1607–08 and nowadays in the collection of the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. Indeed, one of the great advantages of this exhibition, for general visitors and for Islamic and Persian art specialists alike, are the many works of art—including carpets, textiles, manuscripts, and virtually all the Armenian Christian objects in addition to the Ardabil Chinese porcelains—that otherwise can be seen only in the museums of Tehran and Isfahan.

Sadly, the Iranian loans on view in London do not extend to any of the gifts presented by Shah Abbas and his successors to the shrines in Mashhad and Qum during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Instead, the spaces devoted to these sites contain comparable works, drawn from public and private collections elsewhere (with many coming from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and private collections in the United Kingdom), chosen to convey the kind of objects included in royal Safavid donations to these pilgrimage sites. Thus, for instance, among the scientific manuscripts that Abbas endowed to Mashhad’s Shrine of the Imam Riza, and still held there today, was a twelfth-century copy of the Khawass al-Ashjar (The Properties of Plants). Substituting for this work in London are two illustrated folios, one belonging to the British Museum and the other to the Keir Collection, from dispersed manuscripts of Arabic versions of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, from which the Khawass al-Ashjar derives. Likewise, the gold and silver-ground textiles in the Shrine of Fatimeh Ma’sumeh in Qum, and believed to have been given by one seventeenth-century shah or another, are represented in the London exhibition by works of similar design, technique, and period from other Iranian and European collections.

Fortunately the exhibition catalogue goes a long way to making up for such object substitutions, as well as providing a much-fuller historical context for Abbas’s support of these religious centers. Of particular utility in this regard are essays by religious historian Robert Gleave and architectural historian Kishwar Rizvi on, respectively, the ritual life of shrines and on the shrines as sites of pilgrimage and objects of devotion. These contributions are followed by individual chapters on the Ardabil, Mashhad, and Qum shrines by curator Canby; each of these three sections includes entries for and detailed reproductions of the relevant objects in the exhibition, as well as images of works given or possibly given to the shrines by ‘Abbas and other Safavid shahs that were not available for the exhibition itself. Canby also wrote the catalogue introduction (concerning the historical background of the Safavid dynasty, Shah ‘Abbas’s biography and character, Safavid art in the sixteenth century, and the role and original style of the arts under ‘Abbas); an essay on Isfahan as a manifestation of the public and private worlds of Shah ‘Abbas; and a closing essay on the shah’s legacy, as well as the catalogue entries accompanying these two discussions.

Despite these considerable and carefully crafted efforts to highlight ‘Abbas I as an innovative, pious, energetic man, and as a ruler dedicated to Islam, Iran, the arts, and culture, the shah emerges in both the exhibition and catalogue as a rather shadowy, and hence elusive, figure. This ambiguity strikes the visitor from the show’s very start, marked by two smallish paintings (cat. nos. 1 and 2). The first depicts Shah ‘Abbas as a mustachioed figure of slight stature and modest mien. The second represents an elegant and alert horse being groomed. While the accompanying labels and catalogue entries assert that the portrait “gives the impression of quiet confidence” and describe the horse as the kind of mount kept by ‘Abbas for speedy travels around his kingdom, the animal is in fact more memorable that its putative rider. The shah appears as marginally more forceful in a subsequent series of Indian paintings dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and depicting ‘Abbas receiving the Mughal ambassador Khan ‘Alam and in another holding a falcon (cat. nos. 19–21 and 124), and more statesman-like (but perhaps more fanciful) in a German engraving of 1602 (cat. no. 125). Like these images of shah as falconer and shah as potentate, the most evocative representation appears at the exhibition’s very end in a painting, signed by the artist Muhammad Qasim and dated 1627, of ‘Abbas embracing a handsome young pageboy who tilts a golden vessel provocatively towards the shah’s lap (cat. no. 123). Undeniably beautiful as a work of art, this portrait has the effect of undermining the pietistic deeds and the artistic enterprises that the exhibition tries so hard, and on the whole succeeds, to project. It would be as if the lasting image of the Clinton presidency was that oft-reproduced photo of Bill hugging a grinning, beret-wearing Monica.

Experts in later Safavid art already have commented on some of the exhibition’s other art-historical and museological oddities, including the catalogue’s rather summary bibliography (admittedly, the literature on ‘Abbas is vast) and the use of a detail from a Isfahan mural painted several decades after the shah died as the exhibition’s iconic image or logo (see, for instance, Eleanor Sims, “‘Abbas-i Buzurg: Iran in a New Light,” Hali 159 [spring 2009]: 99–101). More puzzling, and even debatable, is the premise, proclaimed in the show’s subtitle, that Shah ‘Abbas remade Iran and that the country of Iran today directly reflects transformations that occurred between 1587 and 1629. It is true, of course, that Iran in 2009 retains important legacies of the shah’s reign, as the catalogue’s brief, final chapter discusses. The maidan or main square and surrounding buildings that ‘Abbas caused to be built in his capital city of Isfahan remain a magnificent example of urban development in which modern-day Iranians justifiably continue to take great pride and the international community to admire; and the Shrine of the Imam Riza in Mashhad that ‘Abbas improved and supported financially and materially remains an important center of Shi’ite pilgrimage. Far more evidence, both historical and artistic, than is presented by the British Museum is required, however, to substantiate sweeping statements such as “Iran owes much of its revival and the recreation of its national identify to changes set in motion by Shah ‘Abbas,” as asserted in one of the exhibition’s opening wall texts, or that it is thanks to Shah ‘Abbas that “Iran entered the collective imagination of Europe . . . and by making Isfahan ‘half the world’ (Isfahan nisf-i jahan) he ensured that the rest of the world would never forget him or his empire,” as stated in the catalogue’s closing sentences. All the stranger, therefore, that ‘Abbas is no where to be seen within the show’s final exhibit, consisting of film clips of key events and personages in Iran’s recent history and including shots of king Reza Shah Pahlavi and of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Judging from the attention paid by visitors, such reminders of the not-too-distant past are indeed riveting. But they can hardly be said to take us back to the glory days of Shah ‘Abbas or to reinforce the message that this one Safavid monarch remade Iran.

It is a pity that the shows at the Sackler Gallery and the British Museum are single-venue projects. Notwithstanding the “history-lite” approach of the one and the often inchoate signals of the other, both have a great deal to teach about the diverse ways that early modern Muslim societies and their elites fostered and used the arts in the service of statecraft and religion—providing exemplars for the forging of internal identities and external relations that continue to resonate today.

Marianna Shreve Simpson
independent scholar