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Members' Research Report Archive

Inventing Persian Art

Yuka Kadoi, University of Edinburgh
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 1–July 31, 2015

FSA A.4 2.12.GN.09.07

Interior of minai bowl (broken), photograph by Antoin Sevruguin. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, The Myron Bement Smith Collection, gift of Katherine Dennis Smith, 1973 – 1985

In recent years several art historians have addressed the origin of the discipline called Islamic art. Originally developed as a branch of Western art history, Islamic art became, during the twentieth century, an independent subject of scholarly inquiry into the artistic legacy of Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East, North Africa, southern Spain, and Central Asia. A century of investigation has, however, left a growing demand for the introduction of new paradigms into Islamic art and its definition, whether it was and still is secular, religious, transregional, or something that cannot be satisfactorily characterized. Although my research is not exclusively concerned with this ongoing debate, I began to wonder about subcategories, such as Turkish, Arab, and South Asian, that have been gathered under the umbrella term Islamic art.

And what about “Persian art”? This timeless aesthetic notion formed incrementally in the minds of Europeans, Americans, Iranians, and other Asians in the course of long-term cultural exchanges across time and space. Although Persian objects had always been celebrated for their high artistic quality and prized as diplomatic gifts and valuable commodities, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which transformed the sociopolitical nexus of the Middle East, they were merged into all-embracing categories such as ancient Near Eastern art (Middle Eastern antiquities predating the rise of Islam in the seventh century) and Islamic art (post-seventh-century Middle Eastern art and architecture). Yet an abstract idea of Persian art was reinforced during the early twentieth century, especially the interwar period, because of Euro-American collecting and study of cultural remains from the country culturally called Persia. (The geopolitical name Iran was internationally recognized in 1935.) This coincided with the rise of cultural revivalism under the Pahlavi regime (1925–1979), which was keen to refresh Iran’s image.

Aside from the cultural politics and ideology of the Pahlavis, I began
to look at the mechanisms of Persian art collecting during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Who worked behind the scenes to evoke an image of Persian art as collectible, and how did they foster a marketable profile for Persian objects? In this respect, it is worth considering the roles of intermediary agents, not only of middle people such as dealers, scholars, and curators, but also of photographic reproductions. Antoin Sevruguin (1830–1933), for instance, left many photographs of objects, as well as people, monuments, and landscapes, for commercial use. In a photograph now in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, medieval Persian ceramics are portrayed as displayable objects, appealing to the eyes of potential customers who were unable to view and handle them on the spot. Such a visual tool served in determining the quality of objects—often more effectively than actual viewing experiences—and it is therefore no wonder that some of the objects Sevruguin photographed later entered the collections of leading museums and eventually came to represent the masterpieces of Persian art.

Among other notable agents who contributed to forming the conception of Persian art, the American pioneer of the field Arthur Upham Pope (1881 – 1969) should be reappraised as one of the advocates who established the scholarly as well as the connoisseurial canon of Persian cultural heritage. Because of his deep involvement in the formation of Persian art collections in major European and American museums, Pope’s idealized vision of Persian art—silky carpets, blue-glazed tiles, shiny metalwork—continues to influence curatorial decisions regarding acquisition and display. A detailed historiographical assessment of Pope’s legacy is the focus of a volume of essays entitled Arthur Upham Pope and a New Survey of Persian Art (2016), which is based on an exhibition and a symposium I organized in 2010. The book also reflects additional research into archival records in numerous museums and libraries across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

The main goal of my research is to offer an alternative approach to
the history of Persian art in the early twentieth century, one that considers its coincidence with the invention of an aesthetic canon. As with many cultural histories, the layered narratives of Persian art make it one of the most captivating subjects to investigate.