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Spring 1999

Persian Delight
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It is, by and large, an educated and affluent community. Those who left Iran with the Shah in 1979 were highly westernized and mainly of the professional and entrepreneurial classes - doctors, engineers, architects, academics, merchants, publishers, artists and the like. The Iranian presence in the United States probably constitutes the most sophisticated immigrant population since the German-speaking refugees of the later 1930s.

If educated Iranians such as those who have flocked here think at all of the Qajars, the ruling dynasty that preceded the reign of the Pahlavis, they regard their period as one of decadence. Certainly, according to Hossein Ziai, director of UCLA's Iranian Studies Program, the Qajars' last years, between the constitutional revolution of 1906-1907 and the accession of Riza Shah Pahlavi (the elder) in 1925, did not reflect well on the dynasty. But Ziai and several essayists in the hefty and engrossing catalogue to the exhibition all stress that the Qajars maintained the remarkable tradition of tolerance that has characterized Iranian civilization ever since its Biblical days of empire. And this tradition of multiculturalism stood Iran in good stead, politically and culturally, in the 19th century as before. It permitted social structures and artistic practices to remain stable, yet open to change, in times of ambitious expansion and equally in times of contraction and confusion. The Qajar epoch was both.

Royal Persian Paintings seeks to mitigate that epoch's decadent reputation. While not obscuring the problems of the regime and its times, the exhibition insists that we take a new look at Qajar art and artifacture, and that we reconsider the era as a period of interest unto itself, as a notable development in the history of Persian (and Islamic) art and, for better or worse, as the foundation of modern Iran's condition.

The emergence of Iran's modern middle class, and the process of westernization that fed off and spurred this emergence, began in Qajar society. Indeed, what Professor Ziai calls a "disharmony between tradition and westernization" began under the Qajars. Such disharmony led to the alienation of Iran's non-westernized working classes from its westernized intelligentsia and professional classes, and ultimately to the fundamentalist revolution. Ziai terms this class-cultural split a "schizophrenia" particular to 20th-century Iran - similar to Russia under Peter the Great, perhaps, but nowhere more profound in our era than in the Persian kingdom. Unlike Kamal Ataturk's westernization of post-Ottoman Turkey, the Shah's pro-Western outlook was political, cultural and economic, but not ideological, and did not extend far beyond the court - a condition as true under the Qajars as under the Pahlavis.

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