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Persian Delight
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Spring 1999

Persian Delight
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This grandeur, according to Diba, should show "that the Islamic world has a lot of diversity in it" - more, certainly, than people in the West are aware of. For those cognizant of recent non-Western history, this collection fills one of the widest-yawning gaps in Near Eastern civilization. How many of us could even name the dynasty that ruled Iran in the 19th century, much less describe what they achieved politically or artistically?

Many, if not most, of those who could are the inheritors of that cultural patrimony, and it is those Iranians who will find Royal Persian Paintings at once the least and the most surprising. They grew up with these paintings, but not necessarily with a great respect for them as art. Compared to the Western examples they emulated and sometimes imitated, the Qajar canvases can seem awkward, indecisive, even crude; and compared to Safavid and other earlier Persian artworks, Qajar paintings might appear gauche and overblown. But in its very durability and persistence, Qajar art insists we look at it as a fecund hybrid, not as a sterile crossbreed. Royal Persian Paintings identifies a stable course of development in Qajar painting, tracing the evolution of its stylizations as well as describing the history that produced it.

Royal Persian Paintings also reveals characteristics in 19th-century Iranian art that we would consider inconsistent, but which recur with such regularity in the picture-making of this era that we are forced to reconsider what "consistency" consists of in the first place. If these paintings marry European and Persian conventions in a manner that by Western standards seems at best unresolved, we have to note that the manner is itself constant. The combination of Eastern and Western approaches is just as transparent, just as uneasy and just as beguiling in 1900 as it is in 1800. Even while striving for greater naturalism after the mid-19th century, the only time Qajar painters abandon native compositional principles is when they make direct copies of Western art. And the only time they abandon the traditional subject matter of royal portraiture, court life and historical painting is after the 1906-1907 revolution, when non-princely figures and activities - what we refer to in the West as genre painting - emerge as subjects of interest.

Royal Persian Paintings makes many other points, large and small, in favor of Qajar-dynasty art. Its pioneering resuscitation of this once-overlooked period fills a gap in the cultural history of Iran - and thus in the cultural history of UCLA's extended family and neighborhood.

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