Sizzling colours

Princes, Poets and Paladins

April 3, 1998

This is the catalogue of a magnificent exhibition currently at the British Museum, positively sizzling with colour, of Persian and Indian art from the collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Khan. The text is by Sheila Canby, head of the museum's Islamic department, and, as an amuse-gueule, we have a characteristically lively preface by the doyen of Persian art studies, Stuart Cary Welch.

The learned but lucid text covers 145 paintings, all the finest examples of their kind and representing the main elements of manuscript painting from 14th-century Iran to 19th-century India. It locates each school within the political and artistic history of the period and analyses stylistic differences. The commentary, like the collection itself, is particularly strong on Safavid Iran and the visionary scenes, executed in the jewel-like colours of dreams, which illustrate manuscripts of the Shahnama, the Persian book of royal exploits reaching far back into the legendary past. The notes provide fascinating explanations of traditional imagery, such as the monstrous horned wolves killed by the heroic Isfandiyar or the languid erotic symbolism of later Safavid portraiture.

But it is sad that the British Museum Press has been content to reproduce these complex works of art on such a small scale. Sultan Muhammad's painting of The Court of Gayumars, an exquisite image of harmony between the human and the natural worlds, is generally considered to be the greatest work of Persian art from any period and, as Canby points out, is full of significant implication, of tiny creatures and faces lurking in rocks and foliage. Yet these become virtually invisible when the painting is shown at half-size, as in this catalogue. And anyone judging Persian painting from the diminished illustrations here would get little idea of the extraordinary palettes and compositional skills that have exerted such powerful influence on modern western art. Areas of colour that in the original paintings have shocking impact - pink, orange, electric blue - when reduced appear merely as pretty little patterns, faded versions of the originals; the brilliant effect of gilding suffers especially.

For those who already know something of the subject, the illustrations of the catalogue are a useful aide-memoire of the exhibition and the text is a valuable guide to the various schools of painting. But Canby's earlier small book, Persian Painting (also British Museum Press), provides more technical information, for example on artists' materials and workshops.

And, of course, this catalogue raises an unspoken question. Islamic art scholarship is caught in a quandary. Is it right for the illustrated pages of dismembered manuscripts to be distributed among the international rich, continuing the convenient tradition of more or less ignoring the text? Can we say that there are "bad'' collectors, such as the late Arthur Houghton Jr, who broke up the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama that had remained intact for 400 years and sold pages from it piecemeal, and "good'' collectors, such as Prince and Princess Sadruddin Khan who bought some of these pages, who love, conserve and display them? Canby's introduction does touch on the subject, but she cannot be expected to enlarge on it in such a context. The new generation of Islamic art historians badly needs to get this one right.

Jane Jakeman is an Islamic art historian and librarian.

Princes, Poets and Paladins: Islamic and Indian Paintings from the Collection of Prince and Princess Sagruddin Aga Khan

Author - Sheila R. Canby
ISBN - 0 7141 1483 9
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 192

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