ART REVIEW : Multiculturalism From Another Century in ‘Isfahan’


Los Angeles is probably the Western World’s capital of multiple ethnicities. That lends special interest to the Getty Museum’s “Book Arts of Isfahan.” Subtitled “Diversity and Identity in 17th Century Persia,” it acts as a reminder that our times aren’t the first in which various peoples of the planet have been obliged to live cheek by jowl.

Between 1597 and 1722, the Persian city of Isfahan served as the capital for the Shiite Muslim shahs. As a government center, it developed a cosmopolitan atmosphere attracting everyone from Hindu merchants to European missionaries. There was a significant Armenian enclave as well as Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

Artists functioned as a kind of cultural glue for each group. They made illustrated books, illuminated manuscripts and miniatures that reflected the traditional cultural style of each subculture.

Artists who worked in courtly precincts mirrored the hallmark sinuous and poetic line of Persian drawing. People depicted tended to be idealized. Certainly this was partly a way of flattering aristocratic patrons and giving more plebeian buyers the feeling they were participating in the elite life.


At the same time, examples on view sometimes have a subtle whiff of satire. A picture of “A Youth Reclining in a Landscape” depicts him in such a dandified costume with such exquisite little refreshments as to hint that he was a bit of a fop. “Standing Lady With a Bottle and Cup” is delicious: The young beauty’s gown is drawn with such a gracefully wavering line it looks at first as if it is stirred by the breezes. When one realizes she’s getting a little crocked on officially forbidden wine, the scene becomes humorous and vaguely erotic.

The art of this Safavid dynasty carried an aura of tolerant, amused sophistication. An illumination by Aqa Riza depicts two old out-of-shape guys who have come to blows over a silly disagreement. Every line confesses they heartily wish they could just sit down and catch their breath.

The underlying sympathy behind this little satire takes a more serious turn in “A Captive Uzbek.” Here a stranger and an enemy is depicted with compassion, humiliated in the victor’s yoke. Such scenes were traditional gestures of noblesse oblige but here the winner had good cause to identify with the loser. The prisoner wears a quiver of arrows, a weapon being made obsolete for both sides by the introduction of firearms.

Foreign women, Turkish or Indian, were seen with an admiring gaze. It may have been touched with an element of the old longing for the exotic and a bit of the stereotype but it was far from prejudicial. Neither was the way numerous Muslim painters embraced European art.

Muhammad Zaman’s “Magnun in the Wilderness” is a seamless hybrid of European spatial devices and Persian line that profits from both. A kind of Muslim “Peaceable Kingdom,” it has some of the sweet naivete created today by computer-generated three-dimensional cartoons.

The idea of artistic cross-fertilization is at the core of the exhibition. A particularly apt instance came from the fringes of the city. There a group of Jews--who regarded themselves as equally Persian--made their arts of the book. It’s downright startling to see a biblical manuscript whose pictures are in a kind of heated-up Persian style while the text is rendered in Hebrew letters. But that’s precisely what happens in an image like “Yusuf in Prison.” Such works express the way these people felt about their cultural character.

Shah Abbas I deported whole communities of Christian Armenians to Isfahan. They thrived and prospered in this foreign place as agents for the international silk trade. Their illuminated manuscripts were a particularly valued symbol linking them to one another and to their homeland. When they traveled, some carried miniature gospels they believed would protect them on the journey. These books were so revered they were literally taken prisoner during war and repatriated after ransom was paid to the enemy. In Isfahan many were commissioned to demonstrate a patron’s wealth and piety.

This visually fascinating show was organized by Getty curator Thomas Kren in tandem with Alice Taylor. An art history instructor at West Los Angeles College, Taylor wrote the thoughtful little book that acts as the catalogue. Taken together, book and exhibition reveal pertinent truth about the fluid nature of identity. They demonstrate the cross-cultural admiration that causes artists to embrace aspects of foreign styles as enrichment rather than threat. It’s an exhibition that offers life a chance to learn a precious lesson from art.

* J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through Jan. 14, closed Mondays, parking reservations required, (310) 458-2003.