Although indelibly illustrious, the millennia-long tale of Iran is, by and large, a sad one. Ravaged by invaders who threatened to put paid to its rich and ancient cultural heritage, razed to the ground by bloodthirsty warlords, perennially betrayed by its own children, and far too often the victim of foreign ploys, the ‘land of the noble’ has been to hell and back again, and then some.
The 19th Century was one of the darkest periods in Iran’s recent history. Ruled by sybaritic autocrats who sold Iran for a pittance to foreigners, and plagued by poverty, disease, ignorance, and an overall state of decrepitude and decay, Iran wasn’t exactly the place to be.
Yet, as grim as the picture painted by travellers was, whether by Iranians or European diplomats, that depicted by the artists of the Qajar courts was truly a sight to behold. Sumptuous, iconic, and wholly novel, their artworks nearly have the potential to redeem the Qajars.
Nearly a century after the fall of Iran’s Qajar dynasty (which lasted from 1785 to 1925), and amidst the festivities of the two-week-long Iranian New Year (Norooz), a landmark exhibition at the Louvre Lens Museum in France, The Rose Empire, is showcasing masterpieces of Qajar art.
“In France, we’d never had an exhibition of Qajar art before, so it will be the first one”, says curator Gwenaëlle Fellinger. What’s more, the exhibition’s interior and displays are the work of the fashion designer – and Qajar art lover – Christian Lacroix.
“Qajar art belongs to these temporal spaces that have always fascinated me, between two worlds, two eras”, he tells BBC Culture. “The Qajar era is interesting … because of its East-meets-West/West-meets-East mixture of influences.”
During the golden age of the Safavid shahs in the 17th Century, their capital Isfahan was the envy of all who visited it. The site of a major cultural renaissance and crossroads, and an inspiration to artists the world over, it is still referred to by its citizens as ‘half the world’.
Things took a downward turn, however, after the death of the greatest ‘Sophy’ (as Shakespeare would have said) of them all, Shah Abbas the Great. By the time the last Safavid monarch, Abbas III, ascended the throne, the sun had set over Iran once again.
If the Safavids had ushered in an era of culture and exchange, and the Afsharids and Zands imperialism and peace, that of the Qajars was one of humiliation and depravity.
The 18th and 19th Centuries saw Iran stripped of all its former splendour. Vying for power in the strategically important Iran, as well as elsewhere in Central Asia, the Russians and British continually encroached on Iran’s sovereignty.
Children were lucky not to die in their cribs, sickness often meant death, venality was what set wheels in motion, and ancient sites were used for target practice
With Iran being ruled by feckless and feeble monarchs, the job was all too easy for foreign conspirators; in fact, in some cases, they didn’t even have to lift a finger.
To finance his over-the-top lifestyle, Nassereddin Shah – perhaps the most well-known Qajar monarch – gave a single British baron control over all of Iran’s roads, telegraphs, railways, mills, factories, and most of its natural resources; and another, a monopoly on Iran’s tobacco industry.
Foreign intrigue aside, Iran was in a pitiful state. Travellers to the country wrote about the lack of proper infrastructure, hideous living conditions, extreme debauchery (drunken orgies and the like), and corruption.
The story at the imperial courts, however, was another matter. Expanding on new forms of aesthetics in painting that were introduced in the Afsharid, Zand, and even late Safavid periods, which broke out of the framework of two-dimensional Persian miniatures, artists at the Qajar courts created a visual vocabulary wholly their own.
Bedecked in towering crowns topped with aigrettes, glittering brassards, and vivacious robes, and sporting outlandish beards and moustaches, Qajar monarchs like Fat’h Ali Shah, Mohammad Shah, and Nassereddin Shah appeared larger than life, and as works of art in and of themselves.
Courtly paintings and photographs depicted a dazzling wonderland of colour, passion, and every jewel under the sun
Ditching the dainty and delicate ideals of beauty prevalent in previous eras, painters at the Qajar courts opted for thick, conjoined eyebrows, dark, almond-shaped eyes with coquettish gazes, little rosebud lips, and long, flowing curls. Shahs were attended on by pageboys bearing jewel-encrusted ghalyans (water-pipes), female dancers performed acrobatics on hennaed hands, and belles in diaphanous blouses pouring copious amounts of wine.
Elsewhere, Nassereddin Shah, obsessed with all things European and keen to introduce ‘modern’ ways to his country, toyed with photography in his spare time; Antoin Sevruguin captured the lives of the rich, the poor, and the downright wretched on celluloid; and painters like Kamal ol-Molk artfully blended together European and Iranian imagery.
In contrast to French and British magazines of the day, which often portrayed the shahs as spineless and degenerate, and Iran as a Persian cat made the plaything of a British lion and Russian bear, courtly paintings and photographs depicted a dazzling wonderland of colour, passion, and every jewel under the sun in which the Shah, ‘God’s Shadow on Earth’, reigned supreme.
The age of opulence
The art of the Qajar era has long been admired by artists and scholars, says Christian Lacroix. “[Its] opulent elegance impressed [fashion photographer] Louise Dahl-Wolfe … She was inspired by Qajar portraits for a famous shooting session – and one of my favourite fashion features ever.” Yet, Qajar art has also been misunderstood and overlooked by many.
Despite the decades of darkness the Qajar monarchs brought to Iran, the splendour of Iranian art and culture continued to shine in full force; and now, centuries later, the dazzling masterpieces of that era’s artists are not only as radiant as ever, but are also being used to foster understanding and appreciation of an ancient and much-misunderstood civilisation. Should we be surprised? Not according to Lacroix. “Art is the best link, always.”
By Joobin Bekhrad
23 March 2018