The Brooklyn Museum's landmark show of Qajar art exposes Iran’s more liberal roots

The first survey of a fashion for portraiture that swept the Persian court lifts the veil on Iranian history


Iran in today’s popular imagination conjures up images of the veil, fatwa, repression and anti-Western extremism. The exhibition “Royal Persian Paintings: the Qajar Dynasty 1785-1925” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art ( until 24 January 1999) provides an important reminder that it was not ever thus.

This exhibition, which benefited from an unusually large grant of $300,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is the first major survey of this under-researched Persian court culture of life-sized portrait painting, manuscript illumination and decorative arts. It is taking place in Brooklyn because, thanks to the acquisitions and bequest of one of the museum’s Asian art curators, Charles Wilkinson, the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA) now holds one of the world’s most important collections of Qajar portraiture. The rest of the exhibition has been made up from loans from international museums and a handful of important Iranian emigré collectors, including the former dealer David Nasser Khalili and Hashem Khosrovani.

“We began planning this exhibition almost five years ago because we believed that this period of relative freedom of expression and artistic interchange between Iran and the West deserved to be better known. In the current climate, we wanted to show another side of Iran,” said curator Layla Diba, the Hagop Kevorkian curator of Islamic art at the BMA. Dr Diba, an American-educated Persian, is cousin to the former Empress Farah Diba and helped her establish the Negarestan Museum of Qajar art in Tehran in 1975, which was closed after the revolution in 1978. During this period there was a vertiginous rise in the value of Qajar painting, which previously had been disregarded by Western collectors as hybridised and decadent.

The Qajar period, which began around the time of the French Revolution and ended with the overthrow of the dynasty by the Pahlevi family in 1925, saw a flowering of a Persian tradition of life-size depiction of the human figure. Under the Qajar regime wall-paintings and rock reliefs were revived as a form of royal propaganda, and stylised images of rulers and enthronement were painted all over the country.

Many emissaries came from Britain, France and neighbouring Russia to the Qajar court, bearing royal portraits as diplomatic gifts. Qajar artists incorporated these European techniques of portraiture into their own tradition, adopting oil on canvas and the official poses.

To explore the influence of Western art on Persian artists, Van Dyck portraits of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria (on loan from the Hermitage) will be shown alongside Qajar portraits. “We want to demonstrate that in terms of art and culture, there was the openness in Persian art to adopt and change,” said Dr Diba.

Women play a major role in the exhibition and they are seen as much more free in Qajar art than in modern Iran. Acrobats, royalty and harem girls alike strike coy poses and smile at the viewers with their veils lifted. “There is a shift in depictions of women from stock portraits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a more naturalistic style in the nineteenth, thanks in part to the influence of European academic painting and photography,” explained Dr Diba.

The show concludes with a newspaper cartoon from 1907, showing Persian rulers as dogs being fed by Russians and Europeans. “This illustrates the breakdown of the Qajar regime, which was seen as corrupted by outside influences,” says Dr Diba. “It shows the sceptical attitude of modern Iran to the favours of the West, which, more than any of the other works on show, is still relevant today.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A lifting of the veil'