Exploring the mutual fascination between Iran and Europe through art in Switzerland
Though the German word sehnsucht is often translated as ‘fascination’ in English, it also carries with it connotations of longing and desire. Between September 2013 and January 2014, the concept of sehnsucht was explored, particularly with respect to the longstanding relationship between Iran and Europe. Focusing on the threads of contact woven between the 1600s to the present day, a rich and thought-provoking dialogue of aesthetics, politics, and identity was presented, which featured some 200-odd works from both Persian and European classical artists, as well as some of Iran’s most important contemporary artists.
Nestled in a park below the Alpine mountains, Museum Rietberg is widely known as Switzerland’s sole museum dedicated to the showcasing of non-European art. For the exhibition, the building’s transparent façade was covered with confetti of green geometrical shapes that implied a sort of serendipitous Islamic minimalism, while the work chosen for the poster of the recent exhibition, Sehnsucht Persien – roughly translating to The Fascination of Persia – was one of a series of towering late 17th century Safavid oil paintings depicting quixotic characters amongst ornate backgrounds. Although thought to have been decorated for the interiors of Esfahan’s wealthy elites, the subjects in the paintings were devoid of any concrete identity or attribution, thus presenting an immediate allure for the beholder. An older enigma in the series, that of a blonde, blue-eyed man in flowering Turco-Georgian robes stood out particularly luminescent beneath the dim lighting inside the museum.
The exhibition itself, housed deep within an underbelly extension of the building, presented an admixture of the grace and delicacy of classical Persian and European works with the beauty and brutality of ones by contemporary Iranian artists. The curation by Axel Langer and Susann Wintsch was sensitive in its display of a refreshing departure from the usual narrative of trade in an exhibition hinged on cross-cultural exchange. Speaking with Langer, he told me that the link he drew between his curated works became increasingly conceptual rather than formal, which resulted in comparisons between the pieces that were at times more subtle than straightforward. Langer and Wintsch didn’t shirk from past-present dialogues either, although the works by the contemporary artists in the exhibition seemed to be more influenced by modern-day Iran, their historical ties and connections with a Perso-European past being largely formulated through the curation. Also present there, sprinkled throughout the impressive and varied exhibition catalogue, were black and red caption boxes presenting a tripartite and trilingual dialogue between the works from Baroque Europe, Safavid Persia, and contemporary Iran.
Inviting visitors to Sehnsucht Persien was Parastou Forouhar’s Spielfeld (Playing Field), which evoked themes of fate, drowning, and betrayal. Ornamental in its immediate flatness, it was simply neighboured by a Persian carpet lying quietly and inaccessibly next to Forouhar’s maze of paranoia. The contemporary work was ready for visitors to walk over, and their shoes to clunk between squares of inescapable snakes and ladders, each one occupied by opaque assassins. Considering the artist’s work there, it would be tempting for some to view Iran’s past both as belonging to a foreign country, as well as a neo-Orientalist narrative oddly fitting within Forouhar’s field of ensnarement.
Similar to Forouhar’s Spielfeld, themes of escape and entrapment were prominent in Mandana Moghaddam’s Wailing Wall, a highly personal work (the artist was granted in asylum in Sweden after having had to flee Iran) that depicted the limp tendrils of the folk heroine Chehelgis (lit. ‘Forty Locks’) caught between heavy stones. Around the corner, the heavy chimes of Rozita Sharafjahan’s multimedia installation, Red Mirage reverberated off these breezeblocks, guiding visitors in a trance-like fashion. Surrounded by the European fairy tale visions of the 17th century, another work by Forouhar consisting of tasselled banners presented sardonic commentaries on post-Revolution Iranian identity, adorning the walls in electric-coloured pomp and ceremony.
Further on in the exhibition, beneath the feet of the Georgian figures in the Safavid oil paintings was Nazgol Ansarinia’s Mendings, which interrupted the ‘wholeness’ of the notion of domestic furniture by neatly slipping out the middle segment of a selection of plates, a chair, and a mattress, and cementing the remaining halves together with an impenetrable scar. Ansarinia was well represented across the exhibition, Mendings constituting only one of her pieces. Fabrications, a group of dollhouse-sized sculptures, was also specially commissioned for the exhibition. Her cutting-edge use of three-dimensional printing lent smooth facades to the paintings found on tower block structures in Tehran, thereby creating a hybrid architecture that mixed visions of a grandiose past and the reality of a ‘sober’ present. As well, the delicate newspaper mosaics of the installation, Reflections/Refractions echoed the tessellation of shapes over the museum’s entrance.
Politically, at least – if not aesthetically – cross-cultural exchange between Persia and Europe was not always easy, which often meant that interactions between the two regions bore complex artistic fruits. A darkened scene of a Franco-Persian ambassadorial exchange taking place in the Galerie de Glaces in Versailles by Nicholas de Largilliére hinted at what could have been at times fraught episodes of diplomacy; indeed, the role of ambassador was not a straightforward one. As the relationship between the English traveller and adventurer Sir Robert Shirley and Shah Abbas the Great would attest, tendencies of self-presentation on the part of ambassadors after dealings with foreign lands later gave rise to appropriations of identity. Shirley’s inclination towards and penchant for Persian attire led to the experimentation of the likes of Sir Anthony van Dyck in portraying him imperiously above his positions both as an ambassador and an Englishman in Persian costume. Likewise, the European courts were dazzled by Persian envoys such as Mohammad Reza Beg and Nakd Ali Beg, who cut dashing figures there. Nakd Ali’s portrait by Richard Greenbury presents a show of metallic glamour, with the big and brash gold textiles symbolising the very provocation of Oriental splendour that so enticed European interests for centuries.
Bypassing tired narratives of religious contrasts and strained politics, Langer and Wintsch presented a fresh interpretation of a mutual relationship and fascination between two worlds often discussed, but rarely understood and appreciated
On this note, an encased copy of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters) prefigured artist Hamed Sahihi’s binocular-wielding clown couples gazing at each other from earth and in the sky. The dichotomy of reality (and unreality) in his video installation, Observer, played on notions of what is observed and what is imagined. Despite diplomatic contact, a lack of distinction between Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid personae was fully present in Europe, as epitomised by the Oriental ‘fantasy’ of Charles-Nicolas Cochin’s sketches. Apart from the case of the individual, expansive maps indicating a manipulation of geography also revealed large-scale European self-representation through the cartographic imaginary.
As Europe’s own ‘East’, Catholic Poland is particularly interesting with respect to intercultural relations with Iran. Perso-Polish dialogue represented one of the few instances wherein the subject of trade appeared in the exhibition’s narrative, engagingly presented with a focus on crafts. Persian-style fashions became a form of upper class costume in Poland, as shown by the luxurious wardrobe of hybrid textiles on display containing Polonaise carpets and elegant, glittering cummerbunds (from the Persian kamar-band) representing both festivity and sobriety. Every item there represented the meeting of many hands in a sumptuous brocade: Persian, Polish, Armenian, French, as well as British. The contrast in cloths on a bedecked mannequin appeared Oriental; luxury fabrics at once evoked a Persian connection and imbued Polish motifs with opulent swagger, and nearby, a miniature armoury was to be found containing swords and chest pieces embellished with intricate Armenian workmanship.
It was not only while clothed that Persia and Europe interacted, however; erotic, plump, and tranquil, the lone female nude was imported into Esfahan by the famed painter Reza Abbasi. European figures, too, were featured in miniatures of amorous couples. Often men, they fumbled clumsily at the blouses of their aloof lovers, and appeared smaller and meeker than them, perhaps suggesting that the Persian miniaturists of the time were poking fun at the manner of European lovemaking. Mir Afzal of Tun’s Young Woman with a Dog was a prime example of European influences on Persian painting, as it essentially represented a ‘Persianisation’ of Marcantonio Raimondi’s Cleopatra. Although Hoseyni clothed his subject, he lifted her tunic to reveal a round stomach akin to that of her Italian counterpart. In Persian hands, these small gestures carried a more titillating weight in comparison with the classical nudity of the Italian models. As well, it is also worth noting the wry versatility of Persian artists with sexual symbols and imagery in 17th century miniatures. Whilst the tiny grey hound at the bowl beside Mir Afzal’s seductress lapped hungrily beneath her gaze, the dog at the feet of the farangi (lit. ‘Frank’) looked decidedly bored.
Similarly, the influence of European schools of painting on the Persian artists of the era can be seen in the miniatures of dandyish Europeans in pastel pantaloons as cupbearers. Questions, however, have been raised as to whether these ‘foreigners’ were ever portrayed as equally desirable as their Persian counterparts in European paintings, or if – as previously mentioned – they were mocked in a way. It is worth noting here, though, that the Persian artists, as evidenced in the nuances of their replications of European works, were indeed capable of working in the European style, contrary to other popular assumptions. Bagher’s replayed nude had marzipan-like flesh, while saints and Madonnas were rendered with a tangible presence, complemented by gilded ribbons and stained borders. Conceptually, these Persian reinterpretations played on multiple layers of thought and vision; a nude woman reclining on what appears to be the centre of a thick border could have easily been seen as a bird’s-eye view of a belle on a Persian rug.
Working within the sphere of Persian miniatures, Farhad Fozouni’s poster-like compositions of ‘instructional’ poetry cleverly tied in together with the abstract couplets found within the borders of 17th century miniatures. Both mediums presented clues rather than give explanations, leading one’s eyes around the artists’ images and leaving them in a tertiary realm of interpretation. A series of scenes depicting the legendary monarch Bahram Gur (celebrated in such literary works as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Nezami Ganjavi’s Haft Peykar) slaying a dragon charted the pictorial evolution of the tale, progressing from the metallic lustre of an engraved Sassanian plate to the gradual drip filter of European painterly techniques.
Regardless of the works on display or the subjects explored, Sehnsucht Persien was always presented as a two-way relationship and exchange; that is, that the ‘fascination’ could have been interpreted as both a European fascination with Persia, as well as Persia’s fascination with Europe. The focus on Iran in an exhibition that was not only cross-cultural, but which also openly recognised the influence of the past on the present was a welcome endeavour in the curation of Middle Eastern art. Bypassing tired narratives of religious contrasts and strained politics, Langer and Wintsch presented a fresh interpretation of a mutual relationship and fascination between two worlds often discussed, but rarely understood and appreciated.