Articles | Visual Arts
 
PERSIAN PAINTING: A VISUAL WINDOW INTO A GENDERLESS LANGUAGE
By Najmeh Khatami
 
Note: This article published in Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies: Alam--e-Niswan Vol. 20, No. 1, 2013, pp.73-86, ISSN:  1024-1256, does not necessarily reflect the views held by Tavoos.
 
 
 
Outdoor entertainment for a prince (believed to be Shah Abbas II), Mohammad Qasim (1620-25), British Library.
 
Abstract A discerning trait of Persian painting, which differentiates it from the Western style of painting, is the irrefutable resemblance between the male and female figures. Persian painting is closely entwined with Persian poetry and therefore, the primary focus of this study are the illustrations accompanying poems which narrate Persian folklores in order to have portrayals of culturally well-known male and female figures. An attempt is made to compare and demonstrate the similarities between the studies done on Persian literature and metaphor, and the studies done on Persian art. Previous studies on Persian paintings have mainly associated the genderless nature of the painted figures to widespread homosexuality in mediaeval Persia. However, this study investigates this trait of Persian paintings with a new outlook; it scrutinizes the relationship between the genderless nature of Persian language and the similarity between the different genders’ figures in classical Persian paintings. The ambiguity of the gender, which could be possible only by the usage of a genderless language such as Persian, was transferred in Persian paintings in the form of similarity between the female and male appearances.

 

Keywords: Persian painting, gender-less language, medieval poetry, Iran, visual rhetoric

Historical Overview

By the end of the ninth century and the beginning of the tenth century, with the collapse of the Abbasids, the last Arab dynasty's  more than three hundred years dominion over Persia ended. Several Persian dynasties gained power one after the other for the next ten centuries until the end of monarchy in Iran in 1979. It was only after the end of the Arab sway that a movement towards rediscovering the Persian language, pre-Islamic cultural values, and arts, revival of the Zoroastrian religion in a Persian Islamic body, Shiism, and a sense of nationhood among the Persians began. This movement became faster and stronger especially under the Safavids who ruled Persia from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (Canby, 1999). In the Safavid era, Persia again became a regional superpower, and peace and stability spread out within the country’s borders; consequently, Persian literature, arts, philosophy, and medicine witnessed a great blossoming during this period (Azhand, 2000). Persian painting and calligraphy were not excluded; Persian artists, for the first time in the history of Persia, established the art of bookmaking in its modern style. This technique was a combination of various art forms such as poetry, calligraphy, painting, decorative borders, and bookbinding and covering. Books were prepared under the orders of the rulers and authors were patronized by the court. Among such works are included masterpieces such as Shahnameh (The Books of Kings) of Ferdowsi, Panj-Ganj or Khamsa, Quinary of Nezami Ganjavi, Bostan (The Orchard) and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) of Saadi, which were written in beautiful hand writing by a consummate calligrapher and images painted by an accomplished painter, and then boarded and bound by skilful artists. Safavid rulers, who themselves were familiar with the arts of calligraphy, poetry writing and painting, surrounded themselves by a circle of court artists such as court poets, painters, calligraphers, illustrators, and architects. (Azhand, 2000). From among the famous Persian artists of this era, we can recall master calligraphers Mir Emad, and Ali Reza Abbasi, and adept painters such as Kamal ud-Din Behzad, Mohammad Zaman Negargar, Mohammed Qasim, titled as ‘the Universal Painter’ and Mohammad Yusuf Mosarar (Canby, 2000).

 

Shah Abbas and young page, Mohammad Qasim (1620-25), Louvre Museum.

Why Persian Paintings and Not Persian Miniatures?

The same style of painting which was commonly used in Pre-Islamic Persian mural paintings, and was found in excavations in Central Asian countries, India, Afghanistan and the western parts of China, the areas that were parts of the ancient Persian Empire, was modified and recreated by medieval Persian painters, and probably were transferred to paper (Grabar, 2000). It is because of this that some Iranian scholars are reluctant to use the word miniature, which traditionally is used for all works of art of miniature size. Iranian scholars, instead, prefer the word Negareh, which refers to the style rather than the size of a painting. Derived from the Latin word minium which means red lead the term ‘miniature’ was initially used for the medieval illuminations as their principal pigment was red lead. Later, it was used for “very small portrait paintings finely executed on vellum (skin), precared cards, copper or ivory, jewelry, boxes, lockets, palm leaves and paper” (Pande & Lavanya, 2004). This paper uses the term ‘Persian paintings’ and not ‘Persian miniatures’.
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Khamsaof Nizami, Mid 16th century. Shiraz, Iran. Freer Gallery of Art.
Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool.
 
 
 
Research Question & Hypothesis

A discerning trait of Persian paintings, beside their colourful theme, their superficial simplicity, and dense accumulations of minutely rendered details, is the irrefutable resemblance between the male and female figures. If it was not for the differences in their headgears, turban, or crown for men versus veil or tiara for women, it was very difficult to decide whether we are looking at a male portrait or a female portrait. Male figures with slender and delicate appearance and long hairless faces, arched V shaped eyebrows and thin lips resemble women’s faces, and female figures with boyish, long willowy bodies without any feminine curves even in the scenes in which women are shown nude – with no breasts – are not unlike young men’s figures. What could possibly persuade a painter to create such “genderless” humans? Could this trait of traditional Persian painting, before it was influenced by Western art, be suggested by the language, Persian language, the genderless language of the poems that accompany these painting?

In this study, I tried to investigate my hypothesis, and find out if there is really a relationship between the genderless nature of Persian language and the similarity between the different genders’ figures in classical Persian paintings. I conducted a library-based research in an attempt to familiarize myself with the existing work in the field, and seek a convincing answer to my research question. In addition to the scholarly works done on the paintings inside and outside Iran, which I should confess are unfortunately very limited, I also looked into the studies conducted in the field of Persian literature and metaphors – especially the parts pertaining to description of human figures – in order to have a firmer comprehension of the reasons circling my research question. The focus of my study is more on the visuals accompanying poems which narrate Persian folklores in order to have portrayals of culturally well-known male and female figures. I tried to compare and demonstrate the similarities between the studies done on Persian literature and metaphor, and the studies done on Persian art, and finally draw a conclusion based on my observations in order to help the audience to comprehend my point.

Classical Persian Paintings

Woman with a veil, album folio attributed to Riza-i 'Abbasi, circa 1590-95. Isfahan, Iran. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian.

By contrast, with the monuments of Western painting, which one can easily see, well framed and hanging in the museumsof the world, Persianpaintings are usually hidden in books, often fragile, kept in the rare book rooms of libraries in manuscript rooms reserved for specialized scholars and known connoisseurs (Grabar, 2000). These paintings are found in two variations, albums, and manuscripts, both made for the contemporary king to please the royal taste, or to be given to other princes and kings from neighbouring Muslim countries as royal gifts. Albums contain collections of images with different themes, whereas, manuscripts contain poems from well-known Persian poets and images illustrating the climaxes of the stories narrated by the poems (Grabar, 2000).
 
As it was mentioned earlier after the departure of the Arabs, Persian artists revived and modified the same style of painting which was practiced in pre-Islamic Persia in different forms of arts, such as carpet weaving, ceramic painting, painting, etc. (Canby, 2000). Persian painting and design underwent different changes in different periods of times in the classical era and every so often a new style appeared. From prominent styles of painting in medieval Persia, we can mention Herat traditions, Timurid traditions, Jalayirid traditions, Baghdad and Tabriz traditions (Roxburgh, 2003). The same scenes –for instance the scene of Khosrow watching Shirin bathing in the river – were painted in different styles over different periods of time (Canby, 2000). As pointed out by Roxburgh (2003) “Herat paintings had a larger painted surface area, combination of flat color with expansive areas of wash, and coding of spatial recession by overlapping planes and the bluish effect of atmospheric perspective. Later years, the formal aspects of painting became increasingly coherent and codified”. With the passage of time, the paintings got more intricate and refined and consequently the number of paintings per book decreased as the paintings needed more labour and resources (Roxburgh, 2003). Nature, people, and animals were the main objects of these paintings and early Persian painters used their art to depict the local flora and fauna, the architectural monuments and landscape. (Canby,2000).
 
Leyli and Majnun last meeting. Khamsaof Nizami, Mid 16th century. Shiraz, Iran. Freer Gallery of Art.
 
Unlike Western painters, Persian painters did not paint from live subjects, but used their own imaginations inspired by Persian literature to create exotic scenes, and therefore, their paintings had a distinct dream-like style free from painting rules imposed in Western paintings such as perspective, lighting etc. Also in these paintings, there is a striking resemblance between male and female figures, and unless for their headgears, it is impossible to establish the gender of the figure. By the mid-seventeen century with the arrival of huge groups of European explorers and missionaries to Asian countries prior to the colonization era, the Persian painting style was influenced by the European style of painting and, unfortunately, could never return to its original forms.

Classical Persian paining, as mentioned earlier, is closely entwined with classical Persian poetry, therefore unless one does not have a firm understanding of the theme and style of these poems, to understand and comprehend these visuals is not easy. The following section discusses the links between classical Persian poetry and Persian paintings.
 
Reza Abbasi circa 1600, Isfahan, Iran. Hermitage Museum of Amsterdam.
 
Classical Persian Poetry & its Relation to Classical Persian Painting
There is an impartible strand between Persian art and Persian poetry. Yarshater points out “yet little attempt has been made to take poetry, the monumental art of Persia, into consideration, and explore fully the features it shares with the visual arts of the country” (Yarshater, 1962). Not much has been done thus far to colour the invisible union between the elements of Persian arts, especially painting, and the Persian language for example something similar to what Kress and Leeuwen have done for Western languages in their book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. This section first provides some background information about classical Persian poetry, followed by a brief study of how Persian poetry, Persian painting and Persian design, are interrelated.

At the end of the ninth century, after “two centuries of silence”, Persian poetry was reborn, and Persian poets once again started composing poems in Modern Persian – the language that was developed after the Arab invasion in the seventh century – instead of Arabic. The poetry belonging to this era until the seventeenth century is regarded as the classical

era of Persian poetry. Classical Persian poems are divided into “three kinds according to the poems’ length: long (narrative), medium (lyric and panegyric), and short (epigrammatic: encapsulating a mood, insight, complaint, compliment or witticism)” (Davis, 1996). These poems are not only important for their unique, elegant style and the fact that they preserved the ancient Persian mythology and folklore, but also because “they provide fascinating occasional glimpses into vanished and extraordinary way of life in the Persian medieval courts” (Davis, 1996). 

Although at the beginning medieval Persia poetry was secular and was used mainly in court panegyric style for praising and entertaining a king or a prince and his companions, or describing erotic love, however, it very quickly developed in the direction of mysticism, and the same extravagant language that was used for praising a king or describing an erotic love, was eminently used for poems of religious devotion. Therefore, as Davis points out, “the rhetoric of panegyric, often with ambiguously erotic overtones – is the addressee a prince, a beloved or God? – was reinforced rather than diluted by its adoption as the language of mystical verse” (Davis, 1996).

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Rostam chooses his horse, 1589-90. Enscribed by Qiwam ibn Muḥammad of  Shiraz. Peck Shahnameh. Princeton University Library.

 
One of the vital features of classical Persian poetry is its imaginary view towards the world, where everything is perfect and nothing vulgar or common obtrudes, even the grass is turned to emeralds and dew to pearls. Not surprisingly, with the history of Persian culture that Pope presents us, explaining the extensive role of nature in early Aryan beliefs that was later passed on to their descendants, i.e. the Persians, such as a Cypress tree symbolizing immortality in Aryan beliefs or water as the fluid of life and youth (Pope, 1972). Thus, in classical Persian poems “different kinds of beautiful trees and flowers – Cypress tree, weeping willow, box tree, jasmine, narcissi, pomegranate flower, etc. – as well as precious substances – gold, silver, different gems, musk, old wine, moon, sun, etc. – are utilized to describe the beloved’s body and face” (Davis, 1996). Most of these metaphorical comparisons are culturally understood codes and do not make sense to outsiders as the poet for extending the beauty of the poem and sometimes for holding back the truth and creating more ambiguity for the audience, most of the times omits the tenor of each metaphor. According to Davis “often what is offered [in classical Persian poems] is not reality direct, or the excitement that such reality might generate, but some special nuance of aesthetic effect that reality and its attendant excitements and anxieties can be called on to suggest” (Davis, 1996).
 
Another conspicuous trait of Persian poetry, understood only by those who read the poetry in its original language, is caused by the genderless-ness of Persian language and while the poet is talking about his beloved the reader faces some difficulty to find out whether the beloved is a he or a she. Although Davis points out other indications for indicating the beloved’s sex in these poems, such as pomegranate flowers as a periphrasis for a woman’s breasts or the new grass of spring as a periphrasis for the first signs of an adolescent boy’s beard (Davis, 1996), in most cases it is up to the reader to guess – or not – the beloved’s gender. In fact, ambiguity is part of classical Persian poems created deliberately by the poet by exploiting the genderless nature of the language, and unless he chooses to reveal his intentions – such as in Attar’s case and his poems about Christian- boy-love for the intention of religious divisions and conversion from one faith to another (Lewis, 2009) – it is hard to get rid of it. This ambiguity lets the poet celebrate the moments of heterosexuality as much as homosexuality within a culture that homosexual relationships cannot be fully explored as a social taboo without getting too much into it. It is also important here to mention Davis’ observations in describing unisex human beauty in classical Persian poetry which includes pale skin, rosy cheeks, long torso, sloped shoulders, joined V eyebrow, small mouth, dark curly hair with beauty marks such as moles in addition to the ambiguity of the gender of beloved in classical Persian poetry, and the ambiguity in the romantic or mystical love mentioned earlier (Davis, 1996).
Homay Crowning Darab, Enscribed by Qiwam ibn Muḥammad of Shiraz. Peck Shahnameh 1589-90. Princeton University Library.
 
Yarshater scrutinizing the similarities between Persian arts and Persian poetry, carefully, points out the abstract quality of both, and the fact that Persian poetry and design fly away from naturalism. He comments, “Persian poet is concerned more with the subjective interpretation of reality than with its external manifestation…in [Persian] painting, too, we are generally introduced to a picture of the world on an abstract plane, and external realities do not interest the artist” (Yarshater, 1962). Similarly, as the classical Persian poet tried to create an immortal world by ignoring the temporal and perishable aspects of life, the Persian classical painter did his best to portray the abiding features of the living objects. Explaining this, Yarshater comments that “One needs to consider the vivid and brilliant delineation of the spring, autumn and winter in early classical poetry, or the ubiquitous sparkling wine in all its splendor of shade, fragrance or taste or again, the gorgeous garden scenes, to realize that the exuberance and splendor of the world communicated to us by Persian painting or in Persian carpets is even more fully present in the poetry”(Yarshater, 1962).
 
Yarshater also adds another common feature between Persian poetry and design, which is the harmony. He claims that the same harmony observed in Persian poetry that chains different events, erotic scenes, poet’s feelings and thoughts to each other, is also observed in Persian carpets or Persian paintings in weaving or depicting animals, buildings, humans or plants next to each other and the beautiful borders around them. (Yarshater, 1962).

 

 
Battleground of Timur and Egyptian King, Behzad, 1515.

Analysis

The polychromatic intricate Persian paintings are the best examples of Mitchell’s theory that visuals are “inevitably conventional and contaminated by language,” and that “…the dialectic of word and image seems to be a constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself. What varies is the precise nature of the weave, the relation of warp and woof” (Mitchell, 1987). Pope in his study of Persian arts and culture, points out some of the common metaphorical conventions of Persian culture, and examines how the same symbols appear in Persian arts as well (Pope, 1972). Interestingly, Davis in his studies of Persian poetry highlights the same metaphors practiced by the Persian poets (Davis, 1996). The symbols such as cypress trees symbolizing immortality, golden fruit trees symbolizing royalty and glory, and water symbolizing life and youth, are a few examples that Pope mentions, which are interestingly observed abundantly in Persian poetry (Davis, 1996), and paintings (Pope, 1972) from the medieval era.
 

As Kress and Leeuwen stress, “meanings belong to culture, rather than to specific semiotic modes” (Kress & Leeuwen, 2006), the roots of the unique style of classical Persian painting definitely are embedded in Persian language and culture, and Persian paintings encapsulate various aspects and features of the language and culture. Therefore, as Roxburgh mentions these paintings cannot be understood and analyzed using Western paradigms, and one has to be familiar to the culture, language and the rich literature, to be able to comprehend the artist’s message. He also warns the scholars not to separate the visuals from the texts and at the same time not to underestimate the vital role of the paintings in the narratives (Roxburgh, 2003). The reader/viewer has to have the knowledge of Persian language to comprehend the genderless-ness of the beloved in Persian poems so that the resemblance of the male and female figures in Persian paintings is coded and accepted. Mitchell claims that pictures are not alive objects and do not have minds of their own but this is the viewer’s consciousness that draws meanings out of pictures (Mitchell, 1996).

 By Muin Mussavar 1642, Isfahan. Freer Gallery of Art.

The similarity between male and female characters in Persian paintings could not be an arbitrary choice and with no motivations and there must have been a subtle relationship between the language as a cultural entity and the visuals. “In our view signs are never arbitrary, and ‘motivation’ should be formulated in relation to the sign-maker and the context in which the sign is produced, and not in isolation from the act of producing analogies and classifications. Sign-makers use the forms they consider apt for the expression of their meaning, in any medium in which they can make signs…language is no exception to this process of sign-making, ” (Kress & Leeuwen, 2006). Moreover, it is the genderless-ness of Persian language that is also reflected in Persian images illustrating Persian poems. “We take the view that language and visual communication can both be used to realize the ‘same’ fundamental systems of meaning that constitute our cultures…,” (Kress & Leeuwen, 2006).

The ambiguity of the beloved’s gender, which could be possible only by the usage of a genderless language such as Persian, was transferred in Persian paintings in the form of similarity between the female and male appearances. This fact was left unnoticed by the Persian viewer who spoke the language and was familiar with the genderless-ness feature of the language and therefore unconsciously deciphered the images without any effort. However, it shocked the Western viewer of the medieval era who spoke a gendered language and found it difficult to decode these visuals and comprehend them. Therefore, when watching through different lens, the Western viewer interpreted these images as a sign of homosexuality commonly practiced in the medieval Persian society (Najmabadi, 2001). “People often accept and come to defend a particular viewpoint, not because they have carefully thought through and evaluated the available alternatives, but because they identify with other people holding the same opinion position or because challenging or denying the position would challenge their own self-concept” (Hill, 2003). The Western audience’s consciousness about the gender differences in language and arts created awareness for the Persians of medieval age and enforced changes in the Persian style of painting to include the detailed renderings of physiological parts of human forms.

Observations & Concluding Remarks

The study of Persian painting is not more than a hundred years old. What interested the early scholarly works were the texts, and not the images accompanying them. In the first catalogues of the manuscripts of the museums and libraries in London, Paris, or Berlin, the images were hardly mentioned (Grabar, 2000). The political system of Iran has never provided an apt setting for scholars to study these paintings systematically. Further, studying these images requires a great deal of historical, cultural, social, and philosophical background knowledge about Persia and a rich understanding of Persian literature, language and arts - a barrier that discouraged many scholars inside and outside Iran to take the challenge willingly. The difficulties of access to Persian paintings are another considerable reason for the lack of scholarly work on them; most of these paintings are now outside Iran, spread across the world in various museums, university libraries, and private collections. The few studies done by Western and Iranian scholars do not do justice to the field as the existing studies do not cover all the different angles of these paintings and extensive work is required to gain an in-depth understanding of these paintings.

Prophet's Me'raj,  Behzad, Nezami's Khamse, 1494-5.
 
Most of the existing scholarly works on the manuscript Persian paintings were done by treating them as separate entities from the text that these paintings have been trying to visualize, and they ignore the relationship between the text and visuals, a discerning mistake that might go back to the scholars’ lack of knowledge of the language or literature. In addition, most of these studies are infected by generalization, looking at that simple formula to explain these complex masterpieces. Only a few scholars noticed the astonishing similarity between the female and male characters’ portraits in these paintings, and this fact was simply attributed to the technique of painting and was downplayed to be studied further and in more depth. Some scholars interpreted these paintings as visualizing the divine place that God promises good Muslims will enter after their death by the painter (Nasr, 1987). They explain that the men portrayed in these images are visualized images of young Qelmaqs and women are beautiful Hurs who will serve the men of God in heaven by God’s will. This interpretation is not satisfying for two reasons, first, this style of painting although for the first appeared on paper after the coming of Islam in Persia, but very similar style of painting has been discovered in excavations in Iran, Afghanistan and other countries in central Asia and parts of India that were part of Pre-Islam Persian Empire (Grabar, 2000). Images that constantly appear in these paintings such as a flowered tree, water, a golden fruit tree, cypress etc. each represent a symbolic meaning that according to Arthur U. Pope, are rooted in Pre-Islam Persian history and culture (Pope, 1931).

 

Secondly, Islam strictly prohibits Muslims from drawing/painting humans, animals or any other living creatures and according to Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, Angels (of Mercy) do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or a picture of a living creature (a human being or an animal) (Sahih Bukhari, 448). Consuming alcoholic drinks (Qur’an, 5:90) and enjoying un-related women’s company for men and un-related men’s company for women (Qur’an, 24:30-31) are strictly prohibited in Islam. These commandments are absolute and eternal and must be obeyed by all true Muslims (Qur’an, 5:3). Despite these commandments, the two constant scenes appearing in Persian paintings are drinking – even if the characters are not holding wine goblets, there is a pitcher   of wine and goblets sitting on the floor by the characters – and erotic scenes such as embracing lovers or desiring gazes of lovers towards each other.     
This group of scholars unrealistically explain that the wine portrayed in these images refers to heavenly wine that God talks about in the Qur’an and the love scene view in these paintings interpret the artist’s desire for true love which is divine love. Again, it is important to study these paintings along with the text that accompany these images and hesitate to consider them as individual entities, because the text works as a helpful tool in having a true interpretation of these images. Drinking wine and erotic desires are constant parts of both poetry and prose in Persian literature. As E. Yarshater points out, in some of these literary texts, even there are long narrations about the custom of wine drinking in medieval Persia.He   refers to different   evidences, and   explainsthat wine drinking has been a constant custom of Persian culture from the ancient era and it even continued after Islam was established in Persia (Yarshater, 1960).
 
Some of the scholarly works refer to the similarity between the men’s and women’s figures portrayed in Persian painting to the fact that homosexuality was commonly practiced among Persian men in medieval Persia (Najmabadi, 2001). These scholars stretch their ideas far as interpreting even the female figures appearing in these painting as men as the artists left it to the viewer to decipher the image (Najmabadi, 2001). Again, this interpretation can result only from a superficial view towards Persian arts and culture. Despite the fact that homosexuality has always been present throughout history and among all nations as well as in Persia, and the fact that homosexuality was subtly mentioned in Persian poems, a clever reference to the poet’s desire for young moon-faced men which is referred to as shahid-bazi, I firmly disagree with this interpretation for several reasons. First, we should not forget that medieval Persia was considered as a Muslim Empire, even if Islamic rules were not followed strictly, Islam was a part of Persian beliefs. It is realistic to accept that homosexuality was practiced in medieval Persia as it was and is elsewhere throughout the history of human beings, but to claim that it was a common practice among Muslim Persian men and acceptable by the society is not a realistic view. Such an assumption could only justify the scholars’ lack of understanding of Persian culture.
 
 
 Haroon-al-Rashid Bathing, Behzad 1450-1553.
 
Second, the manuscript Persian paintings, as it was mentioned before, play a narrative role, helping the reader of the poems in visualizing the heroes, heroines, lovers, kings, princes, and princesses etc. In many of the poems, there are well-known female characters such as Shirin, Khosrow Parviz Shah’s first beloved and later his wife, or Humayun, Humayun’s beloved or other literary or historically well-known female characters. This makes it difficult to believe that the artist by portraying for example Shirin, meant the painting’s viewer to visualize another man and consequently an erotic love between two men. Third, this group of scholars explain that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the entrance of excessive number of Westerners, the traditional style of Persian painting was eventually changed due to the critics of Westerners regarding the homosexual themes of the painting style (Najmabadi, 2001). This interpretation is in contrast with the historical facts, as most of these Western travellers either did not have their wives accompanying them or were missionaries who practiced celibacy and this caused Persian men be astonished by the fact that Western men avoided marriage or female company (Najmabadi, 2001). Therefore, the logical reason that Westerners noticed the resemblance of the male and female figures could be related to the linguistic differences between their native languages and Persian in treatment of the gender. The frustration that the naïve viewer might feel while looking at these painting, in order to be able to read the picture beyond its colourful and exotic superficial beauty, might be very similar to the frustration that one who is not a native speaker of Persian language and is trying to learn the language, might feel after learning about the genderless-ness of Persian language. This can be related to what Barthes stated “…the linguistic message is indeed present in every image…” (Barthes, 2004) and we can claim that text and image in this context are like mirrors facing each other and the reflections of one can be seen in the other and vice versa.

 

Finally, classical Persian paintings in their traditional style were created with the purpose of cultural appeal, which according to Hill is that “culturally shared values and assumptions are utilized in persuasive communication, and how these shared values and assumptions influence viewers’ responses to mass- produced images” (Hill, 2003). Although the viewer who does not have the knowledge of Persian language might still enjoy viewing these images, but certainly for having a deep understanding of them, one has to have a profound understanding of the language and culture in order to be able to decipher the visuals and symbols which are commonly used in Persian culture. Viewing these images without considering the language will turn them into “a series of discontinuous images” (Barthes, 2004) with no message and to the viewer who has a limited knowledge of the language, the text might even misguide him that these images were works of an Arab artist – both languages use Arabic script.

 

Reading these images would not be possible without having rich background knowledge in language and culture and viewing these images via Western lens and trying to read them using codes familiar to Western cultures will create a confusion and misunderstanding and resulting in something far from the artist’s intended message. Such results are not rare in the scholarly works done on these paintings, and such hasty interpretations are only misleading and do not offer strong pillars for future scholarly works to stand on. Studying Persian paintings, before the Western influence on the art, is important, because it provides an opportunity to have a better understanding of classical Persian culture and philosophy. It also helps to have a better understanding of the social settings in the medieval Persia, and the role of gender in the society and calls for further extensive investigations in the field especially through the relationship between the language and visuals.

 

References

 

Azhand, Y., 2000. “Innovation and Modernization in Safavid Art,” Fine Arts. Tehran University 7: 4-10.

Babaie, Sussan. 2009. "Visual Vestiges of Travel: Persian Windows on European Weaknesses". Journal of Early Modern History. 13 (2/3): 105-136.

Canby, Sheila R. 2000. The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501-1722. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Davis, Dick. 1996. Borrowed ware: medieval Persian epigrams. London: Anvil Press Poetry. Grabar, Oleg. 2000. Mostly miniatures: an introduction to Persian painting. Princeton, N.J.:

Princeton University Press.

Handa, Carolyn. 2004. “Rhetoric of the Image”, in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 152-163.

Hill, Charles A., and Marguerite H. Helmers. 2004. Defining visual rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kress, Gunther R., and Theo Van Leeuwen. 2006. Reading Images the Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge.

Lewis, Franklin. 2009. "Sexual Occidentation: The Politics of Conversion, Christian-love and Boy-love in 'Attar". Iranian Studies. 42 (5): 693-723.

Mitchell, W. J., 1996. “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?,” October 77, 71-82.

Najmabadi, A.,“Gendered Transformations: Beauty, Love, and Sexuality in Qajar Iran,”Iranian Studies34(2001): 1-4.

Najmabadi A. 2001. "Gendered transformations: beauty, love, and sexuality in Qajar Iran". Iranian Studies : Bulletin of the Society for Iranian Cultural and Social Studies. 34 (1-4): 1-4.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1987. “The World of Imagination and the Concept of Space in the Persian Miniature,” in his Islamic art and spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 177-84.

Pande, R.& Lavanya, B. 2004. “Miniature Paintings of Golconda and the Representation of Women,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 1, 73-86.

Pope, Arthur Upham. 1972. An introduction to Persian art: since the seventh century A.D. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Roxburgh, David J. 2003. "Micrographia: Toward a Visual Logic of Persianate  Painting".

RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. (43): 12-30.

Yarshater, E. 1960. "The Theme of Wine-Drinking and the Concept of the Beloved in Early Persian Poetry". Studia Islamica. (13): 43-53.

Yarshater, E. 1962. "Some Common Characteristics of Persian Poetry and Art". Studia Islamica. (16): 61-71.


 

Najme Khatami was born and raised in Iran. She has a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Science & Research in Tehran, and a Masters Degree in Professional Writing from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She currently resides in Ontario, Canada, and intends to pursue a second Masters in Gender Studies & Feminist Research. In her spare time, Najme also writes short stories, portraying women’s issues.

 
 

 

Advertisement