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Iranian Manuscript Painting in Tehran

Farhad Shirazi, Khavarannameh, 1562-1572, Golestan PalaceSouren Melikian has a great job. For his latest article (Rare heirlooms of Iranian history, June 4) for the International Herald Tribune, he has gone to a place I would dearly love to visit one day, Tehran. He reviews what he calls "the most extraordinary exhibition of Iranian manuscript painting ever held within living memory" (how is THAT for an endorsement?): Masterpieces of Persian Painting, at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art until June 21:

For Iran, which has no experience in major art shows, this is a first that says as much about the rapid evolution of the most complex society in the Middle East as it does about art. In this land of paradoxes, it is perhaps no surprise that an exhibition dealing with the past should be held in a museum built to house the work of the present. Monumental sculptures by Henry Moore, Max Ernst and others greet visitors who venture into the landscaped garden. True, there was no convenient alternative to the museum, completed only months before the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah. It was the one venue large enough to accommodate some 300 painted manuscript leaves and more than 50 manuscripts. Displayed with elegant simplicity, the paintings are widely spaced, an indispensable requirement to enable viewers to concentrate on works too rich in detail to be taken in at a glance.

That the most brilliant art show of any kind in Iran should be put together under the new regime in a building designed by the monarchy must tickle the vivid sense of irony shared by most Iranians. So will the ubiquitous presence of royal themes. The "Shah-Nameh" or "Book of Kings," a stylized history of the world with Iran at the heart of it and written in the 10th century, looms very large. Indeed, a compelling reason for holding the show in the Museum of Contemporary Art is that its most dazzling section consists of "Shah-Nameh" pages owned by the museum. The story of their acquisition in 1994 begins with a tale of destruction. No one knows for sure how the "Shah-Nameh," which was produced "by order of the Book House [Ketab-Khaneh] of Shah Tahmasp [1524-1576]," as the opening page says, and is arguably the greatest surviving Iranian manuscript, came to Istanbul.

It arrived in Paris at the turn of the 20th century under equally obscure circumstances and was acquired by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Preserved in mint condition, the precious manuscript was entrusted for sale in 1954 to Rosenberg & Stiebel, a New York company specializing in French painting and decorative art. In 1959, a buyer willing to pay $360,000 was found at last. This was Arthur Houghton Jr., a collector of rare English books who later became chairman and then president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Within three years, pages were pulled out of the manuscript to be exhibited at the Grolier Club. In 1970, Houghton began dismembering the book and donated 78 paintings to the Metropolitan Museum. Seven more pages were sent to be auctioned at Christie's, London, on Nov. 17, 1976. The International Herald Tribune was the first to report the outrage in this column. Further sales followed at auction and through the trade.
I can't quote the entire article, although I want to, so you will just have to go read the whole thing. The museum's Web site promises that "more information and pictures will be available," but it already has nearly 300 gorgeous images of the works in the exhibit available. Yes, you read that correctly. Go now before it disappears.

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