With its scrupulous attention to detail, its exuberance of colour and surface patterning, and its deliberate disregard for the representational ‘rules’ of naturalism and scientific perspective, Persianate painting developed an entirely new and distinctive pictorial regime between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Seventeenth-century European travelers and missionaries viewed it as ‘childlike’ and ‘primitive’ while 19th-century Parisians admired and collected illustrated manuscripts for the sheer beauty of their jewel-like surface quality. Such ‘Orientalist’ perspective informed the beginnings of art historical writing on Persianate painting in the 20th century when collectors and art dealers established stylistic categories based on dynastic charts and on tracing the locus of creative ‘influence’ mainly from China and Europe.
This MA Special Option explores the theory and practice of the extraordinary mode of painting associated with the Persianate world, a cultural ambit where Persian was the lingua franca of the elite and where a creative synthesis of ancient traditions and Quranic precepts were forged across present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Anatolia, Central and South Asia.
Focusing on the principal centers in Iran and Afghanistan — Tabriz, Herat, Shiraz, Qazvin and Isfahan —where luxury editions of manuscripts and refined album collections were assembled at royal workshops and by itinerant artists, we will closely analyze the artistic production in between the so-called ‘birth of Persian painting’ at the imperial ketabkhana/scriptorium-atelier of the Mongol rulers of western Asia to the early modern artist drawings and sketches dashed off in the cafés and bazaars of Isfahan.
The course includes visits to superb collections of paintings and manuscripts at the British Museum, the British Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. An intense historiographic investigation accompanies this initial training in looking at and ‘reading’ visuality in Persianate arts of the book.
The other major component of the MA consists of critical readings of primary documents of “art historical” nature: biographies of artists, poetic and ekphrastic considerations of the art of painting, artists’ prefaces to albums of paintings and calligraphic samples, epigraphic and signatory marks of the artists, and contemporary chronicles.
Throughout, we test the art-historical confidence in the universals of ‘Persian’ painting: the temporal fixity of dynastic styles; the ‘aesthetic’ predicaments of a miniaturization of Persianate painting; the awkward binaries of secular and ‘Islamic’ in representational arts of this region; the visual challenge to the philological lens and, its reverse, the consequences of looking at the image without the word.
Student dissertations utilize London's magnificent collections — both visual material and primary textual resources — to explore topics on artists, patrons and social milieus with a theoretically inquisitive eye on a transcultural Asiatic context.
Language and other requirements
Standard entry requirements. A reading knowledge of Persian is advantageous but not essential.