By Lea Terhune
Washington — The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s exhibition of Persian and Mughal paintings, Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran, displays works from the Smithsonian Freer and Sackler museums of Asian art. The exhibition showcases ways the Mughal emperors in India drew on their Persian heritage and culture, carrying it forward into a transformative artistic style.
The adjoining Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington together possess one of the world’s most important collections of Mughal and Persian folios and paintings. In this exhibition, 50 of the finest examples trace the evolution of painting from the Timurid era in Persia through the aesthetically rich reigns of Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The works span several hundred years, from the 15th through the 18th centuries.
“We can show how the Mughals claimed descent from the Timurids,” says exhibition curator Debra Diamond, referring to the Timurids as “the apogee of the Islamic world” at the time. The Mughals, she explains, “made constant reference to the Timurids within these manuscripts both visually and semantically.
“The Mughals were creating an art that was utterly revolutionary, totally Indian, connected not only to the Persian cultural archetypes but also very deeply connected to a broader world, including Europe.”
Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art for the Freer and Sackler museums, describes Persian and Mughal art as “two incredibly rich traditions.” The Mughals took themes and ideas that appealed to them and transformed them into a tradition of their own, she says.
The exhibition begins with stylized, complex Persian paintings. The earliest, Sad’i and the Youth of Kashgar from a copy of Gulistan (The Rose Garden) by Sa’di (1486) and ascribed to Bihzad, shows the Persian techniques and conventions that were translated by Mughal artists. Where Persian examples depict people in an idealized way, those of the Mughal artists in the courts of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan strive increasingly for portraiture. One portrait of the Mughal emperor Jahangir shows a man with a double chin, a paunchy belly and a sour look.
For the painting Emperor Jahangir embracing Shah ‘Abbas of Persia by Abu’l Hasan (ca. 1618), the emperor actually dispatched the artist to Persia so he could draw Shah ‘Abbas from life. The two rulers were allies but never met.
Mughal artists departed from the flat spatial plane of Persian painting to incorporate depth of perspective. “Atmospheric perspective was taken from European painting,” Diamond says.
Akbar the Great, Jahangir’s father, was responsible for the eclectic nature of Mughal art. Interested in all cultures and religions, he imported artists and thinkers from foreign places, including Europe, to satisfy his curiosity. He was also a champion of universal toleration.
This diversity is represented in Mughal paintings replete with portraits of individuals from various races and cultures. The Mughals themselves were descended from Timur and Genghis Khan.
Jesuit priests came to Akbar’s court bearing Bibles and Christian art, examples of which were copied by Mughal artists wishing to explore new techniques, as a Mughal depiction of the “Apotheosis of the Virgin” bears out.
Most of the paintings in the exhibit are from manuscripts. These are meant for an “intimate, personal relationship,” according to Farhad. “It’s different from stepping up to a painting and stepping back,” she says. The paintings demand close examination. A magnifying glass reveals the exquisite detail achieved by the artists.
Besides the paintings, with their subtly illuminated borders, the exhibit includes examples of calligraphy from the Akbarnama (The Book of Akbar, ca. 1596-1600 ) and a folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album with calligraphy by Mir Ali al-Katib (ca. 1540).
The Mughals were cosmopolitan and open to evolution of their arts and culture. The exhibition title “Worlds Within Worlds” refers to the many layers of representation that blend symbolism and technique derived from tradition with distinctive innovation.