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Ambivalent Ornaments

Review of the exhibition 'The Fascination of Persia' at Museum Rietberg Zürich, Switzerland, 27 Sept. 2013 - 12 Jan. 2014.
By Eva Dietrich | Oct 2013

With its special exhibition The Fascination of Persia, the Museum Rietberg Zürich focuses on the relations between Baroque-era Europe and Safavid Persia and their expression in 17th-century art. Equal attention goes to contemporary positions that reflect not only the present in Iran, but also enter into a dialog with the historical works.

Those whose first association with the exhibition’s title The Fascination of Persia is its materialization as the Persian carpet are not wrong at the Museum Rietberg. But the evocative carpet is not the primary, but only the secondary theme. And while one may not touch the preciously woven carpet, the visitor is explicitly called upon to tread on the first object, Parastou Forouhar’s (* 1962) work Spielfeld (Playing field). Its board game, printed on adhesive foil, consists of square playing fields decorated with knife ornaments; on it, black figures with knives in their hands creep from field to field, mirrored on all sides. The henchmen are subject to the same geometric regularities as the other ornaments and as ourselves when we enter the board. Knives are drawn on us wherever we turn. The often-praised harmonious beauty of ornaments is thus deceptive. It follows implacable laws that permit no deviation. This makes ornaments endlessly fascinating, but also absolutely binding.

The Biblical Persian

For the visitor, seeing all the knives out is a surprising overture to an exhibition with the title The Fascination of Persia. But the Persian carpet and the deadly playing field show the range of perceptions of Persia or Iran. In the 17th century, Persia was as one-sidedly positively connoted an object of yearning as the current headlines from Iran are usually negative.

In the 17th century, intense political, economic, and cultural relations between Europe and Safavid Persia (1590-1720) led to a cultural exchange that ended with the downfall of the Safavid Empire in 1720. In this period, European trading companies, writers, artists, and monks visited Persia, and Persian legations regularly created a sensation in Europe. Curiosity on both sides, trade agreements, and worries about their common enemy, the mighty Ottoman Empire, brought Europe and Persia closer together. As a copper engraving shows, on February 7, 1715, Parisian citizens – commoners and nobles alike – thronged to the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) to catch a glimpse of the arrival of the Persian envoy, Mohammad Reza Beg. The gold-embroidered costumes and opulent turbans of Persian delegations embodied an alluring extravagance and triggered a first Oriental fashion, which found expression in art. The Persian noble was not only the theme of many portraits, but also found entry into European history painting. In the Netherlands, painters, above all Rembrandt, discovered the Persian as a model for historicizing depictions of biblical figures, in this way placing Old Testament events in a faraway Oriental atmosphere.

Persian Clothing in Catholic Poland

Persian clothing was not just a fashion phenomenon; in Poland-Lithuania’s republic of the nobility it became the upper-class national costume. In what was at that time Europe’s geographically largest country, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Polish nobility had a legitimation problem that it solved with a myth. It traced its descent back to the Sarmatians, an ancient Iranian equestrian people that, according to ancient sources, had subjugated the Eastern European population, and so this class created a matching appearance in the Persian style. Gold- and silver-embroidered sashes, in particular, became an integral part of the Polish national costume. They were joined by richly ornamented weapons whose aesthetics might make it easy to forget that they are tools of war if contemporary art didn’t keep questioning the beautiful surfaces. In Mandana Moghaddan’s (* 1962) Chelgis V, commissioned by the Museum Rietberg, rifle barrels, concealed by knots of hair artfully wound around them, emerge from the wall and aim at the Polish weapons, thereby evoking a more critical perception of Persian endless knots on military equipment.

Distrust of Systems

Here, as in the subsequent rooms devoted to the adoption of European painting techniques and themes in Persian art, contemporary Iranian artists repeatedly inspire a questioning gaze at historical works of art. In European prints, Persian artists discovered the female nude as a new pictorial theme. They left out the accompanying explanatory texts that gave the nudes a mythological or allegorical anchor, so what remains in the Persian adaptations are the naked facts. We don’t know whether this process was harmless or led to reactions like those to Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. Perhaps the resulting interpretational gaps were poetic openings; perhaps they opened up dangerous abysses, as in the works of Farhad Fozouni (* 1979). He constrains figures in mechanical structures or building-like constructions and combines these drawings with fragmentary typographies whose content only sometimes coincides with what is depicted. The resulting gaps tell the stories of people who are bound up in ominous systems whose mechanisms are not rationally accessible, to which one is exposed without comprehension.

With their positions, the seven artists take up half of the exhibition surface. All of their system-distrusting works place Iranian art in a global context and prevent the viewer from classifying the exhibition The Fascination of Persia as just another contribution to the trope of Orientalism.


Eva Dietrich

Freelance art critic and curator, based in Zürich, Switzerland.

(Translation from German: Mitch Cohen)

The Fascination of Persia
Persian-European Dialogue in Seventeenth-Century Art & Contemporary Art of Tehran

27 September 2013 - 12 January 2014

Museum Rietberg Zürich

Gablerstrasse 15
8002 Zürich
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Axel Langer and Susann Wintsch

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