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Exhibition presents more than 100 privately held works from the 6th to the 19th century
Inkwell, India, Deccan, 18th century, steel; overlaid with gold (koftgari), private collection.

HOUSTON, TX.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands, an exhibition of more than 100 works highlighting the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Iranian civilization from the 6th to the 19th century. Drawn from one of the most significant collections of Persian art held in private hands and rarely publicly displayed, the works span a range of media, including carpets, textiles, manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, lacquer, metalwork, scientific instruments, and jeweled objects. Highlights include exquisite miniature paintings from the Shahnama, the Iranian national epic; a range of historically significant ceramics; precious inlaid metal wares; finely woven silk fabrics; and a monumental silk carpet from the apex of Safavid dynasty carpet production.

Celebrating a landmark agreement between the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a renowned private collector, works from these holdings will be presented in a series of special exhibitions over a five-year period at the MFAH. Bestowing Beauty, the inaugural exhibition, will be on view from November 19, 2017, to February 11, 2018, as part of the 10th anniversary program for the Museum’s Art of the Islamic Worlds initiative.

“This spectacular collection, meticulously constructed over the last 50 years, represents a single collector’s life-long passion to preserving Persian artistic heritage for future generations and a strong desire to share these masterpieces publicly,” said Aimée Froom, curator, Islamic art at the MFAH. “Through the objects on display, we see a portrait of Iran that highlights an extraordinary artistic sensibility over the last several centuries.”

“Since the establishment of the department in 2007, the MFAH has endeavored to collect, exhibit, and interpret art of the Islamic worlds,” added Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “We are immeasurably grateful for the collector’s vision and generosity in furthering this goal and making accessible the beauty that Persian art bestows on its beholders.”

Exhibition Themes
The objects on display reveal their stories to viewers, from the superb miniature paintings of the Iranian national epic Shahnama to monumental silk carpets and rare Qur’an pages written in gold. Woven throughout the tales of these extraordinary artworks are experiences, ideas, and emotions shared by all peoples, grouped within the exhibition into the universal themes of faith and piety, love and longing, kingship, banquets and battles, and earth and nature.

Faith and Piety
Faith and piety are expressed in exquisitely penned and sumptuously illuminated Qurʾan manuscripts produced across the Islamic lands. The primary role of calligraphy in transmitting the word of God is paramount, but calligraphers also copied a variety of texts in addition to the Qurʾan. Calligraphers enjoyed the highest status among all artists, as reflected in the careful adornment of their tools.

Love and Longing
Love and longing are among the most celebrated themes in art around the world. The universal desire for the deepest form of human connection—also a metaphor for one’s yearning for divine love—finds profound expression in Persian poetry. A familiar subject in Persian poetry and art is that of the rose and the nightingale (gul u bulbul). The rose symbolizes the beloved, who has thorns and can be cruel, and the nightingale, the lover, who sings endlessly of his longing. This depiction of earthly devotion can be extrapolated to represent divine love and the soul’s search for a union with God. Earthly images of love and longing include a pair of tightly embracing lovers on a slim lacquer pen case.

Kingship and Banquets and Battles
Imagery of kingship and authority figure prominently in illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, since the early 14th century. The related theme of banquets and battles (bazm u razm)—quintessential aspects of Persian kingship—are very popular. A new image of authority reached an apex in the 19th-century Iran under the Qajars. Persian court painters created individualized portraits of contemporary kings, princes, and members of the ruling elite, capturing the political agendas, personalities, and images of power that their patrons sought to embody.

Earth and Nature
In the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the beauty of nature is a reminder of God as the giver of life. The garden is an earthly representation of this notion. A love for garden-like settings and the promise of spring and renewal pervade Persian culture. Representations of flowers, trees, and flowing waters evoke the ancient idea of the garden as a symbol of paradise.

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