“Revealing the Unseen: New Perspectives on Qajar Art”, edited by Gwenaëlle Fellinger and Melanie Gibson


Those outside Iran are likely largely unfamiliar with the country’s art and culture of the 19th century, something easily remedied, however, by this very beautifully produced large-format book, packed with splendidly vivid color reproductions and lively analyses. 

Gwenaëlle Fellinger and Melanie Gibson have edited their material from a 2018 exhibition at the Louvre-Lens Museum, “which drew a huge success in bringing to the French public an original and surprising art created during the Qajar era.” The exhibits trace Qajar Era (1789-1925) art from its earlier, more “traditional” forms through to the 20th century, when new techniques and media such as photography became incorporated into Iranian culture and sometimes became integrated with older forms as Iran moved into modern times. The accompanying essays, written by scholars from Iran, UK, USA, France, Germany, Hungary and Russia, come from a public symposium held at Lens in the same year. In this book we can see art ranging from carpets, textiles, paintings, lithography and illustrated manuscripts to photography; there’s even a section on fingernail art, of which more later.

The Qajars, of Turkic origin, took over Persia from the Zands, whose ruler Lotf Ali Khan they deposed, and by 1794 they were in full control of the country. Their leader, Agha Muhammad, was crowned as shah, and the dynasty ruled Persia until 1925. Under the Qajars, Persia became increasingly involved with the West, which led to new cultural and political developments. The artistic “revolution” began under Fath Ali Shah (reigned 1797-1834) and Muhammad Shah (r 1834-48), but the reign of Nasr al-Din Shah (r 1848-96) was particularly important here. He made two trips to Europe and England, the first ruler to travel outside Persia (1872), and his published account shows how interested he was in European civilization, especially technology. He also attended the opera as well as visiting museums, art galleries and zoos. His son Muzaffar al-Din (r 1896-1907) also went to Europe and was particularly fascinated with photography; he introduced the first motion pictures to his subjects by having an entire film studio brought to Persia. Much of the material in this book reflects these contacts, although it must be pointed out again that the artists concerned never forgot their ancient roots or traditions.


Revealing the Unseen: New Perspectives on Qajar Art, Melanie Gibson (ed), Gwenaëlle Fellinger (ed) (Gingko Library, February 2022)
Revealing the Unseen: New Perspectives on Qajar Art, Melanie Gibson (ed), Gwenaëlle Fellinger (ed) (Gingko Library, February 2022)

Revealing the Unseen is divided into four parts, each one coming at its subject from a different angle. The first one, entitled “Transitions and Transmissions”, is concerned with a number of previously unpublished works and their creators. Here, Charlotte Maury and Carol Guillaume discuss album-making, which involved taking an older work in manuscript and illustrating it, presenting it in an album form. Some of these were done as royal commissions, one featuring a portrait of Nasr al-Din Shah, who also figures in the fingernail art and the section dealing with photography. There are discussions of individual works and artists, such as the magnificent illustrations to the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the well-known Persian classic by Ferdowsi, which were painted in the early years of the Qajar era, patronised by Fath Ali Shah. A splendid full-page illustration features Fath Ali himself in the guise of Anushirvan or Khusrau II (r 531-79), one of the greatest rulers of the Sassanian era (224-651). The Shah sits immobile on his throne (actually the “Sun Throne” of the Qajars), his magnificent black beard prominently displayed, with Ottoman envoys in their long kaftans clustered around his feet. Nothing really Sassanian is depicted in this painting, but like Anushirvan, Fath Ali is here imagined as a great unifier and peacemaker presiding over a powerful nation, thus adding a contemporary political dimension to the art.

The stunning illuminated compositions of Razi Taliqani, who was active under Nasr al-Din and Muzaffar al-Din, are featured in an essay by Tim Stanley. Taliqani worked with British artists Robert Smith and Sidney Churchill during the 1880s; these years were marked by Persian cooperation with British interests as a counterweight to the Russians, and it seemed art was no exception. Taliqani mounted his paper compositions on boards rather than including them in manuscripts, a technique he had learned from European artists. Finally, Ali Boozari presents the work of Mirza Hasan ibn Aqa Sayyid, “among the most prominent of the second generation of illustrators working on lithographed books”, flourishing from about 1854 onwards. He created narratives in pictures, which Boozari tells us resemble “an early Iranian equivalent of a modern comic book”, and there’s a striking full-page example from The Thousand and One Nights telling the story of “The Fisherman and the Jinni”. There’s a curiously “European” look to the figures here, even the furniture in the bottom panel looking as if it came from a French show-room! 


The second part, “The Image Revealed”, is also concerned with works on paper, but here we see the definite introduction of modern techniques, including the fingernail art alluded to above as well as photography. Maryam Ekhtiar’s essay on Shi’ite devotional imagery opens this section. During the reign of Nasr al-Din there was a great interest in pictures of the Prophet’s family, as the fine drawing by Isma’il Jalayir (fl. 1862-89) of Ali, the Shi’ite imam (the shah was a devout member of this sect), with his sons and a rather friendly-looking lion, who symbolizes Ali’s strength, exemplifies.

Christiane Gruber’s essay on fingernail art follows; this art-form, which is achieved by rubbing the nails in a circular fashion on the paper to produce outlines of images, is apparently still practiced in Iran today, though not widely, as it had been in the 1850s. A skilled practitioner could produce a striking result, such as the portrait of Nasr al-Din on horseback by Ali Darvish. Layla Diba’s essay “Towards an Alternative Art History: Qajar Photography and Contemporary Iranian Art” brings this section to a close. “Photographic images,” she tells us, “were thought to possess the power to construct identities, to record history or to erase it.” That’s not all; they also could play a role in “modernising” Iranian painting. Thus we are shown original photographs paired with modern works; there is a group photograph of prisoners, a rather disturbing version of an execution and two ballet-dancers, the modern one being a man with a moustache dressed in what appears to be a woman’s costume. Nasr al-Din appears once again, this time in a painting derived from a formal photograph, but with a difference, as he is standing against a surreal landscape rather than a door in a building. The contemporary artists seem to have deconstructed the old photographs both in terms of gender and history, creating “a new local visual language”.


The third part is entitled “In the Material World”, presenting a variety of objects ranging from cups to carpets, equestrian tiles, and even decorated armor. It’s prefaced by the photograph of a richly-decorated set of drinking-cups on a tray; each cup bears a portrait on one side and a flower-design on the other, all depicted in bright colors and highlighted with gold designs.

Gwenaelle Ellinger opens this section with an essay on velvet hangings and the ikat technique used for dyeing them; the complex border designs and the rich reds achieved by this technique make these textiles stand out as unique examples of their kind. It seems a pity that Ellinger had to rescue them from museum storage facilities! Following this we have a presentation of carpets by Hadi Maktabi, beautifully ornate and detailed, with designs ranging from intricate patterns to depictions of historical scenes or motifs. The Qajars often gave carpets to foreign rulers and statesmen, but the most striking one for me was a carpet woven for Nasr al-Din by Ustad Huseyn Kirmani, depicting a group of people relaxing around a table with refreshments. There are two women dressed in the French fashion and a lively dog by the table who looks like he’s ready to eat something. Another complex carpet shows historical figures, and the last Qajar ruler, Shah Ahmad (r 1909-25) is featured on a portrait rug enthroned wearing a green uniform.

Friederike Voigt comes next with a discussion of “Equestrian Tiles and the Rediscovery of Underglaze Painting in Qajar Iran”, featuring mostly mounted falconers, but also flowers; these often featured as decorations placed in sections of walls.

Filiz Phillip’s essay on chahar ‘ayna decorative armor rounds out this part of the book. Some of this armour dates back to pre-Qajar times, and seems to have served a talismanic function as well as being actually used in defence; it displays skilfully-wrought ornamentation engraved on the steel.


The final part of the book, “Collecting Histories”, is concerned with a new examination of objects used in diplomatic or commercial exchange. Daria Vasilyeva looks at articles from the Hermitage Museum which came to Russia in the 1820s, some being gifts to the Russian tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. The exquisite porcelain cups mentioned earlier were part of this collection, and were presented in 1830 to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by Prince Khusraw Mirza, the leader of a Persian diplomatic mission.

The book concludes with “Pearls of Qajar Painting Strung at Random in Eastern Europe”, in which Iván Szánto tells the story of Qajar portrait paintings showing up in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. No-one quite knows how most of them got there, and apparently the Bulgarians were unaware that they were Qajar in origin.

This is a magnificent book—for people interested in art (and knowing little about Qajar art like this reviewer) it fills a significant gap, and the essays are without exception illuminating and accessibly-written. Gingko and The Louvre have co-operated in the production of this book with clear illustrations on high-quality paper making it every bit worth the price, and certainly much more than a coffee-table volume. It was, as they say, an eye-opener.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.