January 13, 2016

An Unusual Perspective on the Exhibition of Persian Miniatures, "The Book of Kings" at Princeton University Art Museum

The Princeton University Art Museum is exhibiting an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime view of Persian miniatures.  The Peck Shanameh, or Book of Kings, is on view until January 24.  My husband and I were fortunate to be able to see this on our trip to New Jersey this winter.  Our intention was to take in this exhibition,  the exhibition of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Museum of German Art, and everything else we could feast our eyes on in one week.
I mentioned in my previous post that illness cut my ambitious museum going plans to two museum visits instead of three or four.  But there were other reasons for going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and nowhere else.  The Peck Shanameh simply required two visits.  One reason for my second visit was the fact that there would be no future opportunities to study this manuscript.  The recently restored pages will be bound again in a carefully preserved volume after the exhibition closes.  I wanted to make use of the available fleeting opportunity and take my time to study these manuscript pages, making notes and a few sketches.
I only made two drawings at the museum because the original paintings in the Peck Shanameh were so detailed and refined that getting the gist of that in my notebooks took a long time.  Using an overlay of hard graphite on soft graphite, I tried to capture some of the qualities of ink line drawing and a gradation of ink washes.  To make these drawings my own, however, I revised compositions, leaving out details and inserting others.  The additions and subtractions are where a peculiar notion occurred to me. 
My revisionist plan came to me while making a study drawing of Rustam killing the White Div.  My love for illustrations of exotic monsters attracted me to this painting.  Everything about it was exquisite; the calligraphic lines, the precise textures, the tonal gradations.  But as I worked my way down the figure I came across Div’s severed leg.  My artistic license allowed me to give Div back his leg in my own rendering.  It had not escaped my notice that Div sported a costume that allowed for exposure to a rather impressive appendage of male prowess, or demon prowess as the case may have been to the Persian artist of a thousand years ago.  All the more reason, I concluded, to give Div back his leg.
The Book of Kings was forty-eight large format pages of brave escapades, exotic lands, and many hunting scenes.  Beautifully rendered heros rode equally lovely horses.  The problem became, to my twenty-first century sentiments, that these horses were mounted by men bent on severing body parts and shooting arrows in to hapless creatures.  So I selected my favorite horse from this collection of paintings, booted the rider off of it, and made a drawing of the horse alone.  This required inventing a design for the saddle as the rider in the Persian miniature was hiding those details in the painting by sitting in said saddle.   No problem.  Artists generally aren’t constrained by art history anyway and this artist has a long streak of irreverence running down her spine.  I call this drawing, “Persian Steed Awaiting His Vegetarian Rider.”

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