SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785 - 1925

6th July to 30th September 1999

"I hope indeed that this important exhibition will have the success it so richly deserves."
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother

"An assertive, self-promotional dynastic art of almost hallucinatory strangeness and brilliance."
The New York Times

The visual splendour of the arts of Iran's Qajar dynasty will be on display at the Brunei Gallery as the only European venue of this landmark exhibition. A stunning array of treasures, some never exhibited before, has been selected from public and private collections in seven countries, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the British Library the Royal Asiatic Society and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, as well as holdings from the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.
The Qajars were Turkic tribal warlords who ruthlessly rose to power in the late eighteenth century. The early years of Fath Ali Shah, the second Qajar monarch, coincided with the Napoleonic wars, and a diplomatic struggle at the Persian court between the English and the French introduced the influence of the West. Fath Ali Shah, renowned for his 77 wives (by one count), and innumerable children, intent on forging a regal iconography, commissioned art that produced a unique form of royal portraiture. The pretensions of this political imagery, however, in no way reflected the political reality of Qajar Persia caught in the squeeze between Romanov Russia and the British in India.

At the peak of Nasir al-Din Shah's reign in the nineteenth century, a shift in style reflects historical changes: the Peacock Throne had embraced the inevitable encroachment of a 'European Imperative'. We witness the transformation of Persia from a traditional Islamic society to a centralised, European-influenced monarchy. Art here acts as a mirror of change, as a vehicle for the construction of identity and as a reflection of the social context.

Featuring some one hundred works of art that include paintings, manuscript illustrations and works on paper this exhibition is the single most important show devoted to the paintings and the visual art of eighteenth and nineteenth century Persia. One centre-piece is a monumental portrait of Fath Au Shah, resplendent in the fill panoply of royal robes and jewellery. Massive canvasses depicting battle-scenes and kings vie for attention with striking acrobatic female dancers in contortionist poses, side-by-side with more stately images of elegantly-clad princesses or daringly bare harem girls. In all this, the artist emerges as the chronicler of an era: sometimes fictively, other times with uncanny accuracy, but always to dazzling effect.

This exhibition is organised by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and brought to London after its New York and Los Angeles venues, under the auspices of the Iran Heritage Foundation, a UK registered charity established to promote the arts, culture and history of Iran. It is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the additional help of numerous corporations, individual and institutional sponsors. Its London presentation has been organised and funded by the Iran Heritage Foundation with the help of numerous supporters including Asia House and The British Institute of Persian Studies.

Qajar Home Page | Associated Events | A Short History | Qajar Persia: A Lecture Series

This Exhibition is supported in the UK by The Iran Heritage Foundation