Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Public only: 202.633.1000
February 28, 2005
"In the Realm of Princes: The Arts of the Book in Fifteenth-Century Iran and Central Asia," which opens on March 19 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, highlights the remarkable artistic achievements of Timurid princes and their Turkoman rivals. It includes 33 of the finest 15th-century paintings, manuscripts, and portable luxury objects from Iran and present-day Afghanistan in the United States. The exhibition closes on Aug. 7.
In the 1370s, the charismatic but brutal Turkic warlord Timur, also known as Tamerlane in the West, swept out of Central Asia and conquered a vast territory that extended from Anatoliain present-day Turkeyto the borders of China. He chose Samarqandin present-day Uzbekistanas his capital and established the Timurid dynasty, which reigned until 1506. Although the Timurids lost political control over much of their conquered lands by the middle of the 15th century, they were responsible for one of the most artistically brilliant periods in the history of the Islamic world.
Timur is primarily known for his patronage of monumental architecture, but this exhibition includes a rare folio from a Koran, believed to have been copied for the conqueror's mosque in Samarqand. Its immense size and elegantly bold script, a remarkable technical and artistic feat, helped to underline Timurid religious power and authority.
In addition to sponsoring public architectural monuments and Korans, Timur's descendants immersed themselves in Persian culture, which dominated the lands they had conquered. As foreign rulers and princes, their patronage of illustrated historical, scientific and poetic manuscripts bolstered their claim as the legitimate heirs to Iran's cultural and artistic past. Under their patronage, Timurid painters refined earlier pictorial conventions and experimented with new techniques and motifs, especially those borrowed from Chinese luxury goods. The Timurid fascination with "chinoiserie" can be seen in the extraordinary ink drawing "Two Shackled Demons" and the blue-and-white dish emulating Chinese porcelain on view.
Fifteenth-century arts of the book reached an apogee during the relatively peaceful reign of the last Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Mirza (14701506), whose capital Heratin present-day Afghanistanbecame the unrivaled artistic and literary center of West Asia. Among the most important artists in Herat was Kamal-uddin Bihzad (d. 1535), largely accredited with introducing a new sense of naturalism into Persian painting. Bihzad signed few works and because of his legendary status, numerous compositions have been erroneously attributed to him. The Freer and Sackler galleries have the largest collection of paintings by Bihzad in the United States, which will be on view together for the first time: a signed painting, believed to be one of the artist's last, "An Old Man and a Youth," and two other compositions attributed to his hand, "Sa'di and the Youth of Kashgar" and "Abduction by Sea."
Although Timurid political and military power had greatly diminished by the second half of the 15th century, its patronage of the luxury arts became a vital source of inspiration for the rival Turkoman dynasties, which came to control the western part of the once immense empire. In an effort to present themselves as equals to the Timurids and as legitimate rulers of Iran, Turkoman patrons established their own court workshops and commissioned elaborate manuscripts, which heightened an already flourishing environment for artistic creativity in 15th-century Iran and Central Asia. When the Timurid dynasty fell in 1506, its artistic and cultural legacy continued to live on and was viewed as the "golden age" of artistic and cultural patronage for subsequent rulers in Iran, India and Central Asia.
The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily except Wednesdays and federal holidays. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian metrorail station on the blue and orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries' Web site at www.asia.si.edu.