Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2019
David J. Roxburgh and Mary McWilliams, eds. Technologies of the Image: Art in 19th-Century Iran Exh. cat. Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT: Harvard Art Museums in association with Yale University Press, 2017. 192 pp.; 232 ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300229196)
Harvard Art Museums, August 26, 2017–January 7, 2018

To say that arts of the Qajar dynasty (r. 1779–1925) are, without a doubt, en vogue in recent exhibition circuits is not an overstatement. In the last few years alone, one could see any number of shows featuring these Iranian imperial arts, ranging from The Eye of the Shah: Qajar Court Photography and the Persian Past (NYU’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World, New York), Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th-Century Iran (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha), and The Prince and the Shah: Royal Portraits from Qajar Iran (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC) to the recent Transforming Traditions: The Arts of 19th-Century Iran (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto). While the crucial question of why Qajar art is surfacing now ambiently lingers, the answer remains elusive. Though certainly on trend, the content of Technologies of the Image: Art in 19th-Century Iran, a show curated by David Roxburgh and Mary McWilliams at the Harvard Art Museums, offered something different. Published in tandem with the eponymous exhibition, the sumptuously illustrated exhibition catalogue under consideration in this review showcases both royal and popular art works of the period, including lacquerwares, lithographs, photographs, and paintings, with critical essays on those forms. The volume provides a refreshing analysis of these mediums, situating them within the global geopolitics of the long nineteenth century, while signaling the works’ expansive cultural reach, formal dynamism, and historical self-awareness.

Technologies of the Image emerges out of a justifiable growing interest among Islamic art historians in the intersections of visual culture and modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. Since its inception, the field of Islamic art history has internalized the biases of largely European eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writers and Orientalists, deeming artistic production with exogenous influences to be hybrid, and therefore impure and sullied, but this book challenges those suppositions. Collectively, the authors beg us to consider artists’ conscious artistic choices, references, and deliberations, and the different ways in which their creations were consumed and circulated in Qajar lands and beyond. Though divided into four distinct chapters, dedicated, in order, to lacquerwares, lithography, photography, and painting, the choice of mediums under consideration is deliberate and strategic. In giving serious treatment to lithography and photography, sometimes qualified disparagingly as “popular” art forms, or lacquerwares, which might fall under the umbrella of “craft,” not only do the authors do away with hierarchies of “high” and “low” arts, but they importantly illustrate the webs of interconnected techniques and knowledge across these mediums in and out of Qajar Iran. Turning our attention to works of art by elite patrons, the authors beckon original questions about public patronage, artistic processes, popular taste, and patterns of consumption. With the importation of exotica such as illustrated botany books or fashion plates, and new technologies such as photography, lithography, and letterpress printing, the authors demonstrate how Qajar artists, through this exposure, engaged in their own sort of transcultural modernity. Not only did artists visually and scientifically experiment with new material, but they oftentimes incorporated or blended mechanical modes of image making with centuries-old practices of manuscript illumination, painting, and so forth. Furthermore, by debunking nineteenth-century European stigmatizations of Qajar art as derivative, imitative, or degenerate, the essays also complicate the historiography’s simplistic notions of artistic hybridity and explore how specific adaptations and innovations in these art forms generated novel types of imagery and meaning.

One of the many strengths of this volume rests in its theoretical coherence and rigor. Three main concepts arguably lie at the fulcrum of each chapter’s investigations of Qajar art forms: remediation, reinvention, and reception. Borrowing from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999), the term remediation, as explained by Roxburgh, refers to “a common understanding that successive forms of representation always involve the mediation and refashioning of prior mediums” (4). According to Roxburgh, remediation in Qajar art comprises the codependent and entangled mechanisms by which the plurality of modes, methods, and mediations of newly imported technologies built on well-established traditions of art making and craftsmanship and birthed new art forms and artistic translations. Apart from scientific experimentation, the authors also stress the Qajar penchant for historicism. Examples like the Persepolitan-style marble reliefs at the Naranjistan townhouse in Shiraz (built 1879–86) (13) or the Sassanian-like rock reliefs ordered by Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) in the 1820s and 1830s (17) manifest the refashioning of those ancient or late antique historic referents, constituting direct continuity with a deep past. Throughout, the authors emphasize the cosmopolitan and receptive character of Qajar publics, as artists of the era appropriated new forms, all while recycling and reinventing old ones.

Across the book, one appreciates the authors’ masterful mappings of these multidirectional networks of influence. As McWilliams shows in her chapter on lacquer “handheld picture galleries” (27)—including pen boxes, mirror cases, book covers, and snuff boxes—the medium itself served as a vector for cultural exchange. Though drawing upon Central Asian Timurid exemplars (ca. 1370–1507), lacquerwares grew to encompass this broad range of objects using seventeenth-century Mughal techniques. As portable objects, lacquerwares were easily purchased, traded, and gifted, and McWilliams concerns herself with elite wares produced en masse, for it was “through repeated patterns that imagery reached the greatest number of consumers” (30). Like a detective, McWilliams traces these repetitive visual citations from all manner of sources. Imagery such as scantily clad European (farangī) women on pen boxes reflected a visual but also literary trope that had long since been employed in poetry of the Safavid dynasty (ca. 1501–1722) (37), but in McWilliams’s examples, women depicted in some British and French prints also evidently inspired artists. Many botanical or fauna forms were derived from British print studies in natural history (34). What lends added semantic dimension to some objects are the social channels through which they circulated, such as the Nurian family of the prominent Armenian enclave of New Julfa in Isfahan, whose members were employed by English trading companies (45). Among the most visually arresting aspects of this rich chapter are the drawn renderings and studies for boxes and book covers, giving the viewer a window into the design process and compositional choices of the artists.

Farshid Emami provides a thorough discussion of Qajar lithography, tracking its origins to the 1820s. As opposed to letterpress printing, part of the commercial success of lithography in Iran derived from two things: its aesthetic simulation of manuscript conventions, allowing artists to write in calligraphic scripts while affording opportunities to redesign the relationship of image to text (56); and its capacity to widely circulate literary material and visual propaganda (including images of the Qajar monarchs) (66), and to reproduce devotional images (shamā’il) of martyrs that would appeal to the largely Shi‘i public (72–73). Although the first typographic and lithographic editions of the tenth-century Persian poet Firdawsi’s Shāhnāma (Book of Kings) were printed in India between 1829 and 1846, Emami shows how, through a remarkable web of transmission, in one pictorial scene “a drawing of a Sassanian rock relief, published in England, is adopted as the image of Zoroaster in India, where it finds its way into a copy of the Shāhnāma” (62). By way of explicit pictorial citations and historical references, the widely consumed art form of lithography, Emami convincingly argues, helped birth Iranian imagined communities, particularly through imagery produced in newspapers and gazettes.

Mobility, translation, and political agency are explored further in Mira Xenia Schwerda’s deft account of nonroyal photography in Qajar Iran. Most scholarship dwells on the gifting of two daguerreotype cameras to the court of Muhammad Shah (r. 1834–48) by Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and the subsequent photographic hobby of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–96), Muhammad Shah’s successor. Schwerda, however, rightly points out that, in spite of the reputation he carries as a reformist and modernizer, Nasir al-Din Shah’s photographs were not intended to circulate (nor did they in his lifetime) beyond his Gulistan Palace in Tehran. Thus, his experimentations do not tell us anything about the wider public’s interactions with the medium. Though the first public studio opened in Tehran in 1868, popular interest in photography initially stemmed from the Qajar elite when they traveled to Saint Petersburg and took their portraits home in the form of daguerreotypes or cartes de visite (83–84). And while the Dar al-Funun (or Abode of Sciences, a polytechnic college for military training established in 1851) later became a formal site of photographic instruction, Saint Petersburg became something of a hub for nonroyal photographers to gain technical expertise (95). It is Schwerda’s analysis of the cover image of the book that captures these intermingled ideas of remediation, global circulation, and reception: a black-and-white photograph taken in Tehran featuring a Persian family in a domestic setting is juxtaposed with a colorful photochromatic version of the same scene (likely to have been produced in Zurich, where nearly all photochromes were created), which eventually morphed into a postcard reprinted on the front cover of The New York Tribune in 1906 (92–93). In keeping with Emami’s assessments of lithography’s social agency, Schwerda proves that postcards and other photographic imagery were instrumental in mobilizing the public during the Constitutional Revolution (ca. 1905–11) that brought an end to Qajar rule.

In the last chapter, Roxburgh asks, “[H]ow were lithographic and photographic images assimilated, remediated, and recast in and through the medium of painting, and what can we make of such processes?” (109). Though it may appear that Dar al-Funun painters and instructors sought to overtly incorporate Western conventions of physiognomic realism, linear perspective and modeling, according to Roxburgh, these artists instead created portraits by way of a “combinatory visual form” (117). They did this by blending conceptions of pictorial space from historical Persianate painting with the facial singularities that a photographic image provides. Qajar artists assimilated but harnessed the visual innovations that these new technologies produced in their representations.

Taken together, the authors’ contributions resonate with the last decade’s worth of scholarship in Islamic art history that has stressed the critical cultural value of nineteenth-century arts of the region. For a field that was once (and to some extent still is) preoccupied with questions of power and patronage, or taste and materiality, this publication is truly exemplary of the field’s generational shift and theoretical engagement with some of global art history’s most pressing questions of geopolitics, mobility, popular reception, patterns of cultural exchange, and translation and transmission across time and space. Apart from the aestheticism of the beautifully printed reproductions, the sheer range of archives, libraries, institutions, and multilingual sources referenced in this volume is impressive, as are the varied works garnered for the exhibition from private collections. This book is of interest not only to art historians, collectors, and antiquarians, but historians of science and scholars of global history and Central and South Asian studies. It stands as a testimony to the exciting intellectual trajectory of future art historical studies of the Middle East in the long nineteenth century.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Albion College