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A stimulating read from start to finish, Lamia Balafrej’s The Making of the Artist in Late Timurid Painting is the first book-length analysis of one of the most important codices of Islamic art—the Cairo Bustan (The orchard). Currently preserved in Cairo, this fifteenth-century copy of Saʻdi’s (d. 1291) Persian book of poetry was produced in Herat (in today’s Afghanistan) for Husayn Bayqara (r. ca. 1470–1506), a ruler of the Timurid Empire, which dominated Central Asia and Iran from circa 1400 until 1507. The codex features an unsigned double-page frontispiece attributed to Miraq Naqqash—the head of the royal library in Herat—and Bihzad (ca. 1450–1535/36?), the legendary artist, who possibly trained under the former. Importantly, four single-page illustrations bear Bihzad’s signature. Among the paintings’ protagonists are Husayn Bayqara, King Darius of the Achaemenid Empire, and the biblical Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykha (Potiphar’s wife). Secondary figures include a judge, a poet, a page, a beggar, mystics, musicians, herdsmen, and servants engaged in various courtly or quotidian activities.
Bihzad remains relatively unknown among scholars and students of Western art. In Islamic art history, however, he has been celebrated as the “divinely inspired” archetype of painters. Despite the fame he enjoyed in and beyond his own epoch, our knowledge of Bihzad’s biography is fragmentary; scholars remain uncertain about the details of his career and creative output. Nonetheless, Balafrej effectively argues that intertextual and intervisual analyses of the Cairo Bustan’s paintings can provide a clearer understanding of Bihzad’s image-making process and artistic persona.
Balafrej begins her construction of a portrait of Bihzad by pairing a rich corpus of art historical, philosophical, and mystical literature on figurative representation in general and on Bihzad’s art in particular with various aspects of the Cairo Bustan’s illustrations. Presented in an erudite manner, this pairing demonstrates that far from being cliché and non-ekphrastic, as some scholars have argued, these commentaries and eulogies are surprisingly insightful elaborations on the artist’s work. However, Balafrej’s endeavor to correlate texts with artwork is decidedly more than a rehearsal of previous studies. Equipped with an eye that is at once telescopic and alert to the smallest detail, the author diligently walks the reader over the surfaces and into the depths of Bihzad’s paintings, which she considers both within their specific literary, historical, and social contexts and in relation to works with identical or similar topics that pre- or postdate them. Rigorous comparative analyses allow the author to position the Cairo Bustan within a multifocal art historical framework that resembles the multilayered surfaces of Bihzad’s paintings, where conflating perspectives alert the viewer to the underused realms of human sight and mind.
Within this sophisticated framework, Balafrej establishes three main arguments. First, the Cairo Bustan’s opening double-page illustration is distinguished from conventional frontispieces in its displacement of the ruler (here Husayn Bayqara) as the central motif—a remarkable break from the tradition of paying tribute to a codex’s patron. This subversive act is achieved primarily through a compositional arrangement that pushes the ruler out of his standard place on the verso (the page that the viewer would first gaze upon in a Persian manuscript) and onto the recto. The introduction of a multitude of figures who are not mentioned in Sa‘di’s text, together with these figures’ poses or gazes that communicate they are oblivious to the ruler, work to reinforce the disruption of the established hierarchy between patron and artist. Balafrej’s second argument is equally cogent: as the frontispiece undermines the ruler’s authority, the paintings signed by Bihzad showcase the artist’s creative power and technical virtuosity through his ability to direct attention away from the illustrated content and toward the process of image making (taswir). Balafrej locates this departure from the prevailing intent of figurative art in Bihzad’s innovative compositions, which renounce formulaic layouts; in his use of “visual abundance” (110); in his exceptionally smooth application of paint; and, most tellingly, in his execution of dense, minute details and flawless lines (tahrir). An especially well-crafted theory that articulates a line’s “potential to destabilize the apparent closure of the outline” (166) and its ability to “communicate meaning through aspects of execution rather than textual content” (177) marks the book’s culmination. In both taswir and tahrir, then, with the clarity of his eye and the perfection of his hand, Bihzad effaced signs of image making, causing his paintings to appear “miraculous,” in the words of his contemporaries. Consequently, according to the book’s third and most incisive argument, by diverting the beholder’s gaze away from content, and by appropriating the painted surface through immaculate artistry, Bihzad repurposed the art of illustration to mirror his artistic persona and declared himself “the subject of his art” (77).
These engaging discussions, although they allow little room for Bihzad’s collaborators, nonetheless unfold within a cohesive web of textual and visual analysis, which ultimately comprises Balafrej’s book. But unless one is Bihzad, it seems, fault lines are inevitable, even in as fine a work as The Making of the Artist, as some of Balafrej’s arguments threaten to breach the critical boundary between reconstructing and reinventing meaning in art. Fissures appear where the author describes Bihzad’s paintings as “uncreated” images (133–42) or resurrects the “saintly” artist as “a prophet” (132–33), even “a metaphysical concept instead of a human being” (203) and a would-be “element of the Qur’an” (203). These bold propositions, which no doubt will stir heated debate among art historians and scholars of Islam, present the following predicaments.
First, the author’s promotion of Bihzad from a “saint” (a panegyric used in vernacular sources) to a “prophet,” based on a popular premodern simile that likens the artist’s ability to “impart life into matter” to Jesus’s breathing life into a clay bird, is untenable. This is because this view of the artist collapses the distance between a saint (wali) and a prophet (nabi, rasul): whereas the former earns God’s approval through devotion, the latter has been chosen by God as his messenger. Furthermore, this conceptual leap overlooks the Islamic belief that prophetic miracles are the workings of God, and not of human beings (Qur’an 5:110).
Second, the interpretation of Bihzad’s pictures as “uncreated images” that seek to “emulate the Tablet Preserved” (God’s eternal message) (123, 136) contradicts the Cairo Bustan’s own opening line acknowledging God as the Creator, which of course is a reference to both the Qur’anic tenet that God “created Creation” (Qur’an 21:16) and God’s self-description as the only uncreated, self-subsisting, and eternal being (Qur’an 20:111). Balafrej’s likening of Bihzad’s “uncreated pictures” to Byzantine icons thought to be made by angels is a creative analogy. Yet, is it not true that the Byzantines (like Muslims) believed that angels were also created beings? Ensuing from this position is the author’s suggestion that the balanced order, even surfaces, and micrographic elements of Bihzad’s art “imbue the artist with [an] authority” that makes him “comparable to the transcendent deity” (201). This reading clashes with a key element in Bihzad’s most famous painting, Yusuf and Zulaykha: the expression “Allah wa la siwahu” (There is none like unto Him!). Strategically penned on the gateway of Zulaykha’s seven-storied palace, at the very heart of an image about idolatry, this phrase declares submission to God’s insurmountable being and annuls the author’s question, “Who is this artist who can compete with God?” (142). Accordingly, rather than “rivaling God,” Bihzad’s consummate pages allude to “the seven heavens that are in no want of proportion” (Qur’an 67:3-4), thus intimating contemplation of the divine order, perhaps a celebration of human perfection, at least in the visual realm.
Another rupture within Balafrej’s treatise appears in her interpretation of a signature that Bihzad placed on a notebook held by a young man sitting in the courtyard of a mosque as “a clear indication [of the artist’s] wish to be accorded authority comparable to the divine author of the Qur’an” (205) and as suggestive of his being “an element of the Qur’an” (203). But one wonders why this plain notebook, which bears only four or five phrases, should be regarded as a copy of the holy book, and not simply as a workbook. Even if one were to accept that the only book to be found in a mosque courtyard would be the Qur’an, the fact that Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s word, and His word only, serves as a compelling point of contradiction. Given that the Qur’an describes human beings as but one component of the created universe, and not as “an element” of God’s word, and in light of Bihzad’s own affirmation of God’s supreme power, is it possible to reenvision the artist outside of the mirror that he so painstakingly polished to reflect his image?
As it skillfully explores the interrelatedness of text and image on the one hand, and image and artist on the other, Balafrej’s work contributes to our understanding of the concept of an artist beyond the self-portrait and autobiography. At the same time, it makes the reader wonder how far art history can go without overreaching. On both accounts, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in Islamic art.
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Art History, University of South Florida