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Islamic Art

Two Significant Shows Build Cultural Relations Between France and the Middle East

France has spent its busiest year yet building cultural relations in the Middle East. The Louvre’s press release earlier this month about the opening of the “Treasures from the French National Collections” at the National Museum of Iran, stated: “The Louvre follows an active international outreach that promotes the culture of France. From its beginnings, this international outreach has been closely connected to the countries represented in its collections. Today this ‘international action’ has both intensified and diversified to include diplomatic priorities, and the Louvre’s presence in certain countries which takes into account the visitor demographic of the Louvre itself (70% foreigners).” This insightful approach has led not just to the highly-publicised inauguration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in Nov 2017, but now also to two high-profile Iranian initiatives.

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MINERVA. ROMAN EMPIRE, 2ND CENTURY © MUSÉE DU LOUVRE, DIST. RMN - GRAND PALAIS

The first of these was the major exhibition in Tehran (running from March 6-June 8), coinciding with 80th anniversary of the National Museum of Iran, and billed as the first ever large-scale exhibition by a major Western museum in the country. Bringing together more than 50 works, the show proudly highlights the ‘richness of the legacy of different civilizations and periods, bearing witness to the universal genius of the human race.’ Amongst other masterpieces will be a 2,400 year old Egyptian sphinx, a bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, as well as Iranian artefacts and drawings by Western artists including Rembrandt and Delacroix. The Guardian says, “curated to showcase works tracing the creation of the Louvre, from its founding in 1793 to date, the show came a day after the French foreign minister Yves Le Drian, arrived in Tehran both to open the exhibition and put pressure on officials over their missile programmes.” This mixed messaging led to a degree of local controversy, but cultural imperatives seem to have overridden the political ones. Hailed as an “outstanding cultural and diplomatic event” the show has strengthened the ties that were forged through recent economic deals with Iran. While Total and Renault (two of those figuring in the deals) have supported the show, the Iranian diaspora also, through its leading NGO Iran Heritage Foundation, has been a key partner. This is no surprise as France and Iran have enjoyed a longstanding cultural history dating back to French presence in the country for archaeological purposes in the 1880s. The Dieulafoy legacy and writings still remain a key source of reference for Iranologists of that period, and the Louvre’s own holdings of Perso-Islamic artefacts are some of the most significant in the world.

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CÉSARINE DAVIN, ASKER-KHAN, THE PERSIAN AMBASSADOR IN PARIS, IN 1808 © RMN-GP (CHÂTEAU DE VERSAILLES) / GÉRARD BLOT

Parallel to the Tehran event, the Louvre-Lens Museum has just opened “The Rose Empire: Masterpieces of 19th Century Persian Art”, with scenography by celebrated fashion designer Christian Lacroix (the Rose Empire referring to a culture that gave birth to the poet Saadi’s metaphoric ‘Gulistan’, a ‘rose garden’ of poems and stories).

The opening of the exhibition was an impressive event with the Director of the National Museum of Iran, the Iranian Ambassador to France, the French Ambassador to Iran, the French Minister of Culture, the Iranian Culture Minister, the Louvre Director and various other representatives in attendance.

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M. CHRISTIAN LACROIX AT THE ROSE EMPIRE: MASTERPIECES OF 19TH CENTURY PERSIAN ART, PHOTO: CRÉDIT SÉBASTIEN JARRY / MUSÉE DU LOUVRE-LENS

The exhibition was absolutely stunning - Lacroix’s scenography was full of colour and drama, and off-set the sumptuous, rarely-seen Qajar paintings and treasures in the most spectacular way. Many loans came from the National Museum of Iran - a first ever- and the speeches emphasised the longstanding links between Iran and France. In particular the French Culture Minister was extremely gracious and warm in her speech, pointing to a new era of collaboration between the two countries; she mentioned that three Iranians from Iran have been taken into the Louvre infrastructure, and France has been awarded archaeological digs in Iran.

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PORTRAIT OF FATH ALI SHAH © BERNISCHES HISTORISCHES MUSEUM

A worldwide exclusive, this retrospective is dedicated to the magnificent art of the Qajar Dynasty - sovereigns who ruled Iran from 1786 to 1925 – the cusp of the modern era. The original and surprising art that flourished during this period was particularly rich and fertile, mostly as a result of court patronage, and now shown in the form of more than 400 works from a wide reach of private and public collections throughout the world.  This comprehensive and unprecedented overview brings together paintings, drawings, jewellery, enamels, rugs, clothing, photographs and ceremonial weapons, all showcased by Christian Lacroix’s design and curated by Gwenaelle Fellinger, from the Dept of Islamic Art at the Louvre. While Total Foundation has again partnered this project, a key sponsor is the Roshan Cultural Institute, founded by eBay’s Pierre Omidyar and his mother Elahe Omidyar Mir-Djalali.  Those who have been to Iran will know that the magnificent Golestan Palace and its Hall of Mirrors was the original palace of the Qajar monarchs and that today it remains a central part of Iran’s regal and lyrical imagery. Introducing it to an international public will be a major service to the arts of that period. Small wonder that history-enthusiast Lacroix has fashioned the exhibition as a stroll through the rooms of an opulent Qajar Palace.

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DR AMIR ALI FARMAN FARMA POSING NEXT TO THE PORTRAIT OF HIS GREAT UNCLE, MUHAMMAD SHAH AT THE ROSE EMPIRE: MASTERPIECES OF 19TH CENTURY PERSIAN ART, PHOTO: SÉBASTIEN JARRY/ MUSÉE DU LOUVRE-LENS

The Louvre-Lens show is bound to attract much attention as this era is by and large unknown to the public outside of Iran. As a key transitional period, the 18th and 19th centuries deserve far greater study and appreciation, particularly as they remain a major point of reference for Islamic scholars and modern and contemporary artists working today. Photography first made its appearance then, with Nasser Al Din Shah himself a fan – a monarch whose visits to the European court brought the beginnings of westernisation to Persia. The sumptuousness of the arts of that period will be an eye-opener, as will the sections of the show that represent the drawings and paintings of travellers Pascal Coste and Jules Laurens. It is to be hoped that for those in Iran, the exhibition at the National Museum of Iran will educate and inform in the same way as for the public coming to the Louvre-Lens. Transcending the mundane and the confrontational, hopefully in the words of Picasso, we can “wash off the dust of daily life from our souls” and enjoy for some moments the magnificence of the dialogue between these two civilizations.

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