Visual Poetry: Paintings and Drawings from Iran

In the first exhibition of its kind, 32 exquisite single folios of painting, drawing and poetry from 16th- and 17th-century Iran intended for assembly into albums were on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from December 16, 2001 through May 5, 2002. Visual Poetry: Paintings and Drawings from Iran included seven works by Riza Abbasi (ca. 1585–1635), one of the most celebrated Persian artists, particularly known for his innovative single-sheet compositions. Also on view were works by the notable 16th-century painter Aqa Mirak and Ali Riza Abbasi, the favorite court calligrapher of Shah Abbas I ( r. 1587–1629).

In Iran, illustrations have been an integral part of secular manuscripts since the early 13th century. By the late 15th century, Persian artists also created independent drawings and paintings, a genre that reached its apogee during the reign of the Safavid dynasty (1502–1722). Some of the folios comprised artful assemblages of paintings, drawings, and poetry, while others focused exclusively on one or the other medium. Although no longer illustrating a specific text, single-page compositions still maintained their literary link. They were collected in elegant albums, and many depicted idealized single figures, inspired directly or indirectly by poetic conventions and imagery, such as the beautiful beloved, the yearning lover, or the wise old shaykh or scholar. Further enriched by Sufism (Islamic mysticism), the compositions lent themselves to a variety of interpretations. Much like the poems of Rumi (d. 1273), or Hafiz (d. 1390), they could be viewed as evocations of earthly or spiritual yearning, or as metaphors for human or divine beauty. Instead of words, artists now used line and color to create visual poems, implying a range of meanings. The new format also encouraged artists to experiment with the genre of portraiture in the later 17th-century and integrate it within the repertoire of single-page compositions.

The exhibition is primarily drawn from the permanent holdings of the Sackler Gallery and the Art and History Trust collection (on long-term loan to the gallery) which include some of the finest single-page compositions ever produced in Iran. It highlights some of the salient characteristics of an artform that became a formal and thematic alternative to the manuscript illustrations after the 16th-century in Iran and the rest of the Islamic world. View Visual Poetry online gallery guide.