(L) Nasir al-Din Shah, c. 1848; (center) Jar, 6th century; (R) Embroidered Panel, Iran, late 16th to early 17th century; (bottom) The “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, Iran, early 17th century.
(L) Nasir al-Din Shah, c. 1848; (center) Jar, 6th century; (R) Embroidered Panel, Iran, late 16th to early 17th century; (bottom) The “King Umberto II Polonaise” Carpet, Iran, early 17th century.
Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Tiny Paintings and Golden Carpets Unveiled in MFAH’s “Bestowing Beauty”

From teeny tiny paintings with a royal pedigree to monumental carpets that shimmer with actual gold, the “Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston mines a super-secret (but not for long) private collection of Persian art.

Aimée Froom, Ph. D., curator of the MFAH's ten-year-old Art of the Islamic Worlds department, says the museum will reveal more about this significant holding in the near future but, in the meantime, just know that the never-before-seen-in-public collection runs so deep that the museum plans four more exhibitions over the next five years.

Those miniature paintings come from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), which goes on record as the world's longest epic poem written by just one man, Persian poet Ferdowsi. Comprised of more than 50,000 couplets and mythical in theme, the national epic (written between c. 977 and 1010 CE) also serves as an account of Iran's ancient history. "One [painting] is from what we affectionately call the small Shahnama, and that's tiny," says Dr. Froom, adding that they are smaller than a piece of paper and meant to be held in the hand.

In contrast, one of the carpets on view is so monumental that it takes up an entire wall. "It's actually magnificent for me to see them on view. It's literally woven with gold, metal-wrapped threads around the silk cord," says Froom about the 17th century object. "Originally the carpet shined, it was just brilliant, and it still has some shine."

Gold also was used as ink and rare pages from the Qur'an are included in this exhibit. "It's probably one of the most difficult techniques for a calligrapher. Glue was applied, the text was written with the glue, the gold was added and the letters were outlined in black. Very laborious," says Froom about these samples of the Islamic faith's central text.

In curating this exhibit that contains more than 100 works of art from the 6th to the 19th century, Froom has identified four central themes: faith and piety, banquets and battles, earth and nature, and love and longing. "I wanted them to be universal to appeal to us all. Love is one of the most cherished themes in Persian literature, and world literature as well, and so is artistic representation. Both love and longing are of earthly nature, human nature, but also spiritual, such as the love and loving of Sufism." She describes one lacquered mirror case decorated with a nightingale, representing the lover, with a rose symbolizing the beloved.

As for the portrait of the unibrowed Nasir al-Din Shah (shown above), it depicts the Persian king at the beginning of his rule in 1848. He held the throne for almost 50 years and was assassinated, but not before siring almost two dozen princes and princesses. The assassin's weapon of choice was an old and rusty revolver and, had the king worn a sturdier coat, he might have survived the assault.

Insider tip: When viewing this exhibit, be sure to check out the companion exhibits, "Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait" (up through January 15) and the museum's permanent collection, "Art of the Islamic Worlds."

“Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands” opens November 19 and runs through February 11, 2018 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays, 12:15 to 7 p.m., 713-639-7300, mfah.org, free to $15.

Bowl with Fishes, Iran, late 13th to mid-14th century, is on view in "Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Bowl with Fishes, Iran, late 13th to mid-14th century, is on view in "Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Related programming for "Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands" at MFAH:

Sunday, November 19, at 3 p.m.
Opening Day Gallery Concert: “Ancient Moods”
Enjoy a concert in the galleries of "Bestowing Beauty" presented by world-renowned musicians Abbos Kosimov from Uzbekistan, Imamyar Hasanov from Azerbaijan, and Osam Ezzeldin from Egypt. Free with general admission.

Monday, December 18, at 6:30 p.m.
Exclusive Tour
Experience a private tour of "Bestowing Beauty" led by Aimée Froom, organizing MFAH curator of the exhibition. $55 to $65.

Thursday, January 18, at 6:30 p.m.
Lecture: “Trapped between Poetry and Politics: The Paradox of Wine in Persian Society”
Enjoy a presentation from Abolala Soudavar, scholar and collector; Board of Trustees Accessions Committee, MFAH, 1986–94; author of Art of the Persian Courts, and The Aura of Kings: Legitimacy and Divine Sanction in Iranian Kingship. $5 to $10.

Thursday, February 1, at 6 and 7 p.m.
Gallery Concert
Listen to a performance from Aaron Hermes, a sitar musician, in the galleries of "Bestowing Beauty." Free.

Thursday, February 8, at 6:30 p.m.
Lecture: “Love has Befriended Me”: Persian Art and Culture in World History
Enjoy a presentation from Lisa Balabanlilar, associate professor of history, Rice University. $5 to $10.

Coming January 2018
25th Annual Houston Iranian Film Festival
Each January since 1993, film lovers have gathered at the MFAH to experience the best new Iranian cinema. Over the years the selections have expanded to spotlight the Persian diaspora, with films made by emerging and established directors working in Iran as well as around the world. For information, visit mfah.org/films.

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