The Rebellious Reformer, The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi `Abbasi of Isfahan




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The Rebellious Reformer, The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi `Abbasi of Isfahan, Sheila R. Canby, London: Azimuth Editions 1996; 247 pages, bibliography (no index), 70 illustrations in color and 76 in black an white.
The publication of an art book on a single Persian painter was long overdue. And to set the tone, there was no better choice of subject than the works of the celebrated Riza-yi `Abbasi, and no more suitable writer then Sheila Canby whose previous publication, Persian Painting (New York, 1993), showed how an art book can be concise, informative and yet a joy to read. The same style is carried over to this book, which in addition is adorned by a most elegantly designed binding, clean layout and quality reproductions. Canby writes: "At its best Riza's art is a visual feast" (p. 8). Her book is a successful attempt in projecting this visual feast.

To give credit where it's due, the late Ivan Stchoukine's extensive study of Riza, almost a monograph inserted within his third volume on Persian Painting (Les peintures des maniuscripts de Shah `Abbas Ier à la fin des safavides, Paris 1964), had paved the way for the preparation of the present book. Stchoukine's careful stylistic analysis of drawings that incorporated three different signatures (Riza, Aqa Riza, Riza-yi `Abbasi), backed by the study of historical texts, established the fact that they were all the work of one extraordinarily talented artist.

Following Stchoukine's example, Canby devotes a first important chapter to the historical setting in Safavid Isfahan where Riza lived. Her knowledge of Safavid history in combination with her analysis of Riza's choice of subjects leads her to offer in a later chapter (ch. 6) an interesting explanation as to the causes of Riza's "rebellion" and non-conformist attitude. While she assumes that the issue of the identity of Aqa Riza and Riza-yi `Abbasi is well settled since 1976 (p. 203), she nonetheless provides a recap of Stchoukine's arguments in this respect, with insights of her own and some additional evidence contained in a tinted drawing that incorporates the handwritings of both Riza and his follower Shafi`-e `Abbasi (p. 21). Canby's assumption may be true in respect to specialists, but generalists here and there still prefer not to commit themselves and treat differently signed drawings as the work of different artists (see Soudavar, A., Art of the Persian Courts, New York 1992, p. 261). The writings of Riza's contemporary, Valeh-ye Isfahani (Khold-i Barin, Tehran 1372, p. 471) who unequivocally presents Aqa Riza and Riza `Abbasi as one person, should perhaps set aside this controversy for good.

In an otherwise logically divided book, the title of Appendix III, "Rejected and Uncertain Attributions", leads to much confusion, for it implies that whatever appears under the heading "Catalogue" (pp. 179-203) is a work that the author accepts as solidly attributable to Riza. But that is not the case. Many of the items included in the catalogue are controversial paintings that Canby uses as comparative material without expressing a final opinion on the matter.

Stchoukine had divided Riza's works in three categories (correct attributions, uncertain ones and fakes) by mostly relying on black and white prints. Canby's research, which was essentially conducted during her years as a Ph.D. student at Harvard and certainly enjoyed the benefit of color reproductions and a wider access to original works, unfortunately came before the advent of scanners and Photoshop. The availability of these technical tools nowadays allows a more accurate comparative analysis of calligraphic details, especially for signatures. Thus, a blowup of "Reza's signature" in cat. 23 (p. 57) would have immediately shown the forger's attempt at rectifying his signature and the resulting doubling of its alef, and would have initiated a search for other stylistic discrepancies (see Soudavar, "Forgeries", Iranica X:92-93). Cat. no. 29 which displays a seated dervish with a hat that doesn't fit may be by the same hand.

An awkward legend on a Brooklyn Museum drawing (cat. no. 99) had previously prompted me to reject its attribution to Riza. But my remarks were by mistake attributed to another Brooklyn drawing, which is most probably a genuine work of the artist (see cat. no. 108, p. 197).

I believe that based on calligraphy alone, the attribution of a number of other works can be rejected as well: cat. nos. 41 (in which Aqa is misspelled), 103, 110, 111, 112, 123 and. Some of these paintings (e.g. no. 123 which is attributable to Riza's follower Afzal) are of such a high quality that the addition of a firmly executed signature tends to dissipate doubts on their authenticities. Thus, a thorough cataloguing of Riza's works may not be possible without a prior study of the talented Afzal whose corpus of signed paintings points to a chameleon-like facility to work in different styles and genres. One may suspect for instance, Afzal's hand at work in the production of a problematic group of four paintings in an album of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (ms. Suppl. Pers. 1572) that has attracted a mixed review. Two of them, cat. nos. 117 and 119, have been accepted as the work of Riza and one has been rejected (Appendix III, 11). A fourth one (see Soudavar, Art of the Persian Courts, p. 262), which is a copy of the portrait of Hakim Shifai by Riza, is not mentioned. The problem though is that these paintings share a common oddity: all four bear an extensive legend followed by a "signature" of Riza that have been substantially erased. One wonders why such important legends and signatures were erased if not for the fact that they were suspected to be later additions. Such oddity should have lead to the revision of the four paintings as a group and not individually.

Ultimately, the evaluation and attribution of works of art is a subjective matter that can only gain general acceptance by a plurality of expert opinions. The visual feast that Canby has presented us with will certainly inspire many more scholarly studies on the works of this prodigious painter that she aptly labeled: the Rebellious Reformer.



Abolala Soudavar
Word count = 1019


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