The opening of The Prince and the Shah: Royal Portraits from Qajar Iran coincides with the closing of our annual Iranian Film Festival. To celebrate, we’re hosting an after-hours event tonight that includes tours of the exhibition, Persian food and drink, and two short films by director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In one of them, the eighteen-minute-long Images of the Qajar Dynasty, Makhmalbaf traces the history of the Qajars, who ruled Iran from 1779 to 1925, using only portraits and images depicting the successive shahs. This visual material ranges from paintings on various mediums (paper, canvas, ceramic tiles, and lacquerware) to new and innovative ones, such as photography and cinema.
Like Makhmalbaf’s movie, the exhibition recounts how Qajar kings utilized the art of portraiture to promote their own image and the grandeur of their dynasty. One may see a certain form of “royal propaganda” in it, a way for these shahs of Iran to assert their power not only inside the country but also to the rest of the world.
The exhibition is of a small scale, almost intimate, with only thirty objects. But what struck me while I was conceiving it is the sheer variety of these royal portraits as well as the inventiveness and creativity of the Qajar era that they reflect and reveal. One work in particular caught my interest. It is a lacquered box for writing instruments, made around 1860. Instead of presenting paintings, the decoration consists of photographs under varnish. The lid shows Nasir al-Din Shah (reigned 1848–96) flanked by two figures on either side. After doing some research, I realized that the two youngsters were the shah’s favorite sons and the two older men were important ministers, as well as the boys’ tutors. Here is an exquisite object with a unique iconographic program and use of the then-novel technology of photography.
The box relates in an unexpected manner to another highlight in the exhibition: the dazzling portrait of Prince Jalal al-Din Mirza dated 1859. The painting is attributed to Abu’l-Hasan Ghaffari Sani‘ al-Mulk, one of the most celebrated artists of mid-nineteenth-century Iran. He was the cousin of Farrukh Khan, the nobleman on the left of the aforementioned box. The man opposite him, I‘tizad al-Saltana, was not related to the painter—but he was the prince’s brother.
The Prince and the Shah shows a small but fascinating world: the one of royalty and elites in the “long nineteenth century.” Come and have a glimpse at it!