Monday, 23 April 2018

Glimpses of the Wicked City: the art of the Silk Road

Art plays a major role in how we visualise other cultures. Our view of ancient Greece is heavily shaped by all those white marble statues: we'd probably think of it very differently if their paintings had survived as well. Ancient Egypt is monumental sculptures and paintings in tombs. Medieval Europe is stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and woodcuts. Victorian Britain is pre-Raphaelite paintings and sepia-tint photographs. And so on.

For most of us, if the Silk Road looks like anything at all, it's probably a nineteenth-century Orientalist painting: something by Rosati, perhaps, or Delacroix. But while some Orientalist paintings depict their subjects with skill and sympathy, an awful lot of them are just excuses for tiresomely repetitive 'naked slave-girl' scenes, and even the ones that aren't usually emphasise the qualities of the 'Orient' that their painters went out looking for: sex, passion, luxury, exoticism, and violence. They give little sense of how these people understood their own world, as people with their own lives to lead, rather than as part of the backdrop to someone else's adventure tourism - and besides, for my purposes, their period is out by roughly two hundred years.

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Rosati, 'A Game of Backgammon'. If you want the slave-girl paintings you can google them yourself.

Probably the greatest representative art tradition to emerge from late medieval / early modern Central Asia was Timurid painting, especially in the form developed by the miniaturists of Herat in Afghanistan. It's a style which combined Persian and Chinese elements to depict blue-and-gold worlds of staggering beauty, which really have to be seen to be believed. (Online reproductions do them no justice at all.) Here are some examples:

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Now, Timurid art is wonderful - but it's very much a product of the earlier part of the early modern period, and its fascination with the sages and heroes of the past means that it tends to look back earlier still. For a sense of what Asiatic Islamic civilisation looked and felt like once modernity started to take hold - and of what life in the Silk Road kingdoms might have looked like if they hadn't been in terminal decline by the late 1600s - I look instead to seventeenth-century Ottoman and Safavid miniature paintings, especially the Rålamb Costume Book (1650s) and the works of Reza Abbasi (1565 - 1635) and Abdulcelil Levni (?-1732). Here are some figures from the Rålamb Costume Book:

This soldier is dressed as a Janissary with a leopard skin. The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Turkish woman "Turca". The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Cavalryman   Sipâhî.  Claes Rålamb (8 May 1622 – 14 March 1698) was a Swedish statesman. The 'Rålamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes Rålamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Executioner    The instrument was probably used for impaling.  The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Executioner with strangulation rope. "Chelat - Bödeln". The 'Rålamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes Rålamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.
These last two are executioners. The first one carries an impaling stake. The second carries a garotting cord.
Here are some by Abbasi:

Two Lovers, 1630 Reza Abbasi

Shah Abbas: Youth reading

Reza Abbasi

And here are some by Levni:

Acem Çengisi Maverdi Kolbaşı, minyatür   Persian Dancing Woman, miniature, Levni, 18th century

IV. Murat Levnî, Kebir Silsilenâme, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi,

turkish miniature paintings - Google Search

Levni-Surname-i Vehbi-1720
Janissaries at a banquet. There's always one guy who can't keep his hat on...
Levni Ottoman Artist
I love the expression on this one. 'It says olive prices are down again. Fuck.'

The other visual source I keep coming back to is the sixteenth-century Tyrkervaerk of Melchior Lorck. Like the nineteenth-century Orientalists, Lorck's engravings show the Ottoman dominions through European eyes, but his perspective is completely different from theirs. The Orientalists painted from a position of assumed cultural superiority, safe in the knowledge that while the Islamic world might be excitingly dangerous to the individual traveller, it no longer posed any meaningful threat to European dominance. But Lorck's drawings of the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent reflect the strength and terror of the Ottoman Empire at its height, when it was an aggressively expansionistic imperial power which had demonstrated itself to be entirely capable of kicking the shit out of the forces of European Christendom. Here are some examples:

Melchior Lorck'un ağaç baskılarındaki Osmanlı figürleri ve ellerindeki dış bükey kanat şekilli kalkanlar..1570-83

Melchior Lorck ( (1526 / 27 – after 1583 in Copenhagen)

A Turkish warrior; WL figure, in profile to r; wearing spurs and holding a lance and a large shield in his l hand; from a series of 127 woodcuts.  1576 Woodcut

Melchior Lorck

Melchior Lorck, Danish-German, (1526/7-post 1583), Portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent (Hollstein 34), Engraving (IIIrd State), circa 1574 | Lot | Sotheby's

Lorck's Tyrkervaerk engravings are an important part of the way in which I imagine the Wicked City itself: a world dominated by strong, cruel, violent men and the weary, hollow-eyed despots who command them, full of militaristic pomp and spectacle, strong lines, sharp angles, and plumed soldiers marching through the streets in splendid uniforms while veiled figures with downcast eyes scurry into corners to avoid them.

The world of the Rålamb Costume Book is the world of the oasis kingdoms beyond, all bright colours and gorgeous fabrics and matter-of-fact violence. The world of Levni and Abbasi is the world of the rich and powerful, the merchant princes of the Great Road: a world of strong coffee and extravagant fashions, elegant youths in perfumed gardens, falconers and dancing girls, and people who really, really don't want to talk to you about exactly where all their custom-made guns and fancy clockwork machinery is coming from.

And outside that, in the steppes and the deserts and the mountains, is the blue-and-gold world of the miniaturists of Herat: a world of flowers and water, rocks and monsters, vast and strange and old and dangerous and very, very beautiful.

The taiga looks like Evenki folk art and Gennady Pavlishin illustrations.

I guess the gods and spirits of the steppe look like figures from Mongolian thangkas?

Fuck, this post is long enough already. I'm just going to hit 'publish' and have done with it.

6 comments:

  1. "Even the animals they ride are fearsome and cruel"

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  2. Great snakes, at least let us catch our breath before plunging into the supernatural.

    Those Timurid paintings have a certain peaceful, satisfied, complete, look - a pre-Wicked King Wicked City?

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    1. I was thinking that, yes - that they're the sort of paintings you'd find pinned to the walls of members of the Blue Necropolis cults, as they wax lyrical about the Old Order and the Good Old Days. That blue-and-gold world as the one which had to be abolished to make way for the Tyrkervaerk world of the Wicked King.

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    2. I enjoy the Tyrkervaerk - from the same spring as Durer, if you will. I recently came across Holbein the Younger's Dance of Death which is worth a look.

      Permission granted to play all Blue Necropoltians as romanticised Jacobite Bonne-Prince-Charlie types and/or Victorian fans of the same?

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    3. Thanks for the Holbein tip. I'd seen a number of the images in isolation, but hadn't realised they were part of a larger collection!

      The guys who just meet up to clean mausoleums and mutter about the good old days are Jacobite-style fantasists, yes. The ones who graduate to murdering people are much more hardcore than the post-1745 Jacobites, though. Like all terrorists, they're convinced they can bring back the past if only they spill enough blood...

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