Featuring more than 100 privately held works from the 6th to the 19th century, on view publicly for the first time

HOUSTON—November 2017—The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands, an exhibition of more than 100 works highlighting the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Iranian civilization from the 6th to the 19th century. Drawn from one of the most significant collections of Persian art held in private hands and rarely publicly displayed, the works span a range of media, including carpets, textiles, manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, lacquer, metalwork, scientific instruments, and jeweled objects. Highlights include exquisite miniature paintings from the Shahnama, the Iranian national epic; a range of historically significant ceramics; precious inlaid metal wares; finely woven silk fabrics; and a monumental silk carpet from the apex of Safavid dynasty carpet production.

Celebrating a landmark agreement between the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and renowned private collector Hossein Afshar, works from these holdings will be presented in a series of special exhibitions over a five-year period at the MFAH. Bestowing Beauty, the inaugural exhibition, is on view through February 11, 2018, as part of the 10th anniversary program for the Museum’s Art of the Islamic Worlds initiative.

“This spectacular collection, meticulously constructed over the last 50 years, represents Hossein Afshar’s life-long passion to preserving Persian artistic heritage for future generations and a strong desire to share these masterpieces publicly,” said Aimée Froom, curator, Islamic art at the MFAH. “Through the objects on display, we see a portrait of Iran that highlights an extraordinary artistic sensibility over the last several centuries.”

“Since the establishment of the department in 2007, the MFAH has endeavored to collect, exhibit, and interpret art of the Islamic worlds,” added Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “We are immeasurably grateful for Hossein Afshar’s vision and generosity in furthering this goal and making accessible the beauty that Persian art bestows on its beholders.”

Exhibition Themes
The objects on display reveal their stories to viewers, from the superb miniature paintings of the Iranian national epic Shahnama to monumental silk carpets and rare Qur’an pages written in gold. Woven throughout the tales of these extraordinary artworks are experiences, ideas, and emotions shared by all peoples, grouped within the exhibition into the universal themes of faith and piety, love and longing, kingship, banquets and battles, and earth and nature. 

Faith and Piety
Faith and piety are expressed in exquisitely penned and sumptuously illuminated Qurʾan manuscripts produced across the Islamic lands. The primary role of calligraphy in transmitting the word of God is paramount, but calligraphers also copied a variety of texts in addition to the Qurʾan. Calligraphers enjoyed the highest status among all artists, as reflected in the careful adornment of their tools.

Love and Longing
Love and longing are among the most celebrated themes in art around the world. The universal desire for the deepest form of human connection—also a metaphor for one’s yearning for divine love—finds profound expression in Persian poetry. A familiar subject in Persian poetry and art is that of the rose and the nightingale (gul u bulbul). The rose symbolizes the beloved, who has thorns and can be cruel, and the nightingale, the lover, who sings endlessly of his longing. This depiction of earthly devotion can be extrapolated to represent divine love and the soul’s search for a union with God. Earthly images of love and longing include a pair of tightly embracing lovers on a slim lacquer pen case.

Kingship and Banquets and Battles
Imagery of kingship and authority figure prominently in illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, since the early 14th century. The related theme of banquets and battles (bazm u razm)—quintessential aspects of Persian kingship—are very popular. A new image of authority reached an apex in the 19th-century Iran under the Qajars. Persian court painters created individualized portraits of contemporary kings, princes, and members of the ruling elite, capturing the political agendas, personalities, and images of power that their patrons sought to embody.

Earth and Nature
In the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the beauty of nature is a reminder of God as the giver of life. The garden is an earthly representation of this notion. A love for garden-like settings and the promise of spring and renewal pervade Persian culture. Representations of flowers, trees, and flowing waters evoke the ancient idea of the garden as a symbol of paradise.

The publication to accompany the opening of the exhibition celebrates and marks the 10th anniversary of the Art of the Islamic Worlds initiative of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), launched in 2007. Since its inception a decade ago, the Art of the Islamic Worlds has presented nine exhibitions, published four scholarly catalogues, and brought numerous programs and lectures to the Museum. More than 300 works, spanning 1,300 years and the breadth of Islamic territories—from present-day India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Spain—are on continuous view in newly expanded, dedicated gallery spaces at the MFAH. An accompanying scholarly catalogue is forthcoming.

Organization & Funding
This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of more than 65,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art and its acclaimed Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio Schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.
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