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Society | A King Alone

by HOUMAN HAROUNI

20 Jan 2012 19:06Comments
hallofmirrors.jpg[ Bīstoon ] The painting is titled The Hall of Mirrors. It was painted in Iran in 1896. The man sitting on the chair, in the lower third of the frame, is King Naser al-Din, who ruled Iran for nearly half a century. Here, at about the age of 64, he is not far from the bloody final act of his tumultuous reign. His life would come to an end at the point of a lonely cleric's pistol. The painter has not exaggerated Naser al-Din's self-confidence, which was ample. And although mirrors in Iranian culture do not connote vanity as they do in Europe, the image nonetheless is an exhibition of kingly wealth: the grand carpet, the furniture (made in France), the chandeliers, the great garden beyond the lofty windows.

At the same time, the painting is more than a conventional portrayal of grandeur. How often was a living king portrayed this way? He is almost dwarfed by the room -- which in reality is much smaller than it seems here. The strange perspective that has achieved the illusion of size also places the king away from the main focal point (the lines merge at a nondescript place on the left). Our gaze rushes to this point, led away from the man. His own gaze, in turn, is directed away from us -- it's not meant to capture our attention. He is unaccompanied by subjects or servants. Of the many mirrors, none reflect his image. He is quite alone.

There is no reason why a Westerner should recognize the name of the painter, though nearly every Iranian would. He is known by his title, Kamal al-Molk ("the Perfect One of the Kingdom"), which was given to him by Naser al-Din slightly prior to the completion of The Hall of Mirrors. It was the king himself who discovered the painter. During a visit to the major artistic workshop of the day, Naser al-Din came upon a small portrait of a recently deceased courtier. He asked for the painter, who turned out to be a young apprentice, and consequently brought him to his court as part of his personal entourage. In a few years, Kamal al-Molk became the king's painting teacher as well. He more or less taught himself -- having access only to the limited repertoire of Western paintings available in Iran -- the rules of perspective and the subtle tricks of oil painting. His style moved entirely away from the dominant local tradition of the time and accepted the European norms. His paintings, for the most part unremarkable if seen without the context of his time and training, belong to the European academic style. The Hall of Mirrors, which took him seven years to complete, is the seminal "modern," naturalistic Iranian painting. It constitutes the first recognized we-can-too moment in the development of visual art in the country.

To consider the piece, it's important to understand that at the moment of its painting every aspect of life in Iran, for the first time, was experiencing the gravitational force generated by the West. The neighboring Ottoman Empire had begun to modernize. In the North, the Russians -- in the grip of their own rapid modernization process -- were reducing the Iranian borders in rapid, walloping blows. In the East, the might of the British Raj, consuming India, had also managed to separate Harat from Iran. Intellectuals had begun to visit Europe, and one of the first independent Iranian newspapers had recently appeared in London.

What the contact with the West made palpable was the fact that somewhere along the line of history Iran had fallen behind. A wealth of documents from the period record the evidence of this feeling. There is a translation of Haj Sayyah's travelogue in English. It's astounding to see through his eyes as he enters each new city in the West. Invariably, he notes the state of the roads, schools, hospitals, and police stations, comparing them with conditions back home. His obsession nearly overwhelms him. Eventually, he is jailed upon one of his returns to Iran. Naser al-Din was not happy to have his subjects discuss the advances of Europe in such detail.

In retrospect, it might be hard to imagine the intensity of the hope that the reformist Iranian elite had initially placed in Naser al-Din's rule. His most enduring legacies (the first modern Iranian academy, military and administrative reform, maintenance of the roads) all belong to the first three years of his reign, and they were all the initiative of his first mentor and prime minister, Amir Kabir. Eventually he would sack the prime minister, who had earned the anger and fear of the corrupt courtiers. Later, in a bathhouse in Kashan and according to Naser's drunkenly signed order, a servant would cut open Amir Kabir's veins.

In The Hall of Mirrors something of that hope has managed to survive the chain of disappointments that constituted Naser's rule. We should not look for it in the carpet or the chandeliers, or in the sword that lies impotently on Naser's lap. It seems to me that hope is somewhere outside, beyond the windows. It shines in and falls on the carpet in sunlit patches, none of which touch the king, who is looking toward its source. At the same time, Kamal al-Molk, who by all accounts was one of the keenest men of his time, could not have helped knowing that this man had not achieved what was expected of him. Thus the king's isolation and immobility. He will never walk out of his chair toward that window -- no such will is painted into his figure. The painting displays a strange mix of loyalty and despondency -- both directed toward the same man.

As he was finishing The Hall of Mirrors, the now middle-aged painter began to paint in an entirely different genre than his earlier courtly works. Slowly and hesitantly at first, he began painting the social types of his time. These were people from the street: peddlers, craftsmen, fortunetellers, housewives, servants. Over the years he would return to this genre, each time with fresh curiosity. Though The Hall of Mirrors might be his most famous work, it was the social genre paintings that had the most lasting influence on Iranian art. Though they constitute only 15 percent of his surviving oeuvre, they exemplify what has become known as his school of painting. In them he seems to be casting a questioning look at the populace of his time. The people in these works are for the most part illiterate. Their clothes are threadbare, their hands calloused, their faces lined with many small cares. Some are haggling over knickknacks, some are cheats and charlatans. Their virtues are not the grand and mysterious virtues of the high-born, but the practical virtues that manage to emerge alongside hard labor and limited means: cunning, good humor, endurance, resolve, sometimes innocence from power. If hope for change cannot be placed in the aristocracy, these paintings ask, then what sort of hope should be placed in ordinary people? What sort of future can depend on them?

Soon after Naser al-Din's death, Kamal al-Molk would leave the royal court. He would show strong support and sympathy for the Constitutionalist Movement. Once the movement transformed into a revolution, around 1905, despite tremendous costs to his finances and career, he severed all ties with the palace -- feigning a stroke so as to avoid any commission from those quarters. After the revolution, he would establish the first modern academy of fine arts in the country. Beside painting and sculpture, the academy would encourage serious participation in the traditional arts, for which he had gained a growing respect. Within its walls, where for a few years he was an absolute ruler, his sense of independence would become fierce, a matter of legends. He refused to curry favor with Reza Shah, each earned the other's disdain, and the matter ended with the old painter retreating embittered into voluntary or semivoluntary exile. He died, at the age of 80, in an isolated village in the East.

***

Critics have written of the reactionary role of Kamal al-Molk's students in Iranian painting, claiming that their avid naturalism barricaded the path of a local, more relevant style. Even if it's an unfair criticism -- the avant-garde should have enough energy to break through such barriers -- it nonetheless hints at how Kamal al-Molk was the wrong leader for Iranian painting at the time. During his brief stay in Europe he saw the rise of Impressionism, and it left him unimpressed. He was, by training and temperament, a traditionalist; at the same time, he awoke too late to the value of traditional Iranian forms.

Nonetheless, I imagine a space within which the cultural products of a past era, no matter how obsolete, can be reclaimed for the present. Such a place is open to The Hall of Mirrors (closed now to all Kamal al-Molk's other courtly portraits), because it so clearly contains the worldview of its creator, and because this worldview is yet to become entirely irrelevant to our times.

The light of opportunity that falls on the king, to which he cannot respond, is not specific to this particular man. Missing from this image are the representation of the king's shortcomings as a ruler and the presence of a solid group of people who can carry out a real reform agenda. Both are missing because the painter was not yet ready to see them, enamored as he was with the man, and uncertain as he was about the role of the elite and the populace.

More than a century has passed since this painting was completed. Revolutions, riots, and coups have shaken Tehran repeatedly since then. And yet almost any Iranian intellectual who has at some point placed his or her political hope in a single man seems to harbor an image of that man that resembles this painting. The room could be different, and the man could be the Shah, Reza Khan, Arani, or one of a host of others. As a younger man, I had such an image of Mosaddegh, alone and abandoned in his office. Probably he was looking out his window, too, immobilized -- the old aristocrat, the lonely lion.

The type of hope that is placed in one man will always arrive at The Hall of Mirrors. There, bouncing from wall to wall, it will surround the man as he sits alone.

Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. His "Bīstoon Chronicles" appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Painting: "The Hall of Mirrors" (1896), by Mohammad Ghaffari, Kamal al-Molk (1859-1940), at the Golestan Palace Museum, Tehran.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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