What happens when foreign influences come knocking on your door? Do you turn your back and hold your traditions more tightly? Or do you find a way to adapt new ways and form a unique cultural hybrid?
Those questions, faced by many societies throughout history, are examined within a Middle Eastern context in an intriguing new exhibition at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum.
Transforming Traditions: The Arts of 19th-Century Iran captures the country at a time when it was being pulled by outside forces, both Western and Asian, even as it sought to consolidate its territories and identity. The resulting conflict is writ large in the fascinating arts and crafts produced under the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925).
“At the time, there were Persian traditions that were activated to foster a new national identity,” says Ulrike Al-Khamis, the exhibition’s co-curator. “But traditions were also transformed by new artistic and cultural impulses coming in. In the arts, you have the introduction of printing, lithography and photography, as well as Western-style painting and cultural and intellectual philosophies.”
The exhibition, created in co- operation with the Louvre museum in Paris, presents an array of artifacts, from paintings, photographs and manuscripts to lacquerware, ceramics, textiles and musical instruments. “Each item tells a particular story about cross-cultural dynamics,” says Al-Khamis.
For example, there is a large-scale oil painting of Fath ‘Ali Shah, the second ruler of the Qajar dynasty and the first Persian to adopt the kind of grand portraiture favoured by European heads of state. It was commissioned as a gift for the French emperor, Napoleon I.
Or there is Al-Khamis’s personal favourite, a tiled window frame depicting various pre-Islamic Persian kings, created in a style and with technology borrowed from the West.
Transforming Traditions grew out of the Louvre’s massive Qajar show, The Rose Empire, which opened last winter. Al-Khamis, the Aga Khan Museum’s director of collections and public programs, saw an opportunity to curate a more tightly focused exhibition that would engage a Toronto audience.
“We wanted to look at the subject matter in a way that people who are not experts in Islamic or Persian art, or the Qajars, could actually relate to,” she says. “Iran in the 19th century is a case study for the kind of dynamics that we here in Canada, our cultural communities and our artists, deal with every day.”
The show, which Al-Khamis curated with Bita Pourvash, consists of 72 items, the majority from the Louvre and the Aga Khan Museum’s own collections, with objects also on loan from the Royal Ontario Muse-um, McGill University, the Textile Museum of Canada and others. The exhibit is now open and runs to Feb. 10, 2019.
Al-Khamis says the photographs of Iran from that period are especially useful in providing a picture of its landscapes and people, making the country seem less exotic to those who don’t know it. “We have a photo of Tehran in the snow, which looks exactly like Toronto in the snow,” she points out.
She hopes this exhibition will cultivate a greater appreciation of Iran’s rich, ancient culture, which gets far less attention in the West than its role as a Middle Eastern power.
“The politics and the economics are only one side of the story,” Al-Khamis notes.
Meanwhile, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection presents David Milne: Modern Painting (Oct. 5 to Jan. 14, 2019). No longer playing second fiddle to the Group of Seven, their contemporary and fellow land-scape artist David Milne (1882–1953) finally gets his due.
This major retrospective tracks his development from his early years as a post- Impressionist painter in late 19th- century New York to his later spare but striking depictions of Ontario’s woodlands. More than 90 oil and watercolour works, as well as drawings and photographs, are included in the show, which shines a light on his time as a commissioned war artist in Europe at the end of the First World War.
Co-curated by the McMichael’s executive director, Ian Dejardin, and its new chief curator, Sarah Milroy, the Milne exhibition debuted earlier this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. It comes to the McMichael in Kleinburg, Ont., just north of Toronto, following a run at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
At Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, art lovers will find Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics (Oct. 20 to Jan. 22, 2019). When he wasn’t driving the construction of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway, Sir William Van Horne was an avid art collector. The 19th-century railway baron filled his Montreal mansion with European masterpieces, but also with exquisite Japanese pottery, which had just come on the market and became his particular passion. He meticulously studied each object, illustrating them in his notebooks and depicting them in large-scale watercolour paintings.
In conjunction with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gardiner has gathered what remains of Van Horne’s vast ceramics collection, along with his own watercolours, annotated notebooks and letters to illuminate his role as one of Canada’s great art connoisseurs. It’s rare treat with al-most 350 ceramic pieces assembled for the first time in one exhibit. It reveals much about the Gilded Age and the connection between power, money and status – all of which fuelled the building of art collections among the country’s most wealthy.
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