"BOOK ARTS OF ISFAHAN"


by Judith Hoffberg

(
J. Paul Getty Museum of Art, Malibu) Los Angeles flaunts itself as America's multicultural, multi-ethnic showcase city. In preparing for an exhibition of an Armenian show of Bible story manuscripts the curators discovered a city of the17th century, Isfahan, exhibiting the visual continuity of Armenian, Jewish and Persian cultures, thus sparking an investigation into the aesthetic variety in a remarkably cosmopolitan city much like Los Angeles.

Not a melting pot, but rather a mosaic of cultures, Isfahan was a thriving city from 1597 to 1722, when it was the capital of Safavid Persia. Through the European manuscripts we can see that Isfahan was a city of mutual tolerance, in which ethnic enclaves, contrasts and traditions existed. It is through the uniquely private medium of books and single images on paper that the curators explore the cultural diversity of Isfahan.

In this beautifully installed exhibition, Book Arts of Isfahan, which grew out of a small show of Armenian manuscripts which the Getty owns and had not shown before, the pages of these books display Persian stories in Hebrew letters and Chinese costumes on princes of the Persian court. The contrast between the court style and the Armenian and Jewish books (some of which have been borrowed from other institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, UCLA, LACMA and the Jewish Museum in New York) is very strong. The pages are diverse, stunning and highly illuminiated, with artists delighting in the book form as a means of identifying a culture.

Printed books were created for the first time in Persia during the 1630s on presses constructed by monks, who made the paper, built the presses and printed the books--which were also the first Armenian books printed in Isfahan.

As the diversity of cultures are reflected in books during the 17th century, so now the murals, graffiti and art of the train stations in Los Angeles also reflect the diversity and multiplicity of the languages and the cultures which reside side by side in the City of the Angels.

Thomas Kren, Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty, and guest curator Dr. Alice Taylor are responsible for this shimmering exhibition. A book with 24 color plates and 27 black and white illustrations documents the show. In addition, there is a Book-Arts Family Festival coming January 7th, 1996, as well as lectures on January 4th on Miniature Paintings in Judeo-Persian Manuscripts and on January 10th, by Vartan Gregorian, on Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Isfahan.