Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery Presents “Worlds within Worlds”
India’s Mughal emperors, who reigned over a vast and wealthy empire that extended over most of the South Asian subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries, were passionate about lavish manuscripts and paintings. Between 1556 and 1657, the greatest Mughal patrons—the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan—formed grand workshops that brought together and nurtured India’s leading painters, calligraphers and illuminators.
This remarkable artistic legacy is on view in “Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” at the Sackler July 28 through Sept. 17. The exhibition brings 50 of the finest folios and paintings from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collections, which together form one of the world’s most important repositories of Mughal and Persian painting.
The exhibition’s title, “Worlds within Worlds,” refers to the complex layering of multiple images within single folios, their many references to Persian and European styles and subjects and the emperors’ sense of self as world rulers.
The exhibition is a highlight of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2012.
For the great Mughal emperors, the arts of the book embodied refinement and imperial identity. Sophisticated connoisseurs, they took a personal interest in their artists and their individual styles. In a constant play of tradition and innovation, court painters, calligraphers and illuminators built upon a Persian cultural heritage, cited European motifs and keenly captured the observed world to create a distinctively Mughal ethos. The greatest Mughal works on paper are intriguing amalgams of portraits, symbols of sovereignty, illuminated borders and calligraphy that announce a distinctive imperial sense of self and dynasty. Their painterly virtuosity can be savored in details ranging from the soft fur of a grazing antelope to the world-weary gaze of a magnificently jewelled emperor.
The exhibition opens with a selection of the Persian book arts that the Mughal emperors collected, revered and encouraged their artists to rival and surpass. Among them is an intricately detailed school scene painted in 1486 for a Timurid ruler in the fabled garden city of Herat, in present-day Afghanistan. It has been ascribed to the artist Bihzad—against whom all other Persian and Mughal artists were measured.
The second section focuses on the groundbreaking synthesis achieved by Persian emigres and local Indian artists under the emperor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605). The personal dynamism of Akbar and the Mughal fascination for capturing the appearances of people and places shine throughout these foundational works of the Mughal school. Highlights include three dreamlike works by the renowned Farrukh Beg that demonstrate how artists with distinctive styles contributed to the broader imperial image.
The final two groups of works were created under Akbar’s son and grandson, whose names, Jahangir (Seizer of the World) and Shah Jahan (King of the World), reveal the dynasty’s growing sense of imperial power within the world. The emperor Jahangir ruled from 1605-27 when the Mughal empire was stable, vast, incredibly wealthy and globally connected. His artists brought the Mughal aesthetic to its peak of technical refinement, as illustrated in the Gulshan album folios and lacquer book cover that are a highlight of the exhibition. These exquisitely realized works freely appropriate motifs and styles from diverse sources into richly layered tapestries of image and meaning.
The exhibition concludes with a selection of superb folios produced for the albums of Jahangir’s son, the emperor Shah Jahan (1627-57). Like the palaces and Taj Mahal that he built, these are extraordinary works of perfection. Highlights include six folios from the Late Shah Jahan Album, which have sumptuous borders that exemplify the emperor’s love of jewels, flowers and grandeur.
In honor of the Sackler’s 25th anniversary year, “Worlds within Worlds” will be accompanied by another Sackler milestone: the publication of the revised and expanded Imperial Image, written by the pre-eminent Mughal painting historian and former director of the Sackler, Milo Beach. The revised Imperial Image expands on the original, published in 1981, by including the great Mughal paintings in the Sackler Gallery and Freer acquisitions over the past three decades.
The exhibition will be accompanied by an “Indian Summer” series of public programs that include concerts in July and August and a lecture by Beach in early September.
“Worlds within Worlds” exhibition and programs were organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit asia.si.edu.
For information about special programs for the Sackler’s 25th anniversary year, visit asia.si.edu/Sackler25. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.
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