I am so excited about this! The special exhibition, "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy" will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC from April 20 through July 26, 2015...and guess what?!! It features several examples of marbled paper!!
The always-fascinating marble historian Jake Benson (the man knows his marbling history like no one else I know!!) shared some information about what is at the exhibit as well as some historical background. The total marbling nerd in me LOVED his write up so, with his permission, I am posting his commentary below.
A few notes to clarify some things if you don't have a marbling background:
- Abri is a Persian word for the art of marbling (Ebru is the Turkish word).
- Jake talks about our own Christopher Weimann who is considered by most American marblers to be very instrumental in bringing a better understanding of the global history as well as the process of marbling to the US.
The exhibition features several examples of marbled paper, including the earliest dated example from the Islamic world, a pair of leaves bearing primitive motifs, probably made in Herat and then given to the Sultan Ghîyâth ad-Dîn Khaljî of Mandu as a gift in 1496. Five marbled drawings will also be on display, several of which were studied and reproduced by the late Christopher Weimann, such as Dervish Seated in Contemplation and two versions of Emaciated Horse and Rider, which Weimann proved were made with positive and negative stencils, likely cut from the same sheet of paper. Two drawings of Deccan noblemen with vivid marbled double-borders are also featured, which were both detached from a Deccani album now preserved in the University of Edinburgh (though a few other leaves are still preserved in Indian collections). This album contains a preface written in eloquent Persian that exclusively praises the master marbler Mîr Muhammad Tâhir in the highest of terms, adding that "…among the refinements of this album are the abrî borders…". This is significant, as the album contains specimens of calligraphy composed by famous masters, but they were not cited by the author of the preface, thereby demonstrating the high regard held for what were then novel forms of abrî.
Little is known about Mîr Muhammad Tâhir other than he was a Persian émigré to India; although, according to both Persian textual sources as well as surviving physical evidence, he was apparently the first marbler to produce a range of distinctly different patterns made using specific techniques, such as manipulating the floating colors with combs, fashioning rows of tiny curls, as well as different special effects probably made with chemical additives. Proof of his fame is further underscored by two missives written to this master by Safavid artists who worked in the library of the shrine of Shâh Sâfî in Ardabil in Iran who praise his work and beg him to reveal his methods, one of which contains a chronogram dating to 1599-1600. This occurred after the governor of Azarbaijan province, Zû'l Fiqâr Qaramânlû (d.1610), who also held the ceremonial role of guardian of the shrine, was so astonished upon seeing examples of the Mîr's work that he commanded his artists produce similar papers for their manuscripts. Ironically, this same governor also served a stint as an ambassador to the Ottomans, so he may have played a role disseminating some of these then-new techniques to Turkey.
Incidentally, a 15th-century Persian manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr of Farîd ad-Dîn ‘Attâr now kept in the Metropolitan Museum, re-margined with marbled papers that are strikingly similar to the album in Edinburgh. It bears a seal from the shrine of Shâh Sâfî that dates to 1608, roughly during this same time period under discussion, although it is not clear if it is the work of the artists in Ardabil or of the Mîr himself. The quality of the marbling in these works is outstanding, not only for the range of patterns that he made with vivid, highly refined mineral pigments instead of organic colors observed in marbled papers produced earlier in the 16th century, but also for how he successfully styled the colors into fine, delicate lines, and utilized up to 10 separate hues. Unfortunately, while the texts do not indicate where in India the Mîr resided, the evidence points to the Deccan, and one detached leaf now in the National Museum in India that I have identified as also from the album in Edinburgh, bears a fragment of an accession statement to the private wardrobe of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur.
For those of you who are unable to see the exhibition, it is fortunately accompanied by a catalog, including a brief chapter "The Art of Abri: Marbled Album Leaves, Drawings, and Paintings of the Deccan" written by myself. Unfortunately, the word limit imposed by the editors made it a very challenging essay to write. Nevertheless, among other points, I challenge the exclusive ascription of marbled paper production to Bijapur during the reigns of Ibrahim II and his successor Muhammad in the 17th century, as there is ample evidence for marbled paper production in other parts of India, as well as drawings that likely date afterwards to 18th–century Hyderabad. Since the essay only discusses 5 of the 40 such works that are known, I plan to revisit this topic in a more detailed article reviewing all of the pieces in the near future.
I will be making the journey to NYC to see the exhibit this summer...and I will bring back what I can in photos to share. If anyone goes to the exhibit, please let me know and share with me what you thought of it!!