David J. Roxburgh

title.none: O'Kane, Early Persian Painting (David J. Roxburgh )

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.004 05.09.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David J. Roxburgh , Harvard University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: O'Kane, Bernard. Early Persian Painting: Kalila and Dimma Manuscripts of the Late Fourteenth Century. London: I.B. Taurus, 2003. Pp. 336. $75.00 1-86064-852-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.04

O'Kane, Bernard. Early Persian Painting: Kalila and Dimma Manuscripts of the Late Fourteenth Century. London: I.B. Taurus, 2003. Pp. 336. $75.00 1-86064-852-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David J. Roxburgh
Harvard University

Bernard O'Kane's latest book is the most comprehensive and accurate study to date about the Persian rendering of the Kalila and Dimna, a book of animal fables, by Nasr Allah (completed between 1143 and 1146). Nasr Allah's text, a reworking of the earlier Arabic text by Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. c. 757), retained its importance in the central Islamic lands until the end of the fifteenth century, when it was superseded by another Persian version authored by Husayn Va'iz al-Kashifi. The high value of the lessons in statecraft and morality couched in the tales of Kalila and Dimna vouchsafed its endurance over centuries though the text's language and overall shape were adjusted to match changing literary preferences. Although focused on the creation of illustrated copies of Nasr Allah's manuscript, a practice that peaked in the second half of the fourteenth century, O'Kane's book sets the stage by sketching the history of the animal fables--from their Indian origin in the Sanskrit Pancatantra to their Persian versions--and the historical context in which the fourteenth-century development took place. While O'Kane's book is accessible to readers with a general interest in the art of the book, manuscript studies, and word and image, it is mostly directed toward a specialist audience, as the arsenal of appendices (twenty-four in all) and the nature of argumentation attest.

Part one of the book is composed of two chapters devoted to an introduction of the Kalila and Dimna and a historical overview of the dynasties (the Jalayirids and Muzaffarids) under whose patronage the Persian manuscripts of the later 1300s were produced. The chapter making up part two presents the manuscripts of both Arabic and Persian versions of Kalila and Dimna spanning the period between c. 1200 and c. 1395. Here, O'Kane is able to observe broad historical patterns in the production of illustrated Kalila and Dimna, noting when and where the text enjoyed greater popularity, and to establish general relationships between the slightly earlier Arabic recension and the later Persian reworking. Possible relationships between the pictorial cycles developed in the Arabic manuscripts and the later Persian copies have long absorbed the attention of scholars in the field.

Part three of the book--divided into five chapters--is descriptive, synthetic, and interpretive. The fourth chapter homes in on the core group of Persian manuscripts from the fourteenth century to gauge their dependence on existing pictorial models. O'Kane goes through the introductory material of the book and its stories-for example, Burzuya's biography and "The perils of life"--to analyze how each one is given visual treatment. Each story is prefaced by a summary or excerpt from the Kalila and Dimna and a list of all the manuscripts from the core group that illustrate that section or story. The next two chapters--five and six--repeat this format but focus on major stories from the Kalila and Dimna, "The lion and the bull" and "Dimna's trial: the owls and the crows." A seventh chapter, also repeating this structure, treats later stories from the Kalila and Dimna, including "The monkey and the tortoise" and "The ascetic and the weasel." Throughout these chapters, the reader is able to compare the different paintings realized by the artists of the Kalila and Dimna manuscripts and to see how artists responded to the task of illustrating a text through creative vision, by looking to existing models or relying on artistic reflexes based on established convention (for example, how one conveys gesture or stages a conversation between figures).

A valuable feature used throughout these chapters is a means of formatting the successive sections of Nasr Allah's text that shows the literary structure of stories embedded within stories. This aspect of O'Kane's book goes a long way to explaining a highly complex story-telling structure (with levels embedded through the letter E), but is also useful when it comes to gauging the frequency of illustration. Some of the dominant A-level stories were much less popular than the deeply nested C-level or D-level, for example, a phenomenon that casts an entirely different value on what might be considered as the primary story that gives cause to subsidiary stories whose function is the illustration of a principal lesson by reinforcement. The labyrinthine aspect of "The lion and the bull," in particular, gives us some sense of how a reader might get lost amid these stories, especially if he attempted to maintain consciousness of a story line.

An attendant risk of the comparative approach pursued in chapters five through seven is that it detracts from our understanding of a single manuscript and its complete program of illustration. The single illustrated book simply gets lost in the mass of details and frequent illustrations of how particular stories are depicted across the corpus of Persian Kalila and Dimna manuscripts. This issue is tackled by O'Kane-who acknowledges the problem himself--in chapter eight where he considers the "pictorial discourses" (204) of the manuscripts. Here, O'Kane turns to issues of workshop practice, patronage, the art of copying and a comparison between the Kalila and Dimna and other frequently illustrated manuscripts of the general period, the Maqamat of al-Hariri and the Shahnama of Firdawsi.

This is clearly the most interpretive chapter of O'Kane's monograph. Here, he endeavors to imagine a process of production, of how artists found solutions to develop visual programs for manuscripts. Assuming that most of these books were made for sub-royal patrons (the non-ruling class), O'Kane identifies all kinds of possible borrowings of a visual lexicon and syntax not only from pre-existing Kalila and Dimna manuscripts but also from books of the Shahnama. He also notes several instances of artists' "misunderstandings of the text," which he explains through either carelessness or illiteracy (206). It is only a few illustrative cycles--most notably the Jalayirid paintings now bound into album F.1422 in Istanbul University Library--that he considers of the artistic caliber befitting royal production. Though this last distinction is clear to all those who have seen the paintings in question, one wonders if the model of production could have been further developed and nuanced than is possible in this single chapter? One also wonders whether "copying" in its different visual forms attracts a pejorative value for the practice of painting in the 1300s as it once did for the 1400s (until recent work, by Ada Adamova in particular, argued for imitation as an honorable prerogative of the painter as it was of the poet in Persianate culture). Scholars have generally explained the practice of copying--and the generation of recurring pictorial cycles (after the Byzantinist Kurt Weitzmann's model)--as an expedient workshop solution, a solution to matching supply with demand. These questions linger on because O'Kane seems to question the creative agency of artists as if the challenge of pictorializing a tale was insurmountable without an existing model of one sort or another. Another topic of this last chapter concerns the popularity of the tale and its status as a mirror for princes within a wide spectrum of wisdom literature. The only complaint here is of wanting to read more in this book about that subject. To what extent did the Jalayirid dynasty invent a notion of the "royal Persian court" that was inherited by the later Timurid dynasty? Wisdom literature of many types flourished in the bibliophilic activity of later Timurid princes.

The book is cogently written, impeccably annotated, and illustrated with many high quality color reproductions and black and white figures. Though the main title of the book is somewhat misleading--the book does not deal in a sustained way with the phenomenon of painting in Iran from the late 1200s until the late 1300s, itself a subject of growing interest and many exciting directions--O'Kane's study will certainly be welcomed by specialists of Islamic art. Despite the fact that scholars have long recognized that the codex was the primary context for figural depiction in the historical Islamic lands, studies devoted to the illustrative practices of single texts are lamentably few and far between. There have, of course, been exceptions, principally monographs on the early Shahnamas and earlier Maqamats. O'Kane's meticulous study on the Persian Kalila wa Dimna and its Arabic antecedents can now be added to that slowly growing list and will serve as an anchor for future inquiries. It provides a solid and trustworthy base for further analysis.