Monday, July 19, 2010

Surveyor of Persian Art

"I know of no man who could so quickly talk one into
- or out of - a thing"

.. Henry Francis Tayor, director of the Met from 1940-1955

"as explorer he experienced works of art
more than he studied them”.

..Stuart Cary Welch, special consultant for the department of Islamic art at the Met, 1979-1987

This post will contemplate the unlikely career of
Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1965)
who, among other things, compiled the multi-volume
Survey of Persian Art

Here is the exhibit in Chicago that brought him to my attention.

And here is the wonderful book that reveals so much about him.

Why am I so fascinated by this fellow?

Perhaps because he exemplifies
a role that has nearly disappeared
in the modern artworld:

the pro-active aesthete

Pro-active enough
to even do some of his
own designing

But he was not a career decorator.

Just as he founded an academic institution,
the Asia Institute in New York,
but he was not a career academic.

He spent most of a decade
traveling throughout Iran
(back before it had paved roads)
taking 10,000 photographs
of mosques and palaces,
but he was not a career
explorer or photographer.

He was involved in the purchase
of millions of dollars of
Asian art,
but he was not a dealer
or a major collector.

He was supported,
in his final years,
by the Shah of Iran,
but he was not a career courtier.

Above all,
he just seemed to be an aesthete,
who was excited about beautiful things
and wanted to share that excitement.

And his involvement
in the modern history of Iran
is also fascinating,
as he helped to establish
the legitimacy of the Pahlavi dynasty,
back when that was a good idea
(1925 - when Reza Pahlavi began to build
a strong national government)
and a bad one
(1953 - when the American C.I.A. engineered a coup
to topple representative government)


And here are some quotes
culled from
"Surveyors of Persian Art"
a documentary biography
compiled by Jay Gluck and Noel Silver:

“Beauty has been dethroned and ugliness enthroned by the cubists, Impressionists, and futurists” – chair of aesthetics, University of California, 1915

“It seemed to me in general that decorative taste in the western world, particularly in America, was shallow and perfunctory. That some of the movements of modernistic art were expressions of frustrations, a kind of artistic desperation, a want of understanding and feeling for the deeper realities of the artistic experience. Much of contemporary ornament was just the old Greek and Renaissance formulae played to stale and unprofitable iteration which invited random efforts to escape through the dubious and crooked paths of novelty and and private affirmation” (1929)

“What American art in particular needed was fresh discoveries, a new grip on essential principles of ornament and design, and a disciplined awareness of its internal logic. It needed new theories and skill in developing the infinite resources of color and color combination in which the Persians were such masters”

“..and I felt that the people who produced those (historic Persian carpets) had a deep and genuine feeling for art - sensitive, ardent, lucid, inventive, combining emotion with form and discipline, proof of real superiority of mind and spirit

“there is such a thing as fine art in the world; that some object, by virtue of its color, form, or treatment, could suddenly spring out of the world of fact and into the world of imagination, into poetry, and into a higher kind of reality… that was what I was trying to say – that the Persians had explored through their art the eternal and perfect world, the ideal realities of Plato and of all the great philosophers and artists and that they had done it in supremely beautiful way”

“in the finest Persian carpets, for example, there are often 5 or six kinds of patterns, each on a different scale or with a different rate of suggested movement and different kinds of emphasis. The subordination and organization of these.. and the synchronizing of them so that they all terminated in the same place seemed to the Turks to involve intolerable mental effort, although to the Persians they were but delightful exercises”

“the decorative artist is one who knows how to conceive and execute living, expressive lines, a line that is so filled with energy and spirit that we ourselves are caught up in the movement and share a little of its grace and liveliness… the whole range of common emotions can be awakened by a master of line”

Standards for judging Persian art:

*The first requirement is energy or vitality of line or pattern, the force of the contour which seizes hold upon our attention, the depth, purity, contrast and distribution of colors

*Lucidity is quite as important – for confusion always means weakness. We must be able to tell what part each element is playing – the background from the foreground – main structure of the design should always stand forth boldly – hashed up patterns, mushy indeterminate colors which unfortunately have been so much encouraged from America, mark the degeneration and ruination of decorative art.

*a third principle which must be rigidly observed is appropriateness. – design must be in keeping with the character of the material and the patterns so far as they mean anything must be logical and natural.” – “columns that terminate in coffee urns or vases” (Turkish degenerate period)- or “Chinese porcelain from the 14th c. on are perhaps a little too hard, firm, and finished. They are more substantial than the material would warrant, as if they had been made out of metal or carved out of stone”- and “rug weaving, which is primarily art designed for floor covering.. should be of only two dimensions – arouse in us no sense of impropriety when trodden upon”—“thick mushy leaves, large bulbous blossoms are inappropriate”

“Theoretical soundness precedes practical success, and as long as so many workers and buyers alike..consider that art is measured by the skill and labor and finesse of the work rather than by the fundamental qualities of color and design, just so long will craftsmen be laboring at painful trifles.. to substitute skill and labor for taste and sincere feeling is to enfeeble art at its source

Regarding his career as a purchasing agent:

“In the last four years (1932) I have purchased more than $750,000 worth of Persian things, more than all the American museums put together and probably more than the European museums added in”

“4/5 of the finds in Persia are brought to my attention first “ (1932)
“I have contacts with 80% of the sources of Persian art in Persia,, which gives me a price that is 20% lower than can be quoted to anyone else. Anyone else is free to negotiate to his heart’s content. When he is finished, I will get the stuff and 1/5 less”


So this is a fellow
who seems to be admirable
on so many counts.

Except that....
what exactly is his legacy ?

His monumental "Survey of Persian Art"
may still be respected in the field,
but is it full of beautiful pictures?
And is its text anything
more than taxonomy?

And even though it purports
to go all the way from
"Pre-historic times to the present",
not a single living artist
is mentioned.

Concerning his 10,000 photographs,
the 658 pages of his
documentary biography
does not display a single one.
Were they all destroyed?

His Asia Institute
collapsed as soon as
he stopped running it,
probably because it was no different
than the archeology departments
of any university,
i.e. it pursued conventional scholarship
rather than the kind of aesthetics
that he was practicing.

Perhaps a number of beautiful Persian things
were introduced into the collections
of American museums,
but not Chicago's Art Institute
for which he served as
"Advisory Curator of Muhammadan Art"
from 1924 until 1934.

The A.I.C now has a special exhibit
of pieces associated with him,
and it's pathetic --
i.e. its all the kind of ordinary stuff
that belongs in a museum of natural history.

Worse than that,
at the Vth congress of Persian studies,
he voted against a resolution that:
“views with grave concern the growth of
clandestine and illegal traffic in antiquities”

And, of course,
America is still paying
for its short-sighted alliance
with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

So, in the end
the legacy of
Arthur Upham Pope
seems to be nothing more
than the story
of his colorful life,
and the surviving decor
of the
Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.