In Central and South Asia, like in some other regions, the tradition of self-portraiture is either very weak or non-existence. In such a situation, how do painters show their presence in their paintings? In The Making of the Artist in Late Timurid Painting, Lamia Balafrej studies the late Timurid manuscript painting (CA. 1470-1500). While this book considers a wide range of visual and textual materials, from calligraphy to metalwork to poetry, it is focused on the close, micro-historical analysis of the Cairo Bustan, a manuscript copy of the Bustan (The Orchard) of Saadi made around 1488 in Herat (now in Afghanistan) for the late Timurid Sultan Husayn Bayqara and now kept in the National Library of Cairo. The Cairo Bustan is one of the most important manuscripts in the history of Persian book arts. The late Timurid painters used different ways to turn manuscript painting from an illustrative device to a self-reflective object in order to highlight the painter’s imagination and art. Lamia Balafrej says that the paintings can function as the painter’s delegate by centering and defining artistic work even if they do not represent the painter’s likeness.
Lamia Balafrej says that studies of Persian manuscript paintings are often concerned with their illustrative function — how the paintings visually translate the texts they accompany — as well as the role that court-sponsored manuscripts played in reflecting the royal authority. By contrast, Lamia Balafrej argues that the late Timurid painting also served as a medium for artistic performance and self-representation, linking painting to painter and raising questions about authorship, medium, and representation. By juxtaposing the images with contemporary sources that illuminate the setting and the terms for their reception, Lamia Balafrej shows that paintings could function as the painter’s delegate, charged with the task of centering and defining the artistic work. The visual richness and linear exactitude, for example, were designed to highlight the artists’ ‘powerful minds and precision of execution’ in the words of the Timurid historian Ghiyath al-Din Khwandamir (c. 1475 –1534). Instead of connecting painting to a patron, or seeing through the image into a pre-existing, external text, the late Timurid beholder was invited to observe pictures as invented worlds and manual fabrications.
Lamia Balafrej argues that the late Timurid painting was not simply the passive residue of past artistic performance. Rather, it actively shaped its reception as a trace of the artist’s work. The profusion of details and excessive attention to form functioned to produce this effect of self-reflection, focusing the viewer’s attention on the painter’s imagination and craftsmanship. Such pictures also participated in a theory of authorship, one that emphasized the artist’s creative power and manual dexterity. Lamia Balafrej says that such a study requires a double shift in the modern understanding of self-reflection. First, it implies that self-reflection did not necessarily manifest itself through iconic means. Bihzad who signed the paintings did not use self-portraiture nor did he represent images within images. He did not use indexical modes of self-representation either. The painter left no personal traces of manual labor. Instead of using his likeness, or allowing his paintings to display individualized marks, the artist engaged with authorship in aspects of color, line, and composition. In doing so, he explored the symbolic potentialities of the picture’s material and visual configurations – the idea that visual density points to a maker’s powerful mind, to use Khwandamir’s expression. Lamia Balafrej says that self-reflection did not necessarily proclaim late Timurid painting’s autonomy from social and political considerations. It was neither simply a tool of self-reference pointing back, at an artist, nor a purely self-contained phenomenon, turning the medium onto itself. Rather, self-reflections invested painting with the social and political agency, moving the painter from marginality to centrality.
The Making of the Artist in Late Timurid Painting is a ground-breaking study that provides new perspectives on the art of Behzad from the 14th to the 16th century in Iran/Afghanistan. The Bustan paintings were admired but not fully understood before. The Making of the Artist in Late Timurid Painting will help scholars re-appraise the Persian miniature painting. Lamia Balafrej shows how Timurid painting traditions both highlight and obscure painter’s individuality at the same time. It is an unmatched work of scholarship that enhances our understanding of Asian painting traditions. It offers an original and meticulous investigation of the Bustan paintings. This is a treasure trove for the students and scholars of Islamic and Iranian painting.