The figure in Persian and Indian art: Different perspectives from two new books

Two richly layered new books from Thames & Hudson capture the contrast between the human figure in Persian art and the figure in Indian art.

Persian Painting: The Arts of the Book and Portraiture” by Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani (552 pages, $50, click images above) reproduces in paperback for the first time shimmering illuminated manuscripts, miniature paintings and decorated book bindings from the 11th through early 20th centuries. Illustrations from such works as Firdawsi’s “Shah-nameh” (“The Persian Book of Kings”) and Nizami’s “Khamsah” draw on The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.

The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900” by B.N. Goswamy (570 pages, $50, click images above) covers roughly the same period. How these books cover these periods, however, is vastly different. The figures in “Persian Painting” are placed in the context of calligraphy and abstracted floral designs. They are not highly sexualized. Even the folio of “Iskandar and the Chinese Maiden” – in which Iskandar (Alexander the Great) makes love to a Chinese virgin, part of the romantic legends of the Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire, reinterpreted from the Persian viewpoint – presents their explicit lovemaking at a remove.

Whereas there’s no remove in the va-va-va-voom “The Spirit of Indian Painting.” When a woman swoons in the folio accompanying “The Longings of Love,” she really swoons on a divan – one arm thrown over her head, the other on her gauzily covered breast. The colors – predominantly reds and greens – remind you that Van Gogh said red and green were the colors of passion. And indeed you can’t help but think when you view this work that this is what passion not only looks like but should feel like.

What accounts for the disparity? Perhaps religion, Persia being Muslim by the 11th century and India being primarily Hindu. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion in which you do not image the Deity. And like Judaism, Islam excels in abstracted, decorative painting. Whereas in Hinduism, as in Buddhism and Christianity, there is a long tradition of depicting the divine figure. It’s not surprising then that all three of these religions have a strong figural heritage.