The Master is asked what distinguishes a great miniaturist from an ordinary one. He replies that in order to determine how ‘genuine’ a young painter is, he would ask 3 questions.
“Has he come to believe, under the sway of recent custom as well as the influence of the Chinese and the European Franks, that he ought to have an individual painting technique, his own style? As an illustrator, does he want to have a manner, an aspect distinct from others, and does he attempt to prove this by signing his name somewhere in his work like the Frankish masters? To determine precisely these things, I’d first ask him a question about ’style’ and ‘signature’.”
“Then, I’d want to learn how this illustrator felt about volumes changing hands, being unbound, and our pictures being used in other books and in other eras after the shahs and sultans who’d commissioned them have died. This is a subtle issue demanding a response beyond one’s being simply upset or pleased by it. Thus, I’d ask the illustrator a question about ‘time’ - an illustrator’s time and Allah’s time.”
“The third would be blindness!…Blindness is silence. If you combine what I’ve just now said, the first and the second questions, ‘blindness’ will emerge. It’s the farthest one can go in illustrating; it is seeing what appears out of Allah’s own blackness.”
It might be a useful exercise if we miniature painters ask ourselves the same questions. It is instructive as well to imagine the historical context of miniature painting (as described above) - yet also to remember that we are not living in that context anymore.
So, here are my answers, and I’d love to hear yours:
We are not living in that context anymore and don’t operate as teams in painting workshops (although interesting artistic collaborations still go on). For the most part, we are part of the wider art world and therefore art market, in whichever shape or form you choose to locate yourself there (even if it’s outside, you’re still positioning yourself outside of something). So we are bound by the conventions of our time and this involves signing our words on the back, selling them, making prints of them to sell, and yes, perhaps evolving and then having an individual “style”.
This is a question about legacy. It is related to the above, because only the best works survive the test of time. Books being cut up and rebound is not a new thing. For example, my favourite Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp is also known as the Houghton Shahnameh, after Arthur Houghton, who cut it up. Shah Tahmasp commissioned it. But the painters who painted it are largely unknown by the wider non-specialist public. I’ll make (yet again!) a connection with Chinese painting (not new - miniaturists did, too, in many ways): Chinese painting is famous for having loads of red seals stamped on the painting itself in ‘the sky’ or in the empty spaces around the image. These seals are works of art in themselves and are the seals of all the folk who owned the painting, ‘looked after’ the painting, and thus the seals reveal the provenance and the passing of time and the artwork being handed down through the generations/through the bazaar of ownership/stewardship and the more seals it has, the more prestigious the work. Testament to the timelessness of the work too and its lasting quality - its legacy. That is the ‘illustrator’s’ time, as it’s related to Q1. (Here is Allah’s time.)
This I have no answer for as yet! I’m still thinking. Initial thoughts: maybe it’s removing yourself so far from the idea of artist-as-creator that your hand becomes the conduit of God and you paint what God has created, exactly, as it is meant to be seen, not how you see it. So maybe this is about removing all elements of individual style completely, and just painting the true essence of a thing. I don’t know - invite your thoughts on this.
In the Context section of the Forum I’ve pulled out ideas that have arisen for me from this book (Style, Perspective etc) and in those I’ve gone further in my thinking and invite yours. In this section I’m trying to stick more rigidly to the book. I am open to more and perhaps you have ideas for categories.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!