The Qajar dynasty, which rose to prominence in 1789, when Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar took the imperial throne of Persia, deposing the final ruler of the Zand dynasty Lotf Ali Khan, created what can only be described as a Belle Époque. Centuries of refined Persian craftsmanship now began to form into something new, also the Qajar era was when Persian arts and crafts began to be exported across the world.
From 1789 to the fall of the dynasty in 1925, artists were reinvigorated with a new found sense of creativity, more so than in any other era. It was a time when an increased interaction between Persians and Europeans saw an exchange of artistic techniques, which helped to fuel great men like the artistic visionary Mihr ‘Ali and Haji Ab ol Hasan Mimar Navai, who rebuilt much of Golestan Palace in Tehran. An artist who well represented this creative fusion of East and West was Kamal-ol-Molk, whose figurative paintings helped change the course of Persian art.
As technology progressed, the Qajar’s were quick to embrace it, especially when it came to photography. Thanks particularly to the Armenian-Georgian photographer Antoin Sevruguin, who worked under the patronage of Naser al-din Shah. Sevruguin’s photographic tome is a window into this lost world, a world which blended the old with the new, and, in this age of advancement, was fueled by an atavistic desire to put Persia on the cultural map.
Sevruguin’s photography, which he worked on from 1870 to 1930, a few years before his death from a kidney infection, are some of the finest real-time representations of the Qajar epoch. Having made friends with aristocrats and royalty alike, Sevruguin was given unrestricted access to many palaces and stately homes, capturing the elite at their most relaxed. However, it is his photographs of ordinary people, from bakers and bank clerks to pious mystics and street performers, that offer the best glimpse into a society that was transforming rapidly, intermingling old world values that had remained unchanged for centuries with new technology.
It was too an era of diplomacy, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar was the first Shah to make several official state visits to Europe, and thus helped to fuel a growing interest in Persian culture, an interest that would see European artists take inspiration from this kingdom which had long melded differing cultures together. The inspirations often took the form of curious artistic exchanges, advertisers who created quite comical interpretations of Qajar culture and people, like the mustachioed Qajar man in this advert (below) for a brand of French cigarettes, to the more serious and meritorious exchanges, which took the form of paintings, music and literature.
This fostering of reciprocity launched Persia on to the newly industrialised world stage, and to this day, the unique culture of the Qajar’s will hold a special place in the hearts and minds of many. Today, the Qajar’s are still a source of inspiration for artists and designers et al, with their special recipe of distinct Persian aesthetics and regal ostentation.
For Persians, the art of the Qajar’s has a tinge of sadness, as it was during this time Iran ceded much of its territories in the Caucasus and saw the beginnings of foreign interference in its internal affairs. Although the death knell for its imperial power, the Qajar era did mark exciting shift in Persian culture.