While in Iran in the spring of 1938, Doris Duke (1912–93) and her husband James Cromwell charged the Iranian dealer Ayoub Rabenou with supervising the creation of custom-made tilework for the walls at Shangri La. To create this revetment, Rabenou turned to a workshop based in Isfahan. Over an approximately two-year period, this workshop produced tilework for the following three spaces: the central courtyard (spandrels, borders, four window grills, two large panels for the northern and southern façades); the Playhouse (interior spandrels for the bedrooms and exterior paneling for the main façade); and the living room portico (spandrels and a window surround for the exterior façade).
The DDFIA’s mosaic and underglaze tilework is exceptional in several regards. First, it is the only known substantial corpus of its kind in the U.S. commissioned in Iran in the early twentieth-century. Second, thanks to a rich archive preserved at Shangri La and at Duke University, details of its production—including where, why, when, by whom, and for whom it was made—are well documented. From notations written by Rabenou on the reverse of several photographs taken of the commission in progress in March of 1939, it is known that the workshop was led by one Ustad Muhammad, “the maker of tiles” (le grand fabriquant des tiles), the shorter individual to Rabenou’s right in the 1939 portrait of the workshop (photo above). A second unnamed master (le grand maître spécialiste de mosaique faience), to Rabenou’s left, was in charge of the mosaic process (arranging the monochrome-glazed fragments into the complete design). It is likely that these master artisans, and perhaps this same workshop, participated in the restoration of tilework on major Safavid Isfahani monuments (Masjid-i Shah, Masjid-i Shaykh Lutfallah, Madrasa Chahar Bagh) during the 1920s and 1930s (Overton 2012). The surfaces of all of these monuments had been restored just prior to the Cromwells’ 1938 visit, and it is therefore not surprising that these buildings served as the primary inspiration for the Shangri La commissions.
During their 1938 trip in Iran, James Cromwell extensively documented the façade of the Masjid-i Shah (Shah Mosque, 1612–c. 1630). The large panels flanking the mosque’s entrance, as well as smaller examples from the muqarnas section above, served as the design prototypes for the majority of the Shangri La commissions. The large courtyard panel (48.93), for example, is a close replica of the panel on the right of the mosque’s entrance. Smaller panels from the muqarnas section were creatively reconstituted to form a stepped panel (48.407) that was originally intended for the north façade of the central courtyard but is now on view in the dining room. Panels from the muqarnas zone also inspired those on the façade of the Playhouse (48.458.2). Cromwell’s documentary efforts were informed by Arthur Upham Pope, who had planned the couple’s 1938 tour. Pope in turn drew upon the insights of a technical assistant in his American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology, Stephen H. Nyman. Nyman had worked with Pope and Mary Crane (a graduate student at New York University who from 1938 until the mid-1940s advised Duke on Persian art) on several architectural expeditions during the 1930s. The documentation that he gathered in Iran from c. 1930 to 1970, much of which is preserved at Harvard University, remains a valuable resource for the field (Overton forthcoming).
Although the exact location of the Isfahan workshop remains to be clarified, we can glean further information about it from the 1939 Rabenou photographs, as well as from film footage taken by Nyman that same year. The latter was included in a movie entitled The Art of Persia, which was directed, photographed and narrated by Nyman in close conjunction with Pope and focuses on the arts of mosaic tilework and manuscript illustration, among others (Overton 2012). A portion of this film captures Shangri La’s large courtyard mosaic being made in a small room. Two individuals assemble the tile fragments upside down, and Nyman, the narrator, relates how pieces of cardboard were inserted into the panel to divide it into smaller sections for ease of shipment; bits of rope were also included in the plaster to add strength. From fragments of the living room portico commission preserved in storage at Shangri La (48.472a–c), which contain pieces of the rope mentioned by Nyman in his film, we can further appreciate the technique in question.
Considered together, the 1938 Shangri La tile commissions and the rich assortment of archival evidence surrounding them illuminate an understudied period of Iranian tilework production. Research into Pahlavi ceramic arts is becoming increasingly relevant, for it can be linked to medieval and early modern production. In particular, the “biographies” of Seljuk mina’i (48.338) and lusterware (48.148), as well as later architectural features (mihrabs), are often marked by interventions during the Pahlavi period. A case in point is the renowned Madrasa Imami mosaic mihrab dated 744/1354–54, whose lower half was restored by skillful potters during the 1920s (Carboni and Masuya, 1993). In the DDFIA collection, two smaller mosaic niches (48.42 and 48.422) were likely made during the early-to-mid-twentieth century but then marketed as late medieval and early modern. DDFIA 48.422 was one of four similarly-sized mihrabs preserved in the Kevorkian Foundation in the 1960s and was purchased by Duke in 1975 as Timurid/early Safavid. The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin had earlier purchased one of the four as sixteenth century, but thermoluminescence (TL) testing conducted in 1991 yielded a date of 1930–40. The piece is now on long-term loan to the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, where it is displayed in the new “Muslims’ Worlds” installation, thereby raising questions about what constitutes “fine art” and “ethnographic artifact” in the field of Islamic art history (Overton 2012). It seems likely that the Berlin and Honolulu mihrabs were products of a mosaic revival during the early Pahlavi period, during which time notable Safavid monuments were restored and the commissions for Shangri La were created. Although far from the finest examples of Persian tile mosaic, they remain important physical evidence of twentieth-century revivalism, cultural heritage preservation, collecting, marketing, and patronage. The DDFIA’s two niches—considered in tandem with the 1938 tilework commissions and several “pastiche” examples of mina’i and lusterware—position the collection as a valuable resource for future examinations of the Pahlavi period.
Ayoub Rabenou and the Isfahani workshop responsible for the Shangri La tile commissions, March 20, 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Rabenou's notes identifying the masters in the Isfahani tile workshop, verso of a photograph dated March 1939. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Muqarnas section of the Masjid-i Shah, Isfahan, Iran, photographed by James Cromwell in 1938. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (Overton), “Tilework: Pahlavi Iran,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012, www.shangrilahawaii.org.
Stefano Carboni and Tomoko Masuya, Persian Tiles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993).
Keelan Overton, “From Pahlavi Isfahan to Pacific Shangri La: Reviving, Restoring and Reinventing Safavid Aesthetics, ca. 1920–40,” West 86th :A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 2012), 61–87.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Commissions and Recreations, 1935–1938: Iran,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.
“Mihrab (Prayer Niche),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011.
Keelan Overton, “Documenting Art and Architecture in ‘The New Iran’: The Legacy of Stephen H. Nyman, c. 1930–70,” Arthur Upham Pope and A New Survey of Persian Art, ed. Yuka Kadoi, (forthcoming).
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