An Aberration in the Islamicate Pictorial Tradition

Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020) ca. 1330–40 Iran, probably Isfahan Ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper A manuscript illustration reflecting the traditional, highly formalised, Islamic style.
Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020) ca. 1330–40 Iran, probably Isfahan Ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper A manuscript illustration reflecting the traditional, highly formalised, Islamic style.
Muhammad Siyah Qalam? 15th century? Central Asia? Black, red, blue ink on paper A representative example of Muhammad Siyah Qalam illustrations
Muhammad Siyah Qalam 15th century Central Asia Black, red, blue ink on paper Topkapi Salayi Library A representative example of Muhammad Siyah Qalam illustrations

The paintings associated with Muhammad Siyah Qalam constitute, in their originality and strange subject matter, a striking aberration in the Islamic pictorial tradition. Unlike the book illustrations most immediately associated with Islamicate painting, with their highly formalized, almost didactic imagery, these expressive and imaginative compositions eschew convention. Dating to approximately the 15th century, these paintings depict nomadic people and demons in a style that incorporates elements of Persian, Indian, and Chinese artistic traditions.[1] Sixty-five works originally collected in two albums, the Ya’qub beg Album and the Fatih Album, at the Topkapi Palace in Turkey, bear signatures attributing the works to Muhammad Siyah Qalam.[2] Most scholars have not questioned these identifications, which were most certainly added after the paintings were made, and debates regarding these works have largely centered on their provenance and function. However, close analysis indicates that a different artist or even multiple artists made some of these illustrations. While all the illustrations demonstrate similar themes and styles, divergent works can be identified by the different materials and techniques used to make them, indicating that they were executed by other artists working in a style inspired by the main group of Muhammad Siyah Qalam illustrations.[3]

[1] Hamza Gundogdu, “A Comparative Study on the Qalandar Dervishes in Siyah Qalem’s Paintings with Other Painters’ Pictures and Written Texts,” The Journal of International Social Research 6, no. 25 (n.d.).

[2] Basil W. Robinson, “The Turkman School to 1503,” in The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries (Boulder, Paris, Shambhala, UNESCO: Random House, 1979).

[3] Filiz Cagman, Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600 (London: Royal Academy Books, 2005).

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