Art review: Blake Gopnik on 'Falnama: The Book of Omens' at the Sackler Gallery

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Now the NEA has to give more money to art. Not only do fine pictures civilize us and bring us solace, but it turns out they can predict the future and point us to good investments -- and away from dangerous little men with squints.

That, at least, would have been the view of Persian shahs and Ottoman sultans and viziers, circa 1600. You could say they were their cultures' own NEA, funding the deluxe books of fortunetelling pictures known as Falnamas. Pages from three of the four volumes that survive are now on display in a fabulous show called "Falnama: The Book of Omens" that opened Saturday at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery. (The fourth, more fragile Falnama stayed at home in a university library in Dresden.)

Thanks to Sackler curator Massumeh Farhad and co-curator Serpil Bagci, a professor in Ankara, these books have been brought together for the first time, in the first survey of the Falnama genre.

The idea behind these picture books was simple: You opened them to a random painting, then looked to the text on the facing page to see what the image revealed about the fate of whatever project you had in mind -- maybe you wanted to find out if marriage was a good idea, or if a business venture was timely. If you opened to "Imam Riza Saves the Sea People" -- one of the more obscure Islamic legends illustrated in these books, alongside their more standard images from the Bible, the Koran and the zodiac -- you would discover that things augur well for ocean voyages, especially if you give alms and say prayers. Open the book to a brilliant image of the sun, and the future looks bright -- so long as you avoid that "sallow-faced, short man with a defect on his head or eye." But if you open to a scene of the Apocalypse, shown to Muslims for the first time in these Falnama illustrations, you'd best postpone all projects and stay home and be devout.

There's nothing all that unusual about the acts of divination the Falnama is in aid of. The bibliomancy of the Falnama is part of an almost universal fortunetelling habit, which in the Islamic world also included horoscope-casting and reading the future from verses of the Koran.

With the Falnama, fortunetelling may even have been a communal pastime. The pictures in the Sackler show are so big and bold, compared with the so-called "Persian miniatures" that came before them, that it's easier to imagine several people viewing them at once than a single person taking private pleasure in them. Farhad believes the Falnama paintings were so splashily successful that they became the source for later illustrations in the Islamic world that weren't used for augury.

That points to the one thing that makes the Falnama stand out from other divination tools: For some reason, the finest of fine art helped it do its job. That's a stranger fact than it may seem. After all, stick figures or crude sketches could have carried the same content as the glorious paintings now on show at the Sackler, and sent the same messages about future events. There's something about art that seems to lend power to the content it reveals.

Maybe that's partly because it reveals that content more completely and convincingly. It's one thing to know that the Persian poet Sa'di traveled through China disguised as a monk, and so got to reveal the earthly machinery behind a miraculously animated idol. It's another when the great Turkish painter Naksi Bey shows him to us dolled up in a glorious red robe with gold embroidery, Chinese-style. (He got his inspiration from an actual Chinese painting still preserved in Istanbul.)

Or maybe the fine art is there because anything worth doing is worth doing well. If we care about our bibliomancy, that is, we ought to care about every detail that goes into it, including the brilliance of the watercolor pigments in our images and the quantity of gold they get embellished with. The art needs to be good simply to allow for good augury. Through a kind of process of contagion, one good thing begets another, so that a brilliantly painted image of Hippocrates, the Greek thinker at the roots of Western and Islamic medicine, will also guarantee a successfully predicted future. This is more or less the standard view in today's art history: That art serves other, more important social functions.

But there's one other possibility: That the function serves the art. It could be that making stunning pictures of interesting things -- of our gods and favorite people and myths and legends -- is as important to us as anything else we do, even though we can't say why. So we come up with elaborate functional trappings for our love of pictures, to help it make sense. If we're Ottoman sultans, we tell ourselves that the huge pictorial anthologies we love so much aren't just pointless piles of images -- we peer at them because we have to, to know what's best to do.

One of the most notable things about many cultures, Islam included, is their discomfort with the strange power images have over us. This led some Muslim cultures to ban all picturemaking, but even the Persians and Turks who loved their art still worried about it. Several pictures in the Falnama warn against idolatry: That was the point of the Sa'di page with its false mechanical idol, which was the first sheet in its volume. A page from a different volume portrays a scene it labels the Azure Monastery. We're not quite sure what the subject is, but it includes a bunch of Christians paying too much heed to their religious art.

The best pages of the Falnama revel in the joys of imagery and decoration. They even revel in its excesses, making sure that every inch of every narrative has incident packed into it and that even margins are filled with stunning tracery. It's almost as though, by going overboard in their love of pictures, these books want to tempt fate, and so make it reveal itself.

Falnama: The Book of Omens Through Jan. 24 at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, on the south side of the Mall at 10th St. SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.asia.si.edu.

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