The Brush of the Masters: Drawings from Iran and India" at the Freer Gallery of Art is a show that should be seen in some sweetly scented garden. There should be silken cushions there, and sloe-eyed maids and blossoms. The viewer would recline there, surrounded by the music of the songbirds and the streams, studying these drawings in a reverie of ease.
Most of them are tiny; a number of the finest are no larger than your hand. Though made by courtly painters in an age of war and pillage, these drawings never frighten. The demons in them charm, so do the huntsmen and the dragons. These are pictures made for pleasure, for leisured delectation. They should not be read in haste. instead the eye should graze on their calligraphic rhythms and their golden decorations until consciousness begins to slide off into dream.
It is often though, mistakenly, that the artists of the old Near East were forbidden by the Koran to paint the human figure. These drawings, though Islamic, are secular, not sacred, and they are filled with people, with sultans, shahs and lovers, dervishes and drunkards, camel drivers, nomads, craftsmen, winged angels. The small worlds they inhabit are everywhere enhanced by trees and flowering plants.
Though the Freer is widely known for its Oriental holdings, its collections of Near Eastern art are comparably rich. All 82 drawings on display are from the Gallery's collection. So subtle are their dancing curves and intertwining rythms that Western works of art, beside them, would seem linear, sign-simple, excessively direct.
The exhibition opens with a set of illustrated album leaves from a book called the "Divan" of Sultan Ahmed Jalair. Though the sultan died in battle in 1410, his volume's Persian poems, and the pictures that surround them, suggest a tradition far more ancient.
The poems describe a mystic journey - from the Valley of the Quest, onwards to the Valley of Understanding and Astonishment - and the drawings, too, show a world in flux.
For millennia, it had been inhabited by nomads: We see their flocks and horses, campfires and tents. The edless movement of their lives is apparent in their pictures. The viewer's eye, throughout this show, is not allowed to settle down. Following the curving lines brushed in by the artist, it moves from cloud to tree, from horse's flank to angel's wing, and back to tree again.
The artists in the courts of both Iran and India were masterful calligraphers. When they wrote texts with their reed pens, or painted pictures with their brushes, the lines that they put down were in rhythm much the same.
The Mughal art of India owes much to Iran. Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, was born in Turkestan (he was related both to Tamerlane and to Genghis Khan), and Humayun, his son, the second Mughal emperor, who ruled from 1530 to 1556, spent 10 years in exile at the shah's court in Iran. When he returned to Delhi, after conquering his foes, he brought Iranian painters with him. By 1563, his son Akbar, the third emperor, had more than 100 painters working at his court.
(Akbar, by the way, urged his subjects to accept a new and liberal religion based upon a blending of the Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Jain and Zoroastrian faiths. The Virgin and the Christ child appear in more than one of the Indian drawings here displayed.)
Of the pictures in the show, none is more beautiful than the "Animal Kingdom," an early 17th-century work of the Mughal school. Despite its tiny size - it is 9 inches high and only half that wide - it shows more than 100 fishes, birds and beasts - salmon, cobras, turtles, horses, camels, cheetahs, smiling elephants and lions, as well as a dragon and a phoenix, too. This exquisite work deserves long hours of contemplation, as do many of the other drawings in the show.
The exhibit was organized by Dr. Esin Atil, the Freer's curator of Near Eastern art, who also wrote the catalogue, which is one of the handsomest published by the Freer. "The Brush of the Masters: Drawings from Iran and India" will remain on view through April 23, 1979.