"From the Hand of Mani: Iranian Paintings from the Freer" is a show whose little pictures -- like so much else about Iran -- resist our comprehension.
They were once called "Persian Miniatures," a term that's out of fashion now, though the one that has replaced it seems a bit mundane for objects so exotic.
The 32 on view at the Freer have hallucinatory charm. Perhaps it is the way they flirt with, yet avoid, the measurable recessions of vanishing-point perspective. Perhaps it is their blending of abstraction and depiction. Perhaps it is their writhing rocks, their talking trees, their flowered skies or the eerie way they link the seen to the imagined. Iranian paintings mystify. The Western mind is not yet accustomed to the rhythmic repetitions and constant dissolutions that activate this show.
Examine, for example, "Yusef entertained during his marriage to Zulaikha," a page from the "Haft Awrang" (or "Seven Thrones") of Jami, the mid-16th-century volume that is this little show's chief glory. Opening that book is like entering a world brighter than our own. The single sheet displayed, though but nine inches wide, is so richly colored that one feels its glow from across the room.
A feast has been prepared. Yusef, the demure bridegroom, kneels with clasped hands at the center of the painting. Flames of gleaming gold -- a halo of a sort -- leap up from his shoulders. Yusef is not alone. Twenty-two other figures have gathered for the party. Some are young, some old, some are plump, some slender, some are servants, some are nobles, some are bearded, some clean-shaven, and yet they echo one another. Their turbans and their rounded knees, and especially their little stylized slippered feet, all look pretty much alike.
Here, as elsewhere in this show, the viewer is not sure whether he is seeing flat, repeated patterns or a scene from life. Those meticulously painted tiles, tent flaps and silk rugs -- are they to be read as two-dimensional decorations or as the furnishings of a palace? The tiled walls and arches indicate a room, though the trees and rocks at upper left suggest the out-of-doors. So do the floating blossoms of the flower-scented air. Are we inside or outside? It is impossible to tell.
The frame around the image is equally ambiguous. At the right side it is knife-sharp and uncrossable -- though the figures in the foreground, if foreground is the word, step over it at will. At the left and at the top, the edge becomes the castle roof, or else dissolves completely. This picture wafts us gently in and out of rooms and geometries and real life, and in and out of time.
Rivers become trees, patterns become walls, and inanimate objects spring to life throughout this exhibition.
The Mani of its title, born in A.D. 215, was the Babylonian prophet, "the ambassador of light," Manicheism's founder, whose revealed religion spread to India, China and Rome. Manicheism teaches that our world is a battleground where evil and darkness war with the good that is the light. The Mani of legend was a master painter. None of his pictures has managed to survive but he has served as a kind of muse for the artists of Iran.
He is a nicely dreamy figure for this dreamy exhibition. Occasionally its paintings portray the real world -- one, from the "divan" (or "poetry book") of Sultan Ahmed Jalair, circa 1400, shows the tethered goats, the dogs and yurts and campfires of a nomads' camp. But most have another purpose. They seem determined to evoke a wandering state of mind.
These artists most enjoyed depicting delights and wonders. One 15th-century page, which illustrates the romance of "Khosrau and Shirin," shows a beauteous young woman bathing in a pond beside her gathered clothes and her pinkish pointed shoes. She is combing her long hair. We see, though she does not, that she is being carefully observed by a young man who thoughtfully strokes his chin. In a sheet from the Demotte "Shahnama" (or "King's Book of Kings"), Iskander (Alexander the Great) is informed of his fate by a talking tree -- from whose branches grow the babbling heads of foxes, rabbits, goats, human beings and birds. A page displayed nearby shows Elias and Khidr dining on dried fish beside a small round pond: The dried fish have begun to swim, by which the travelers discover they've found the fountain of life.
The Freer's Iranian collection, though not huge, is choice. It owns not only single sheets, but whole books as well. A number of these pictures have been seen before, but Glenn Lowry, the museum's new curator of Near Eastern art, was right to show them once again. His show closes April 28.