"Antoin Sevruguin: Photographs of Iran," the half-Persian, half-Parisian show that opens the fall season at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is a minor minor exhibition about a minor artist. But its pictures are exotic, and they do suggest in telling ways the curious confrontations of Occident and Orient in late-19th-century art.
Not much is known about the artist. Antoin Sevruguin -- in Iran they called him Anton Khan -- was an Armenian Christian of Russian descent who ran the most successful photographic studio in Tehran. The oldest of the 27 photographs on view is an image from the 1870s of a youth with a falcon on his wrist. It is believed that Sevruguin died in Tehran in the late 1920s. He served two clienteles.
For tourists from the West he made Orientalist souvenirs of the mysterious East. He shot Zoroastrians in native dress, sloe-eyed Kurdish beauties, hookah-smoking prostitutes and touring lion tamers posing in the studio with a sleepy, scruffy cat. For the wealthiest Iranians who approved of Western ways -- doctors, teachers, lawyers, officials of the court, and even the shahs -- he made formal, deferential portraits of themselves.
The late Reza Pahlavi, who bought de Koonings in Manhattan and linen sheets in Paris, was not the first Iranian ruler to find the West appealing. Consider, for example, Naseroddin Shah, who reigned from 1848 until his assassination in 1896. In 1873, after attending a ballet performance in Moscow, Naseroddin Shah, deciding that the tutus of the dancers were especially attractive, bought the costumes of the corps de ballet for the women of his household, establishing thereby a fashion followed loyally (as pictures here attest) by the ladies of the court.
Naseroddin Shah (who posed for Sevruguin in front of the Sun Throne) was an amateur photographer who gratefully accepted gifts of cameras and film and similar equipment from both the queen of England and the czar of Russia. His successor, Mozaffar od-Din Shah, enjoyed the hobby too. It was at his request that Sevruguin wrote a treatise on photography in 1878.
The tourist shots on view stress Oriental strangenesses and Oriental luxuries. Sevruguin, it seems, often had his most exotic sitters pose on a platform covered with Persian cloths and rugs. For his Iranian clientele, instead, Sevruguin stressed his ties to European chic. A copy of his business card is included in the show: It includes likenesses of medals won at Paris exhibition, small portraits of Louis J.M. Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, the inventors of the medium, and, in French, the phrase "photographie artistique."
The faces here are fine; so are the mustachios -- that of Mozaffar od-Din Shah is at least nine inches long. Viewers interested in textiles will also be much taken by the carpets, turbans and embroideries that appear throughout the show.
The photographs displayed -- there are only 27 -- come from a vast collection in the archive jointly owned by the Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art. The archive owns more than 1,000 Iranian photographs by Sevruguin: 696 glass negatives and 140 vintage silver prints, collected by the late Myron Bement Smith, were given by his widow in 1972. Additional images by Sevruguin have come to the Smithsonian from the collections of Joseph Upton and Jay Bisno. Those on display were chosen by Glenn D. Lowry, the Sackler's curator of Near Eastern art who is about to leave Washington to become director of the Art Gallery of Ontario. "Antoin Sevruguin: Photographs of Iran" will remain on view through May 26.