Over the last few weeks I’ve been going to see the exhibition Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, at the State Library of Victoria, in the centre of Melbourne. It’s a small exhibition, only one room, but even so I’ve been dipping in and out of it: taking five minutes at a time to gaze at a handful of pictures; leaving; coming back the next day or the day after. The exhibition has been open since March, and it will be open for another month yet, so there’s been no need for me to rush myself. Too often in the past my visits to exhibitions have become a blur of glanced-at paintings, barely appreciated art – a marathon run as if it’s a sprint. This time I decided to try a different approach, and it’s been a pleasure to visit and re-visit the artworks in the exhibition, letting them slowly become familiar.
The artworks depict all manner of courtly and aristocratic life, real and imagined, from the Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires of two-hundred to eight-hundred years ago. Nature scenes abound: lovers sing beneath trees, men meet in the wilderness. A group of hunters rests in a moment of idleness. The illustrations are exquisite: greens, blues, and reds are radiant, even all these hundreds of years after their creation; gold leaf sparkles under the dim lights of the gallery. It’s impossible not to be reminded of European illuminated manuscripts: there’s a shared delicacy of feeling, a fragility and tenderness in the depiction of people enraptured by their devotion – to each-other, to their own spirituality, to nobility and honour. Several of the illustrations are heroic: one depicts a Persian hero of legend undergoing a trial by fire to prove his purity. The golden flames writhe and curl around his serene face.
Those same flames reach also for the face of the man’s Horse (Equus ferus caballus). The horse is allowed by the artist an expression of fear, a moment of wide-eyed doubt; yet horse and rider are so intertwined, their lives and bodies so of a piece, that it’s impossible to look at this small illustration and imagine harm coming to one and not to the other. The rider survives the ordeal; his horse must, too.
The exhibition is overflowing with animals, and to wander from picture to picture is to be reminded of the centrality of animals in human lives, then and now: a Turkish book of “the wonders of creation” depicts a collared Dog (Canis lupus familiaris); decorative Tigers (Panthera tigris) and Hares (Lepus) dance around the borders of other illustrations, their colours muted so as not to divert attention but their bodies lithe and lively, rendered with great care and affection.
In one illustration, a woman sings to the animals of the forest, pacifying them. I don’t have the exhibition catalogue; I cannot recall the woman’s name. Yet in my memory I can see the group of small Deer gathered at the woman’s feet, their bodies drawn with infinite affection and exquisite tenderness. The woman in the illustration and her male companion are posed stiffly, formally, despite the ardour of their story; by contrast the Deer are given grace and suppleness: one leans back as if to nibble at an itch on its back; another curls like a cat asleep, its back curved gently above a darting stream.
We cannot help showing what we love. The illustrations in the exhibition are largely depictions of ancient stories and poems, and many of them are accompanied by elegant Arabic calligraphy. The writing means nothing to me but the pictures tell stories of their own: stories of their creators, and the humanity bursting within them. The illustrations are loud with that particular human delight and joy in the world, and in the fact of being able to present to others the world as we see it or as we wish it.
This week the exhibition coincides with Melbourne’s annual Emerging Writers Festival. Across the road from the State Library is a bar, Rue Bebelons, which each night for the eleven days of the Festival is full of writers and readers, creators and thinkers – people – telling stories to each-other. Stories of everything: manuscripts in progress, publishers contacted; TV shows watched, food eaten. Stories of the full glittering mundaneness of human life. People sit down together and the words come spilling out, shouted over the music, loosened by alcohol. People speak eagerly of their passions, and discover within themselves the willingness to hear of the passions of others. Everybody at the Festival is a writer, in one form or another, and it’s as if for this one time of the year we’ve all been invited to step out of our solitary lives and discover or re-discover a community of our peers.
For eleven days the city seems to hum with the sound of conversations between people. Tastes range widely but nobody’s particular passions are disdained. People crowd bars and library rooms and live music venues to hear each-other speak, to ask questions, and to meet each-other, and the boundaries between those who’ve been invited to take part in the Festival and those who purchase tickets form the audience at any given session quickly dissolve.
Encounters happen in other ways, too: on Twitter and through videos and blogs the conversations continue, in their formal and informal ways, in a delirium of excitement and enthusiasm. Our methods and modes of telling stories are ever-changing, and perhaps now more than ever; yet the stories remain the same as they ever were. Life in its many shades is in its essence the same now as it was eight-hundred years ago; the same here, in Australia, as it was then, in Persia, or in any other country in any other time one cares to imagine. The stories, though, have not faded with age: they are as vivid and as vital now as they have been throughout human history.
At the end of the Festival everyone will retreat back to their normal lives, with a network of new connections and new acquaintances, and with a gallery of memories to visit again and again, until next year when the Festival returns. In a year we may find that much has changed; yet we may not be surprised to learn afresh that the most important things, the stories that speak most resonantly of our essential humanity, are still the same, and will always be so; we may be reminded that it’s the commonality of our everyday stories that makes them so bearable, and so precious.
Image sourced and adapted from http://slv.vic.gov.au/