NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

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Neshan 29

Editorial Column

An Introduction to Iranian Book Ornamentation

Aydin Aghdashloo

Book ornamentation, along with its affiliated arts, have been some of the most significant and elaborate arts of Iranians for more than a thousand years—beginning from the tenth century and onwards. Even prior to that date, as witnessed by a number of ancient texts, illustrated books had survived from the Sassanid era well into the early Islamic centuries.

In fact, original Iranian paintings should be sought in illustrated manuscripts which were ordered extensively and in large numbers from the 15th century onwards. During which time, Iranian miniature thrived inside these invaluable copies, where it had found its home. From the 15th century through to the 18th century, the most sublime examples of Iranian miniatures, in their utmost beauty and creativity, were brought forth and presented to society. The art of book ornamentation was the outcome of the collective effort of a team of artists, comprised of calligraphers, miniaturists, gilders, cover makers, bookbinders and many others who worked under the patronage of organizations or art-loving individuals. They usually gathered in various well-known libraries throughout the different territories of Iran—particularly in the capital cities (which changed in different historical periods), that became art centres of the time. These artists worked under the management and supervision of the chief librarian who was usually a respected and reputed artist himself.

This brilliant tradition that thrived within the art-loving Iranian culture, and did not stop even in periods of political unrest and cultural upheavals, became a lasting heritage for manifestation of grand Iranian quality. A quality that presented a novel shape, full of sublime meanings in each historical turn. Until two centuries ago, this tradition continued to present fantastic innovations and yield consistent creativities. It rightfully established Iranian miniature as the reference model and the origin of visual arts throughout the Islamic world—from India to the westernmost parts of the Ottoman empire. 

This high position, however, gradually faded away during the past two hundred years. Traditional book ornamentation became obsolete after the introduction of print into the industry, and the practice was replaced by litho-print in its new form: a medium that had spread throughout Europe from the beginning of the 16th century, giving rise to “graphic” art in its modern sense.

Since the early 20th century and after the full prevalence of print in Iran, a wandering generation of graphic designers and book designers began to work. These artists who were cut off from their roots and a unique thousand-year-old traditional art of book ornamentation, were not fully aware of what was happening in the contemporary world either. This period of stagnancy and bewilderment lasted until the mid-20th century. While a number of avant-garde artists created some new experiences, the speed of the global movement in graphic design was so swift that the distance continued to grow and Iranian graphic artists lagged behind the global trends more so than before.

Contemporary Iranian graphic design remembered its forgotten commitment as of the 1960s and undertook to reform its identity—an identity formed by a combination of the past and the present, tradition and modernity. Given the past experiences of Iranian artists in the ability to coordinate and unite versatile cultures in historical junctions during a thousand years of art, this has not been a very difficult task. Seeking this identity, which is a collage of colourful and varied patches, is the main battlefield of our contemporary graphic artists. It is their ground to challenge the issues they face and to find proper solutions in each step; solutions that have endured the test of time. They should know that void superficial ornamentations will not help them. A glance at the interactions of our contemporary graphic artists with the issue of contemporary “identity” and the “traditional background” does not yield a very brilliant record and, set aside a few successful examples, their work is mainly an arbitrary selection of a deeply-unknown past that does not open a way into the ancient concepts. 

Neshan magazine may help tread this difficult route ahead; a route that due to numerous obstacles, diverts into multiple misleading pathways and when it does not divert, seekers leave it un-trodden half-way. This journal may be able to remind us of that delicate yet forgotten model which compiled some of the world’s most beautiful and precious books. A model that was an outcome of the collective endeavours of artists who worked under the supervision of great art directors, such as Kamaleddin Behzad. They strived to connect their world to the past and the future generations through their hard work and uniquely wild imaginations; thereby contributing to the elegance and beauty of the world.

Aydin Aghdashloo

born in 1940 is an Iranian painter, graphic designer, author, movie critic and one of the known artists of Iranian modern and contemporary art. His art works are known for showing the thought of gradual death and doom and also recreating remarkable classic works in a modern and surrral form. His two series “Termination Memories” and “Years of Fire and Snow” are considered part of the most important series of modern Iranian art. As of 2015, Aghdashloo has written six books. A close number of books have also been published about his works. His works have been printed in some books including “The Single-Faced” and the other one is a large book with a preface by Dariush Sheyagan who has had the painter's works from the beginning to 1994 printed; however after that year, no other independent book was printed about his works.


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