My name is Red
The sultan has commissioned several of the most acclaimed artists of his Kingdom to create a book celebrating the glories of his realm. With the
influence of the European Renaissance reaching beyond it's borders, artists of the East have taken note of how their counterparts in the West are immortalizing not only their monarchs but even people of higher standing. This influence of Infidel art, creates major problems for a society that is steeped in tradition. The very idea of distinguishing the sitter, or depicting merchants or even women within a landscape that diminishes (vanishing points) is an affront to Islam.
The sultan himself, not being immune to these new way of depiction, gives his miniaturists the task to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous venture. When one of the chosen miniaturists disappears, a complex tale of "whose done it" unravels.
Each chapter of My name is Red is written in the voice of the person presented, for example Chapter one, "I Am A Corpse", starts with the victim setting the stage for
the circumstances that led to his demise. The reader is told the story by a multitude of characters and the plot develops by the revelation of stories within stories. It is reminiscent of those Russian nesting dolls. As you take one away, you find another one, etc. The narrative reminds me of those Persian story tellers
that would set up a painted backdrop and start telling their stories, imitating the voices of their characters and changing the scenery as they went along.
This book is full of stories about Persian Literature, the Chinese influences brought by the Mongols and the lifes of the miniaturists themselves. Artists
of today will find many discussions and debates about form and style, the relationship of art to morality and society and religion.
I found these to be rather interesting observation about style in particular:
- "Imperfection gives rise to what we call style."
- "A perfect picture needs no signature."
- "By marrying the 1st and the 2nd observation, it is thus demonstrated that 'signature' and 'style' are but means of being brazenly and stupidly self-
congratulatory about flawed work. "
DUe to my heritage, I stand with one foot planted in the West and the other in the East. This forces me to not just dismiss these observations, but question weather
or not there might be a grain of truth in them. Although I do sign my paintings, I find it rather cumbersome and distracting. To me placing my signature on a canvas is
similar to those designer labels that make the garment a walking advertisement for the brand. "Look, this beautiful painting is done by me!" If this is not self-
congratulatory and self-promotion, what else would it be called?!
Then there is style. I never understood this, the way I paint what I see, is my style! As artists we spend hours imitating the works of other artists, to get a grip on how a realistic scene is convincingly executed. To paint realistically, leaves little room for developing style. When I see portraits of people looking like an
unfinished lump of clay, in a multitude of colors, I could term it as the artist's unique style. But if nature is perfect and if we as artists are to imitate nature, then would this imperfect depiction not be the source of the so called style?
Here is one about the meaning of "Art":
- "To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn't treat it as a career."
- "Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man possesses,
he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art
when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts."
Monetary obligations, deadlines, hard to please client's, etc. all limit the portrait artist's freedom in developing new ideas and approaches. To forsake one's art is equivalent to artistic death. An agonizing, tortures, slow death! To find a balance between art as career and art for art's sake would be
the ultimate goal! I have found that if a client likes my work than he/she has to trust me with the way I intent to approach the work. If this person, wants things done differently then I will not forsake my art!
Ever since I have lived in Iran, I have always marveled at the insight of Eastern philosophy. At first glance statements such as these seem outlandish, but when given
some thought they make a very convincing argument. This book echoes the age old struggles between West and East, not only in how western ideas infiltrate the East but also how Eastern philosophy is often misunderstood.
But as the miniaturist Butterfly says: "An artist should never succumb to hubris of any kind, he should simply paint the way he sees fit rather than troubling over East or West."
This novel has been written by Orhan Pamuk and was translated from Turkish into English. It won the author the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.