The best painting of Kamal-ol-Molk

Kamal-ol-Molk (with a stick) among his students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tehran

Kamal-ol-Molk, the most renowned Persian painter of the late 19th century – in whose house we will stay in Kashan – captivated his audience mainly with his genre pictures. The style introduced by him was, so to speak, the counterpart of European Orientalism. While the latter crammed the large and luxurious spaces of romantic and academic painting with the exciting motifs of the mysterious Orient, Kamal-ol-Molk made the customary small and intimate pictures for Persian homes, which had clear colors, only a few figures, and no image depth, more attractive for a Persian audience increasingly receptive to European culture. He used art techniques acquired in Italy, the realistically shaped bodies, representations of the states of mind reflected on the faces, and European perspective. It is no coincidence that reproductions of his paintings, preserved in the formal imperial collections – The fortune-teller, The Jewish hucksters, Goldsmiths in Baghdad, Musicians, Noruz festival and the rest – are still common decorations in homes and public spaces alike.

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But one picture surpasses all the rest in popularity. In this, a bearded old man is sitting and smoking his pipe at a modestly laid table. We encounter this painting again and again in every city, on the walls of private rooms, workshops and cafés, and even on the shop signs of tea houses and restaurants. And what is even more surprising, the picture has been completely folklorized. They freely change and complement it in the individual reproductions to their preference, showing a hookah in the coffee houses, and with a lavishly laid table in the restaurants, depending on what is needed in the actual place.

The historic little town of Masuleh along the Caspian Sea

Shiraz, restaurant in the bazaar

Qom, restaurant along the highway

Kashan, restaurant next to the historical houses

The popularity of the picture was undoubtedly bolstered by the fact that it plays an important symbolic role in one of the most important Iranian films of the last two decades, Life and nothing more (or, as it is known in Europe, And life goes on, 1992) by Abbas Kiarostami. This film is a continuation of the first really successful film by the then fifty-year-old Kiarostami, Where is the friend’s house? (1987), which we also mentioned. In the second film, the actor playing Kiarostami and his son travel from Tehran in a battered car up to the mountains of Gilan, just a few days after the earthquake that caused fifty thousand casualties, to learn whether the two young protagonists of the previous film in the village of Koker survived the catastrophe. Along with the presentation of destruction and mourning, the film, as its title suggests, primarily lets you feel the great strength and determination the survivors as they work to make the houses inhabitable again and the villages liveable, to make new families as soon as possible, so life can again go on. The film had a veritable therapeutic effect in Iran, and this treatment of the tragedy gave enormous encouragement and strength to the entire society. It is no coincidence that Kiarostami soon made a third successful film, Through the olive trees (1994), based on the meticulous analysis of one key scene in And life goes on. These three films, often called by critics “The Koker trilogy” because of the common location, is considered to be the most outstanding of Kiarostami’s works, is still well known in Iran, and its impact is palpable on the whole of Iranian cinema.

One of the climaxes of And life goes on is almost exactly in the middle of the film, when the main character stops in a ruined village, and slowly studies the remains of the houses, which are beautiful even in ruins, with the green Gilani mountains in the background. On a porch which has remained intact, he looks long at this reproduction of Kamal-ol-Molk, which was cut almost in the middle by a huge crack running from the top to the bottom of the wall, but despite this, the old man keeps on smoking just as peacefully, as if nothing had happened. The beauty and power of this scene offers a key to the whole film. It is no coincidence that this picture was put on the poster of the film, which after twenty years still can be seen in many clubs or bookstores. I photographed it in a CD shop on Vali-Asr Avenue.

It is therefore surprising, that while the image plays such an important role in the visual culture of modern Iran, and whomever you ask will consider it the best painting by Kamal-ol-Molk, nevertheless you won’t find it in any album or on any website dedicated to the master. You have to search long on the Persian web, before you find a little story, which is variously formulated on different sites:

“Around 1940, two photographers went to the town of Maragh next to Kashan to take photos of the atmosphere of the landscape, the people, and the mausoleum of Baba Afzal. They had lunch in the tea house of the village, where an old man, who had just finished his modest lunch, lit his pipe. They took a photo of him as well, and returned to Tehran. Only after the development of the photo they discovered how beautiful it was, and they put it on the studio wall.
Not long after the owner of the Laleh café went to the studio to have himself photographed. He saw on the wall the picture of the old man with the pipe, the tea and the rest of the lunch on the table. He liked it, purchased it, and hung it on the wall of his café.
The photo hung on the wall for years, until one day a painter came to the café to drink a cup of coffee and smoke a cigarette. He liked the photo, and immortalized it in painting.
It took only a few years, and the painting was copied all over the country, on pictures, posters and shop signs, on the walls of tea houses, cafés and restaurants, in every city and along the roads…”

The story has been just as noticeably folklorized as the image. The Laleh – Tulip – café, the famous coffee house of pre-revolutionary Tehran has long since closed, so we will never know how the original photograph looked, which was so attractive to the painter that he converted it into a painting in the manner of Kamal-ol-Molk, and he even added to it the signature of the master. Or will we?

This photo was taken in 1907 by the Lumière brothers with the autochrome process patented by them in the same year. It is obvious that this pipe-smoking and wine-drinking Parisian old man had to be the model of the “Persianized” painting.

That is, the best painting of Kamal-al-Molk, the national painter, is not his own work, and not even an individual work, but a collective creation. It does not even have an authentic original, and this is why it could be folklorized and adapted in so many versions. Its birth was due to the reception of a European model and its adjustment to Persian patterns, and its popularity to the fact that it appears as an anonymous work and a collective symbol in a key scene of one of the most important movies about the issues of Iranian fate. All this together makes it truly Iranian, a work of such style and significance, that if Kamal-ol-Molk had seen it, he would surely authenticate it with his own signature.

The story could end here, the mystery solved. But, fortunately, every mystery solved creates a new one begging for resolution. The configuration of the pipe, the wine and the old man with a large white beard incites our visual memory. What does it remind us of? We got it. That early visual parallel where the two old gentlemen in József Rippl-Rónai’s My father and Uncle Piacsek drinking red wine (1907) are sitting in exactly the same pose as the two old Galician Jews in Alter Kacyzne’s photo twenty years later. The photo of the Lumière brothers, although it was made in the same year as Rippl-Rónai’s painting, is clearly not a model of any of the two. Nevertheless, its figure seems to perform the role of both old men at once: his pose is similar to the one at the left, his pipe to that on the right side. And if you really want, you can also bring into this Hungarian-Jewish-French-Persian conjunction a later (1936) sketch by Kamal-ol-Molk himself, where a big-bearded old man is reading in the pose of the left side figure. Are these mere visual coincidences? Or an unconscious pictorial topos, an iconologic formula of the period? And the mystery goes on.

József Rippl-Rónai: My father and Uncle Piacsek drinking red wine, 1907

“Byale (Biała Podlaska, Lublin province), 1926. Father and son. To protect himself from the
Evil One, Leyzer Bawół, the blacksmith, will not say how old he is, but he must be
over one hundred. Now his son does the smithing and the old man has become
a doctor. He sets broken arms and legs.” Photo by Alter Kacyzne

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