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Christian Lacroix puts Qajar art in the spotlight at the Louvre-Lens

Mid-19th century binding with roses and nightingale motif. Painted and varnished papier maché, Musée du Louvre – Césarine Davin’s portrait of Asker-Khan, an Iranian ambassador, 1808. Oil on canvas. Versailles, Palace of Versailles and Trianon museum.
From 28 March to 22 July 2018, the Louvre-Lens will be housing the "L'Empire des roses" exhibition. It is the world's first retrospective of art from Iran's Qajar dynasty, whose golden age dated from 1786 to 1925. Held in little esteem in the West, these Persian masterpieces of such unique artistic canon were for a long time deemed gaudy and in poor taste. A mistake which was at last remedied by Gwenaëlle Fellinger, who commissioned the exhibition. The exhibition is curated by Christian Lacroix, who agreed to be interviewed here.
Anonymous, Dancer with tambourine, (dating pending). Oil on canvas Carpentras, Inguimbertine library/museum.

How did you find out about Qajar art?

I remember the first time I became aware of Qajar art quite clearly. It was in a thick volume of Arabian Nights, whose illustrator drew inspiration from Indian and Persian miniatures. I was fascinated by this exotic opulence that was so alien to all I knew. I have to say that I didn't go any deeper with this discovery during my studies of art history, instead exploring it as an amateur and aesthete with an insatiable thirst for anything exotic. And then, as a fashion designer who loved combining different times and places, I found sumptuous images in Qajar art that I could mix with the rest of art history: French rococo, Spanish or Italian baroque, modern art, etc.

Abu'l Hasan Ghaffari Sani al-Molk, Portrait of Naser al-Din Shah in his prime, 1858-1859. Ink, dye, and gold on paper. Paris, The Louvre

Did any of the pieces in the exhibition make a particular impression?

It's definitely the portraits and tapestries which struck me most. But I've always loved hybrid pieces that straddle two great periods and two traditions. And that's why the simultaneously primitive and contemporary spirit of the portraits of Naser al-Din Shah, for example, have such an effect on me, through both their sophisticated palettes and their poses, as aloof as they are naive.

Here you play the role of curator... Where did you begin with this exhibition?

With one of the pieces in the exhibition: the plan of Soleymaniyeh Palace. Rooms lead one into another through single, triple, or quintuple entrances. Just like in a city, these are a kind of street, with carpeting inspired by contemporary engravings of landscapes and architecture. We worked very closely with Gwenaëlle Fellinger. I put this plan forward, in line with the themes she had chosen from the outset: the relationship between Iran and Europe, weather, craftsmanship, fashions, musical instruments, jewellery... Each theme is presented in a space defined by its own colour and, within it, each subject occupies a room with walls that are either painted or covered in damask silk.

Attributed to Mihr Ali, Portrait of Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834). Circa 1805. Oil on canvas. Paris, The Louvre

What can visitors expect?

This is the first time that the spotlight will be shone on the full wealth and diversity of Qajar art. It's a tour, an ample round that takes in each of this dynasty's artistic and historical highlights.

Go to the Louvre-Lens museum in Hauts-de-France region