Michael Alexander Barry talks about Herat art legacy at AUAF in Kabul

Ancient Herat paintings inspired Picasso, says Michael A. Barry

Michael Alexander Barry is a professor and historian of Islamic world. He taught Islamic culture in Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. Professor Barry has served as chair of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has authored a number of books on Islamic culture. His most recent work is Kabul’s Long Shadows, published in 2011 by Princeton University’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination (LISD). Professor Michael Alexander Barry currently teaches at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in the Afghan capital Kabul. . On Thursday, October 03, 2019, Mr. Barry talked about art legacy of ancient Herat in the opening ceremony of painting exhibition at AUAF.          

Michael A. Barry said in 1903 French artist Henri Matisse visited an exhibition in Paris where pieces of ancient paintings from Herat were displayed. He noted that both Matisse and Pablo Picasso were inspired by the colors, beauty, and spirit of the paintings. “The lessons of the paintings of Herat were observed by Matisse and through Matisse contributed as much to the world aesthetic vision of 21th century.”

The three great cities represented the pinnacle of medieval Islamic civilization were Cordoba, Herat, and Delhi and the link between civilization of Herat and the civilization of Cordoba goes deeper than anyone can imagine, he said.

Mr. Barry lamented over what he called a complete loss of Herat civilization.  “Not a single one of these paintings …, not one remains in this country.”  He said that paintings from Herat displayed in museums all over the world in London, Paris, and New York briquetted Iran. “A culture confiscated, a culture dispersed, a culture annihilated,” he lamented.

According to Barry, the original paintings are no bigger than a book as they were painted in books for kings, queens, princes, and kept in the royal family collections. In Herat when the dynasty fell in 1507 and then the city was annexed to the Iranian empire in 1510, all the paintings that had been in Herat castle were moved to Iranian centers, and from there many of these paintings were taken to Istanbul which are the greatest treasury in the world of manuscripts created in Herat.

Pictures of ancient Herat paintings displayed at AUAF in Kabul

Professor Barry said part of the Herat dynasty survived in Kabul for 20 years in the middle of 16th century, and by then Kabul became the greatest center of Islamic painting in the world, a historical fact that is forgotten by everybody.

“The painters were assembled in Kabul in 1540s and in the 1550s created a school of art so magnificent that came to be known as Moghul school of painting.” But the treasures were all moved from Kabul castle to Delhi then to Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, he said.

The paintings are now, he states, are preserved in UK inside boxes in the dark because they are vulnerable to the light. The pictures at most will be shown even at Metropolitan Museum and in Agha Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, just for three months and then put in boxes, in the dark, for another ten years.

The pictures displayed now in the AUAF re-photographed and collected from Turkey, Egypt, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, Portugal, the United States, Canada, and Russia with the help of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in the highest resolution.