1129 GMT January 20, 2022
I don’t know the exact origin of art in the long history of humankind. Perhaps it started with a caveman marking his feelings on stone walls. And then, over thousands of years, what we may fairly call ‘art’ has diversified into many fields, each with its own tools, techniques and results. At moments, however, separate fields of art joined hands to provide artists with more effective tools. One such example is where glass and paint make a united front of human expression, presenting colorful paintings on glasswork.
“Some believe that this form of art had existed in pre-Islamic Iran and was subsequently marginalized and forgotten over time. They say that this form of art re-emerged in the Safavid and Zand eras,” said Saeid Rezakhan, a longtime practitioner of Reverse Glass Painting in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily. The interview was conducted on the occasion of ‘The Nature of Glass’ exhibition, organized by Rezakhan, which reflects the different styles used by the Reverse Glass Painters of Iran.
“Here, you see the design that came from the heart of Reverse Glass Painters. What erupts from within them is turned into a design that is painted on the back of glass and invites the passerby to stroll around in this glass garden,” wrote Reverse Glass Painters on their inviting brochure.
A collection of works by 27 painters are on display in the exhibition from December 26, 2021 to January 5, 2022.
“Once upon a time, this form of art was introduced as architectural ornaments,” said Rezakhan. “We need to see how we can bring it back into our homes or workplaces.”
*Zohreh Qanadi is a staff writer at Iran Daily.
Would you tell our readers about your artistic and professional background?
I came across the art of reverse painting on glass in 1992. At that time, I didn’t know that such a painting technique exists and is known as Reverse Glass Painting or Under Glass Painting. That's why I used to consider myself the creator of this form of art in Iran, and since I had no prior notion of it, my reverse glass paintings were very different from the works of veterans and forerunners. I attempted several times to hold an exhibition on Reverse Glass Painting, and finally in December 2015, the exhibition titled ‘Nature Frame’ was held with the support of the Under Glass Painting Museum in Tehran. In January 2017, together with four other friends, we arranged a group called the Reverse Glass Painters of Iran to nationally introduce the art of Reverse Glass Painting.
We have heard different narratives about the history of Reverse Glass Painting in the country. Please describe briefly the history and the narratives surrounding it.
Some consider it an art imported from Europe, namely from Venice in Italy and Bavaria in Germany. It is believed that the art of reverse painting on glass entered Iran during the Safavid Period (1501-1736 CE). It became prevalent in the country during the Zand Era (1750-1779 CE) as architectural ornaments used in houses of nobles and aristocrats.
However, others believe that this form of art existed in pre-Islamic Iran and was subsequently marginalized and forgotten over time. They say that this form of art re-emerged in the Safavid and Zand eras. But it is not clear what caused its re-emergence. This issue is not mentioned anywhere. So, we can assume three theories:
What do you think happened?
My opinion is that reverse painting on glass had existed in Iran in the pre-Islamic era. You will be astounded by seeing the extraordinary elegance and variety of the Achaemenid-era glassworks. It is quite unbelievable to me that people who created such glass artworks didn’t reach the level of skill that this art form is now known for. There is even a glass lotus-shaped bowl that has remnants of paint visible on its back. (This bowl dates back to sometime between the Achaemenid and the Sassanid periods.)
Can we consider the paintings done on glassware dating back to the pre-Islamic era as works that utilized this technique?
Yes, parts of these artworks are reverse paintings. That’s why it is feasible to consider the possibility of this art form having an Iranian origin.
What different styles are there in Reverse Glass Painting?
Reverse Glass Painting is a technique. Therefore, it includes a variety of artistic styles. Unfortunately, because this technique is not so well-known, few people are familiar with it and, likewise, there are very few specific styles of it. But in terms of classical styles, there are seven to consider: Gol o morgh [flower and bird], portrait (limner portraits of Qajar princes), fantasy creations, iconography, European style illustrations (views of buildings, bridges, clock towers, etc.), Reverse Glass Calligraphy and finally personal methods used by distinctive people in the past that were not common among other artists.
What is your estimate of the number of reverse glass painters in Iran?
Unfortunately, no exact statistics have been released by the relevant organizations. But based on my experience, as well as my trips to the different parts of the country, I estimate that about 400 artists are practicing in this field across the country. These are just the artists that I know and have seen their work.
What do you think of the movement to virtualize exhibitions and training courses and its impact on this art form?
I have repeated this many times in my interviews. The world is changing. The move towards virtualization of education, exhibitions and sales of artworks has begun long ago. But what we have seen in the past two years has been the acceleration of this movement. During these two years, Reverse Glass Painting, like many other forms of art, has entered the virtual arena. This accelerates the expansion of this style of painting but it also has its drawbacks. For example, shallow communication in cyberspace is among its disadvantages.
How do you think we can promote or introduce this form of art besides holding exhibitions? For example, can it be used in the interior architecture of our homes or workplaces?
There is a lot we can do to introduce Reverse Glass Painting. The fact is that this technique is very obscure in Iran. That is why there is a lot of room for action in this area. The first option that comes to my mind is writing a book since we do not have any significant source in this regard. Holding conferences and workshops, developing a new academic discipline, or even introducing this technique as a unique course in art schools all seem necessary to fully introduce the art.
Regarding its use in interior architecture, I think that conducting a needs assessment and marketing are necessary. Once upon a time when old buildings with their old architectural styles existed, this form of art was introduced as architectural ornaments to the art of plastering and Orosi [colorful sash] windows. Reintroducing this form of art to interior architecture, as I said, needs assessment; designing and marketing should be done. We need to assess how we can bring it back into our homes or workplaces. Partitions, tables and cupboards, decorating fireplaces and other architectural ornaments provide opportunities for using this old form of art. But there is an interesting point here that you also mentioned in your question: Introducing this skill by entering it into our daily lives. Entering this form of art into public life will be an extensive advertisement for it.
What place does this art form have in the world?
We have a specialized museum in its name in Iran: The Under Glass Painting Museum. As far as I know, nowhere else in the world is there a specialized museum in this field. But artists all across the world are practicing this painting technique. For example, there are many reverse glass painters in China and, especially, India. A lot of artworks in this field that come from these two countries date back to past centuries. There are also artists that practice reverse painting on glass in Turkey, Italy, Germany and the United States. However, in other countries, the artists that practice this form of art are not organized in groups, rather they work individually.
Do you interact and communicate with peers abroad?
No, unfortunately not. Such communications have not taken place until today, and if there were any, it was personal communication made through friends in cyberspace, which is another advantage of cyberspace.
These days we are witnessing the holding of an exhibition entitled ‘The Nature of Glass’. Please tell us about this exhibition.
Earlier this year (specifically on March 20), artists of the group of Reverse Glass Painters sent their works to me to be exhibited in the planned show. About 90 works were selected to attend the exhibition. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the exhibition was postponed several times. Finally, we held the first exhibition of the year last month, which was titled “The Garden of Glass Flowers”. Remaining paintings have been on display in an eleven-day exhibition titled, ‘The Nature of Glass,’ launched on December 25. There are still some paintings remaining that we will show in the future.
Unfortunately, we are still dealing with the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic. In this situation, we could not coordinate a large gallery. That's why we planned to showcase the works in three parts. To date, we have held two exhibitions in the Abi [Blue] Gallery in Tehran.