In the foothills of the Pyrenees, a French artist named Edmond Tiffou keeps the ancient Islamic art of miniature painting alive and flourishing to this day.
A French North African of Catalan background, Tiffou, who attended the Faculte des Beaux Arts in Algiers, first worked in advertising - and won several prizes - but then, during the Algerian wars, the Pyrenees, to explore more fully the ancient art forms of the Muslim empire.
At the academy in Algiers, Tiffou had studied Arabic calligraphy under Omar and Muhammad Rassim, two of the great modern masters of the art. Now, in his seaside village in France, he began to focus on calligraphy and Islamic miniatures and illuminations.
"Islamic design is purely intellectual," he explains. "Calligraphy requires dexterity, and tin advanced understanding of its artistic possibilities. My training in lithography gave me the background for studying the details, and the proximity of the Arab palaces in Spain provided the sources. The history of religion has always fascinated me, and the Koran and the Old and New Testaments became my bedside.
This preparation was a necessary preliminary, Tiffou points out, since calligraphy and miniature painting are not only crafts but arts (See Aninnv World, September-October 1974). They can be created only with a thorough understanding of the philosophy of Islam and a deep knowledge of its history. Geometric designs, fur example, are fundamental to Arab decorative arts; because they can be continued into infinity, they impose shape and form upon the chaos of the material world and can be regarded as divine inspiration working through the hand of man.
"What attracted me most was the illumination, that is, the decoration providing the frame of the miniature, which many artists of earlier times neglected," Tiffou said. "This adventure has continued for 12 years now; it takes me up to 300 hours to lay out and color a carpet of illumination around a central subject...and this illumination, with its varied colors, is the true meaning of my works."
Tiffou, who uses 24-karat liquid gold for his illuminations, has had difficulty in obtaining it recently because of the vertiginous rise in the world price of gold. Changing prices have taken it out of everyday commerce, even if the painter is prepared to pay the going rate. He also uses gouache colors, with imperceptible gradations to give an illusion of greater depth: a great deal of blue and green, often as many as three shades of each; orange, fuchsia, and dark reds. But pastel colors lack the intensity he needs, and Tiffou hardly uses them: they are too uncertain. And in his revival of an ancient art, with the hundreds of hours of research and effort that go into each detailed and lapidary work, certainty is what Edmond Tiffou is looking for.
Rosalind Mazzawi lived in Lebanon for 20 years, where she worked as a journalist and bookseller and taught at Beirut’s Arab University. She is the author of Traveller’s Guide to the Middle East.