Artistic References in DISGRACED

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
Discussions of art inform and illuminate the rich tapestry of Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, which continues through Oct. 23 in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre.

While highly successful Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor has deliberately distanced himself from his strict Muslim upbringing, his wife Emily, an artist, finds her work increasingly inspired by the forms and traditions of Islamic art.

In Disgraced’s opening scene, Emily is sketching Amir for a portrait. They discuss the work of Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), considered one of the most important painters of the Baroque period and the Spanish Golden Age, specifically referencing his “Portrait of Juan de Pareja.” Emily has seen the Pareja portrait on display in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an incident preceding the opening scene has sparked her desire to paint her husband in the same style. She titles her subsequent painting “Study After Velázquez’s Moor.”

Known as a portrait artist, Velázquez painted portraits of many members of the Spanish royal family and other luminaries of the time — including his masterful, renowned portrait of Pope Innocent X. The portrait of Juan de Pareja, who at the time of the painting (around 1650) was Velázquez’s assistant and slave, was a study that Velázquez completed in preparation for painting the pope’s portrait.

As Emily says to Amir of the Pareja painting, “That portrait has more nuance, complexity, life than his paintings of kings and queens.”

Pareja, a man of Moorish descent who became a painter in his own right, was freed by Velázquez not long after the portrait was made. “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” renowned for its life-like quality, intimacy and commanding use of color, was purchased in 1971 for a then record-setting price of more than $5.5 million by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is displayed today.

Later in the play, when Emily discusses her own Islamic-inspired art with Isaac, a curator at the Whitney Museum who is vetting her works, he says of one painting, “the surface tending toward the convex … It’s a bending of the picture plane, isn’t it?”

He then mentions a comparison of her work to “late Bonnard” — Pierre Bonnard, an early 20th-century French painter known for skewing sight lines in his dream-like paintings.

“The mosaics in Andalusia are bending the picture plane four hundred years before Bonnard,” Emily replies. The Andalusian region of present-day Spain, conquered in 711 AD by Islamic Berber Tariq ibn Ziyad, was a center for ceramic mosaic tile artwork. The Great Mosque of Cordoba in Andalusia, which Emily and Amir reminisce about having visited on their honeymoon, is an example of that marvelous mosaic work and is also renowned as a prime example of Moorish architecture. (Artist Velázquez was also born in Andalusia, in its capital city of Seville.)

As their art history conversation continues, Emily tells Isaac that when he’s in London he must visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Room 42, the Islamic galleries. The museum’s collection of Middle Eastern and North African Islamic art includes more than 19,000 items, ranging from the 7th century (early Islamic period) to the early 20th century.

“It’ll change the way you see art,” she tells him. “The Islamic tiling tradition. Is a doorway to the most extraordinary freedom. And which only comes through a kind of profound submission. In my case, it’s not submission to Islam, of course, but to the formal language. The pattern. The repetition. And the quiet that this work requires of me? Is extraordinary.”

To learn more about the Playhouse production of Disgraced, visit the production detail page.
Photo of Maury Ginsberg and Bethany Jillard in Disgraced by Mikki Schaffner.