Victoria & Albert Museum
London SW7 2RL
Until 12 September
Images left to right: 1525 -35 Qaran Unhorses Barman; Rhyton 500-330 BC; Sirak Melkonian Veiled Woman 1957
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
The V&A’s summer blockbuster lives up to its name: it is a truly epic sweep through Iran’s artistic and cultural history. And Epic Iran sweeps up most of the ancient world’s great empires along the way, from the Persia of Cyrus the Great, to the Macedonians, as well as the Greeks and Romans. As a crossroads between east and west Iranian art was forged in a unique style.
I was on a personal mission to learn more about Islamic art, and the traditions that preceded it. Steeped in the Western cannon of saints and martyrs and realism, I sometimes struggle to find a vocabulary for the pieces created in different places and different traditions.
Stylised male and female figures as well as beasts and birds, are an enduring theme through the millennia in Epic Iran. One of the earliest exhibits is a pottery zebu, with exaggerated hump, used as a pouring vessel with the spout in the top of the head. Next to the zebu is a female figurine, with exaggerated hips and buttocks and bronze earrings. Both figurines are made from burnished pottery, and date from 1200- 800 BC.
Two pieces from the British Museum’ Oxus Treasure show a miniature golden chariot drawn by thin, intricately detailed horses, and an armlet with fantastical griffins facing each other across the decorative gap. On the front of the chariot is a representation of the Egyptian god Bez, to ward off evil spirts. Created between 500-330 BC, both objects look freshly minted, as if 2,500 years is the blinking of an eye.
Rhytons - horn shaped drinking vessels from the same period - come with lion and griffin heads. Horn shaped containers ending in animal heads or fantastic creature are a distinctive feature of the Archaemenid period and occur in gold, silver, glass and pottery. Lions, with the horned goat or antelope they have recently eaten visible inside their stomachs, also feature on an embroidered canopy created for Darius’ successor Xerxes.
In 637, the Sasanians who had ruled for the previous four centuries and established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran and Mesopotamia, were defeated by the Arab armies bring the new religion of Islam. A beautiful dark red and gold textile from 600 - 900 shows birds with halo above their heads and diadems around their necks, perching on platforms decorated with pearls.
Richness of materials leads on to richness of colour in one of the exhibition’s centrepieces, a book illustration from about 1525 -35 Qaran Unhorses Barman. Against a turquoise background, with a diagrammatic crescent moon at the top of the plane, Qaran, leader of the Iranian forces, lances Barman, who killed his brother, off his horse. The combatants are surround be a swirl of cavalry, each rider om intricately dressed horses. Without the mimetic devices of shade, modelling or perspective, the narrative and intention of the work are still abundantly clear, and the detailing and colour of each figure is incredible.
Epic Iran is huge and can feel overwhelming, but it works both as a self contained survey of Iranian art and culture, and as a tasting menu for a feast of study and appreciation still to come.