5000 years of culture at V&A, London
More than 2,500 years after the start of this exhibition, which begins (around 3200-2900 BC).masked man or god-bouquet), come two winged ibex in silver and partly gilded.
These leaping ibex were used as handles for a now lost silver jug and are brought together from collections in America and Germany. The Berlin one was last seen in London 90 years ago, one of two thousand treasures on loan for an international exhibition of Persian art at the Royal Academy. This exhibition, promoted by the government of Reza Shah Pahlavi, was part of an attempt to have his country recognized after the end of the Qajar dynasty (1789-1923).
The shah wished to rename his country Iran to designate it as ruler of the Aryans in succession to the title claimed by Darius the Great, who reigned in 522-486 BC. While this had unfortunate connotations in 1930s Europe, the country officially changed its name in 1935.
While the 1931 exhibition was a kind of Kunstkammer, the present exhibit offers a much broader spectrum of the civilizations that occupied the vast lands, as organized archaeological work only started properly in the 1960s and 1970s and continues today with Iranian researchers in the field. Rarely have I seen so many exhibits labeled “find an unknown place”.
Such a widespread land, speaking many languages, of Babylonian (the BM Cyrus cylinder from 539-538 BC brings back many treasures.
Herodotus marveled at a 2,575 km road stretching from Susa to Sardis with detachment posts, and it is estimated that Darius collected an annual tribute of 380,799 kg of silver. Much of what we see is glittering silver, whether it’s the Achaemenid drinking vessels, horn-shaped rhytons with animal protomes (500-330 BC).
On one, King Kavad I (or perhaps Khosrow I) sits above a scene of a hunter shooting behind him – his Parthian shot – while on another, there is a dancer wearing a tiara, bracelets and anklets.
A 13th century silver inlaid bowl decorated with zodiac signs believed to be from Herat was recently auctioned off from the Nicholas Palaeologus Collection for £ 3,100,500 (March 31, 2021) at Sotheby’s. Here, a fragmentary copper alloy tray from the vicinity of Shiraz adapts the astronomical figures to a series of running beasts.
Not that the exhibition is all about archeology. Over the past forty years, contemporary artists, including some from the diaspora, have brought Iranian arts to the world stage. Their use of color and calligraphy and increasingly provocative reportage photographs are imbued with the grace of generations of Islamic colourists and artisans. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was not consciously iconoclastic, although not all liberal arts flourished equally.
I have never visited Iran before, having only seen it on the Armenian side of the northwest border. But I was accompanied to the exhibition by the shadows of two friends, one a photographer and lecturer from Tehran who came to that country as an asylum seeker, and the other the son of an Anglican bishop.
Shahin was among the first to die last year in London with Covid-19, and Bahram, a modern martyr in Canterbury Cathedral Book, was assassinated four decades ago. Coming from quite different backgrounds, both were extremely proud of their country, as I hope is the Bishop of Chelmsford. This exhibition amply justifies such self-respect.
“Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture” is at the V&A, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7, until August 30th. Telephone 020 7942 2000. Fixed-time tickets must be reserved in advance at www.vam.ac.uk