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Visual arts: Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture at the V&A, London

25 June 2021

Nicholas Cranfield sees the V&A’s Iran display

courtesy metropolitan museum of art, new york

Rhyton, 500-330 BC. More artwork in the gallery

Rhyton, 500-330 BC. More artwork in the gallery

MORE than 2500 years into this exhibition, which begins (about 3200-2900 BC) with a proto-Elamite bronze statuette of a god-man with ibex horns on his cap and the wings of a bird of prey (homme masqué ou dieu-ibex), come two winged ibex made of silver and partly gilded.

These leaping ibex served as handles for a now lost silver jug, and are reunited from collections in America and Germany. That from Berlin was last seen in London 90 years ago, one of two thousand treasures loaned for an international exhibition of Persian art at the Royal Academy. That exhibition, promoted by the government of Reza Shah Pahlavi, was part of a bid to gain recognition for his country after the end of the Qajar dynasty (1789-1923).

The shah wished to re-name his country Iran to designate him as ruler of the Aryans in succession to the title claimed by Darius the Great, who ruled 522-486 BC. If that had unfortunate overtones in the Europe of the 1930s, the country officially changed its name, none the less, in 1935.

Whereas the 1931 exhibition was something of a Kunstkammer, the present show offers a much wider range of the civilisations that have occupied the vast sweeping lands, as organised archaeological work did not begin properly till the 1960s and 1970s and continues today with Iranian scholars in the field. I have rarely seen so many exhibits labelled “find spot unknown”.

Such a widespread land, speaking many languages, from Babylonian (the BM Cyrus Cylinder of 539-538 BC), Median, and Aramaic, until the Muslim invasions of the mid-seventh-century introduced Arabic as the language of the Qur’an, yields many treasures.

Herodotus marvelled at a 2575km road stretching from Susa to Sardis with posting stations, and it is reckoned that Darius raised an annual tribute of 380,799kg of silver. Much of what we see is glistening silver, whether the Achaemenid drinking vessels, the horn-shaped rhytons with animal protomes (500-330 BC), or the later Sasanian silver gilt dishes embossed with conquering figures from eight centuries later.

On one, King Kavad I (or possibly Khosrow I) is enthroned above a scene of a huntsman shooting behind him — his Parthian shot — while on another there is a dancing woman wearing a diadem, bracelets, and anklets.

A 13th-century silver-inlaid bowl decorated with signs of the Zodiac thought to come from Herat was recently sold from the collection of Nicholas Palaeologus at auction, making £3,100,500 (31 March 2021) at Sotheby’s. Here, a fragmentary copper alloy tray from near Shiraz adapts the astronomical figures to a series of running beasts.

Not that the exhibition is only about archaeology. In the past forty years, contemporary artists, some of them working in the diaspora, have brought Iranian arts to the world stage. Their use of colour and calligraphy and increasingly of defiant reportage photography are steeped in the grace of generations of Islamic colourists and craftsmen. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was consciously not iconoclastic, although not all the liberal arts flourish equally.

I have never yet visited Iran, having only glimpsed it from the Armenian side of the north-western border. But I was accompanied at the exhibition by the shades of two friends, one a photographer and lecturer from Tehran who came to this 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 the book at Canterbury Cathedral, was assassinated four decades ago. From rather different backgrounds, both were intensely proud of their country, as I hope the Bishop of Chelmsford is. 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 30 August. Phone 020 7942 2000. Timed tickets must be booked in advance at www.vam.ac.uk


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