The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is hosting a seminal exhibition—one that looks at 5,000 years of Iran’s rich cultural legacy. Titled Epic Iran, the show presents over 300 objects such as sculpture, paintings, ceramics, photography and film from ancient, Islamic and contemporary Iran, taking the viewer on a journey that starts in 3000 BC and ends in the 21st century. And there are interesting connections to be made between Indian and Iranian art as well. This mammoth exhibition has been organised by the V&A with the Iran heritage Foundation, in association with The Sarikhani Collection.
India and Iran have a long history of cultural exchange, which the show reflects. “From the 11th century onwards, there was a continuous interaction which is so close that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether an object is Iranian or from South Asia,” says exhibition curator Tim Stanley, citing the example of Persian literature in South Asia. On display is a copy of a work by the great 13th-century poet Sa’di of Shiraz. The manuscript was copied in the 17th century by the greatest calligrapher of Isfahan in this period, Mir Imad. “Later it was taken to India, where the manuscript was given new borders, which were decorated with patterns in gold, and it was re-bound in fine gilded covers. Nothing could better express the honour paid to Sa’di in South Asia,” he says.
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Author and historian William Dalrymple further elaborates on this cultural connection between India and Iran. One of the earliest exchanges took place during the Ashoka period, when early Buddhist art featured a lot of gryphons and winged beings, inspired by Iranian art. “One can then see a marked influence in the period after Humayun, who brought a lot of artists back from the Safavid court. This Persian influence became obvious not just in Mughal art but in Deccani art as well,” he says. While in ancient times, the artistic influences percolated from Iran to India, in the later periods this was a two-way street. In fact, when the Company School paintings became popular in India, one could see their influence on Qajar painting—the Iranian equivalent—as well. “The size and scale of some of the paintings from the medieval period are similar to that of the Hamzanama paintings commissioned by Akbar,” explains Dalrymple.
There are some striking artefacts on display such as the Cyrus Cylinder, the detailed illuminated manuscripts of the Shahnameh, ten-metre-long paintings of Isfahan tilework and Shirin Aliabadi’s photo of a young woman blowing bubblegum. “It’s a spectacular show and a very ambitious one,” says Dalrymple. “They had planned it on an even larger scale, with loans from the National Museum, Iran, which sadly never came in. But the exhibition is still astonishing.”
Though the V&A has been collecting art of Iran ever since it was founded 150 years ago, loans from private collections have added depth to the show. “It is for the first time that a major collection of art belonging to the Sarikhani family—a Britain-based Iranian family—has been displayed. While the collection has been on show for specialists at their home for the past 20 years, it has been unveiled to the public for the first time,” adds Dalrymple.
The show has been divided into ten sections, set within an immersive design created by Gort Scott Architects, reflecting the time and period that the objects hail from. For those who can’t travel to London due to the pandemic, the Epic Iran section on the V&A website features highlights and in-depth features related to the exhibition. “Of all the sections, the ones that blew me away were those dedicated to ancient material from Persepolis and the Achaemenid period. There are some pre-Persepolis objects too—often very simple but very beautiful pots,” says Dalrymple.
It is not a usual occurrence for the V&A to put up exhibitions that cover 5,000 years of history, but the team felt it was necessary in the case of Iran. According to Stanley, the study and presentation of Iranian art is broken up into different disciplines, even in Iran itself. Archaeologists study pre-Islamic Iran, and art historians dominate the period after the mid-7th century. “We wanted to celebrate Iranian art as a coherent tradition that stretches over this vast period. We have put Iranian art back together again, as it were. Our aim is to give our audiences a picture of the great civilization of Asia,” he says.
The first of the ten sections, The Land of Iran, is an immersive audiovisual experience, rather than a display of objects. According to Stanley, it is designed to introduce visitors to the extraordinarily varied landscape of Iran. The second, Emerging Iran, shows the extraordinary and little-known cultures of the Iranian plateau from the beginning of history about 3200 BC until 550 BC. “One of the most touching objects shows two figures, presumably man and wife, who are probably bringing a sacrifice to a temple in one of the Elamite cities in south-west Iran,” he says. The third room, The Persian Empire, is devoted to the period between 550 and 330 BC. There is an evocation of the great capital of Persepolis, one of the most impressive sites from antiquity.
A significant object is the Cyrus Cylinder, on loan from the British Museum. This clay object bears an inscription in Babylonian cuneiform that sets out the policy adopted by King Cyrus the Great when he conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Cyrus was the founder of the Persian empire, and the first great figure in the history of Iran, and the text on the cylinder speaks in his name. “The fourth section deals with the period between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD when Iran was ruled by two mighty dynasties, the Parthians and the Sasanians. The first textiles in the exhibition were made towards the end of this period, or perhaps shortly after it finished, and they have impressive patterns with birds on magnificent green and red grounds. They have survived because they were imported to Europe soon after they were made and used to wrap relics of Christian saints,” elaborates Stanley.
The fifth section concentrates on the great Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which provided Iranians of the medieval period and after with a strong sense of the glories of ancient Iran. “From the 14th century onwards magnificent illustrated copies of this text were produced, and perhaps the most beautiful example on show is a battle scene from the Shahnameh made for Shah Tahmasp, who ruled from 1524 to 1576,” he says. There are also sections on ‘Change of Faith’, which deals with Iran’s change from a majority Zoroastrian country to a majority Muslim land, ‘Literary Excellence’, ‘Royal Patronage’ and Iran in the 19th century.
The tenth and last section is concerned with the modern and contemporary art of Iran, “showing how international modernist movements and artistic movements based on local, Iranian sources flourished under Mohammad Reza Shah (who ruled from 1941-1979), and how artistic production, almost silenced by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, sprang back into life in the late 1990s. Among the most impressive works is the video installation called Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat (2002), which evinces the challenges faced by women in Iran in the 21st century,” elaborates Stanley.
The contemporary arts section is particularly interesting for the representation of women artists from the country. According to Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, curator of the Modern and Contemporary section of the exhibition, what is interesting is that within the confines of modern Iran, these women are testing the boundaries of censorship and control. “For example, Shadi Ghadirian juxtaposes the experience of being female in 19th century Iran and under the Islamic Republic now, reclaiming the female gaze. Or else, Azadeh Akhlaghi’s cinematic renditions of historic assassinations cannot help but make us question political oppression and the freedom of the individual. Iranian women artists also play with other themes, of course, whether it is Shirazeh Houshiary’s cosmological and existential Pupa, or Avish Khebrehzadeh’s captivating animation White Horses. They have so much to say,” says Sandmann.
Epic Iran is on view at the V&A London till 12 September 2021. Visit www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/epic-iran