Flaunting Dominion in Ancient Iran


February 16, 2007

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Art | Iran

The opening of Asia Society’s glinting and glowing show of pre-Islamic art from Iran turned into something of a cliffhanger late last week when dozens of objects coming from Paris were held up by customs at Kennedy International Airport.

The objects — ancient silver dishes, carved document seals and silk textiles — all belong to French museums, including the Louvre, and have for generations. But the United States’ longstanding embargo on Iranian imports stipulates that any art objects of Iranian origin, no matter how long they have been elsewhere, can enter this country only with a permit from Washington. Even though Asia Society had such a permit, the art stayed in an airport hangar until the 11th hour, and then was rushed into Manhattan.

As it is, “Glass, Gilding and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran (224-642 A.D.),” is a radical reduction of a much larger exhibition from the Musée Cernuschi in Paris that included loans from Iranian museums impossible to bring to the United States. But with about 70 pieces, the New York version is still substantial. And even if it weren’t, we would have to take notice: it is one of the only major exhibitions of Sasanian art in this part of the world in more than 30 years. And it arrives, coincidentally, just as the Bush administration has sharpened its focus on Iran’s role in war-ravaged Iraq.

During those 30 years scholars have learned a lot about the Sasanians, though we still don’t know very much. For about four centuries they ruled a territory that covered present-day Iran, Iraq, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and stretched to North Africa. Their historical role models were the Achaemenid Iranians, who had built Persepolis a millennium earlier. Their rivals were Rome, then Byzantium and, at the very end, early Islamic dynasties.

The Sasanians were lucky with time and place. They came to power when the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean was in full flow, and they absorbed influences from the many cultures that traveled it. One of the first things you see in the galleries is a silver-and-gilt bowl decorated with a male royal portrait head clearly based on Greco-Roman prototypes, while a wine vessel nearby, in the shape of an antelope’s head, has stylistic roots in the remote borderlands of Central Asia.

In art, the Sasanians gave as good as they got, generating widespread and long-lasting influences of their own. Exquisite textiles of Sasanian design have been found in Egypt. And a gorgeous little glass cup in the show — it is purplish-brown, with protruding sensorlike knobs that make it resemble Sputnik — compares to others that ended up in Chinese tombs, Japanese temples and the treasury of San Marco in Venice.

Sasanian art made the rounds. And its wide distribution, combined with uncontrolled excavation, has made it almost impossible to date precisely, or to assign an exact place of origin. Archaeologists and art historians frequently have trouble determining whether something is actually Sasanian or in-the-style-of. (Glass is particularly elusive in this respect.)

Nonetheless, certain types of images seem specific to its imperial culture, namely those that refer to the state religion of Zoroastrianism. But even here cross-cultural sampling prevails.

The religion’s principal female deity, Anahita, the goddess of fertility, assumes various guises. In a stucco relief she is a formidable Mesopotamian matron with dangly earrings. But she is also a Hellenistic bacchante scintillating over the surface of a chunky silver vase, now owned by the Louvre. By the time this luxury item emerged from an imperial atelier in the fifth or sixth century, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Manichaeism were all practiced within the empire, contributing to its visual eclecticism.

One image occurs more often than any other: the king. Among the exhibition’s largest pieces is a royal “portrait” bust in stucco found at the royal site of Kish in Iraq. Traditionally each sovereign distinguished himself visually with a custom-designed crown. And the subject of this bust, even with half his crown missing, is sometimes identified as Shapur II, as is the face in a Sasanian silver bust at the Met, which has its bulbous, stand-out-in-a-crowd headgear intact.

Yet the bust at Asia Society is probably generic and symbolic. It is a monumental image of the king as the incarnation of absolute power: civic, moral and supernatural; and as the cosmic stabilizer, the anchor of the empire.

More commonly, though, rulers are depicted in action, specifically in the act of hunting. On one silver plate, King Yazdegerd I, haloed and beribboned, impales a stag with his spear. On another, Hormizd II (or III), mounted on a galloping horse, aims an arrow at a lion. In the seventh century a third king, probably Khosrow II, commissioned a mural-size rock carving of a royal boar hunt, with the king standing, weapons at the ready, at its center, as attendants drive hundreds of panicked animals into a pen for the slaughter.

In Zoroastrian understanding, boars embodied the warrior virtue of aggressive courage; for a ruler to kill one was to demonstrate matching courage. Lions, once an auspicious solar symbol, were associated with evil and chaos, and as such were the natural enemy of the righteous king. In dispatching them, he fulfilled his role as preserver of the empire and universal master.

So, in cosmic terms, which are always basically earthly terms with spin, these images of domination through combat are political art, or more precisely, political advertising. What is the difference, after all, between a carved relief of an ancient king-of-king’s victory in a hunt and a press photograph of a modern leader declaring victory in a war?

Aesthetics is one difference, a big one. Most of the objects in the show — organized by Françoise Demange, chief curator of Asian antiquities at the Louvre, with Prudence O. Harper, curator emerita of ancient Near Eastern art at the Met, and Michael Chagnon, a curatorial consultant — are superbly beautiful in formal terms, beautiful enough to smooth over the reality that control through violence is a primary theme.

When we see comparable violence played out on television news, we are appalled; some people have ethical qualms about its omnipresence, in fictional form, in films. But in high art, we tend to put our scruples on hold and give it a pass, because of beauty, or rarity, or distance in time, or because we don’t know what we’re seeing, or because we just don’t want to acknowledge what is really there.

A large part of art’s allure is its ambiguity; you can take it as you wish, make of it what you will. This exhibition, with its luminous cruelties, is a reminder of that. But the ancient Sasanians were surely clear about what they were seeing in their imperial art. And in some sense the viewers who understand art as political advertising most directly today are iconoclasts, the suppressors and destroyers of art. They may be the only people for whom art actually does speak for itself, but for whom beauty truly is not enough.

So by all means see the rare and fabulous work at Asia Society, for the intense pleasure it gives and for the windows its opens onto history, present and past. But also see it for the hard questions it poses about the profoundly uninnocent nature of art — in particular imperial art, wherever it comes from — and the moral responsibility we should ask of it.

“Glass, Gilding and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran (224-642 A.D.)” remains at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), through May 20.

Click on image below to see a slideshow

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Published: February 16, 2007