Epic Iran

Iran can claim a long history. The land now covered by the modern state has been settled for millenia. It’s very name is at least 2,500 years old, first attested in an inscription dated to c. 490 BCE where the Emperor Darius I says ‘I am Darius the great king, king of kings […] an Iranian’. The word ‘Persia’ is Greek. In Iranian it refers to ‘Fars’, which is a region of Iran. The fact this word was used for 2,000 years says something about where we get our information about the country.

An exhibition at the V&A seeks to explore the 5,000 year history of Iran’ with artefacts and objects gathered largely from collections in the UK. It begins with a pottery jar with abstract patterns dated c. 2,900 – 2,600 BCE and ends with the country’s contemporary art. The show follows an obvious chronological structure that makes it easier to understand, but blurs the continuities and differences of the 5,000 years covered.

This is perhaps a fool’s errand. Edward Said outlined in Orientalism a common Western approach to the Middle East which simplified the differences between regions and time periods creating an unchanging and exotic land. To put on an exhibition about a Middle Eastern country which takes in 5,000 years of history and which does not address the critiques of Said is the definition of curatorial churlishness. It is also interesting that the history of the objects presented in the show are not examined, even when some of these were presumably collected during a period of colonial expansion and intervention in the region. 

In 2021, we expect something different.

The iconic image? Head of a Persian (515 – 480 BCE, from Persepolis in Iran, now held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford)

The iconic images of Iran in the West are the ancient glazed bricks or reliefs showing Persian soldiers and officials and scenes of protesting crowds with banners of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei above them. The exhibition offers a counter narrative, which doesn’t simply fill in the dots but attempts to provide viewers with a more complete understanding of Iranian art. 

The Persian Empire, or more accurately the Achaemenid Empire (or First Persian Empire) ruled the region for around 200 years from 550 – 330 BCE. It is perhaps better known through the accounts of its political rivals, the Greeks, most notably Herodotus whose History covered the ‘Persian Wars’, the series of conflicts between the Persian Empire and Greek city states. For many people the film and comic book 300 define their understanding of these conflicts. The book depicts a Persia that is at once unconquerable but effete, against the rugged manliness of Spartan soldiery. That version of the story is the eroticised fantasies of a right wing man, but it draws on a traditional narrative of the country that beginning in Classical Greece continued throughout the Roman period (when the region was ruled by the Parthian and then the Sasanian Empires) and then by the Arabs. Persia was seen as the opposite of the West, whether this was defined as Greek, Roman, Christian or (much later) European or American.

Of course, the reality was always more complex and the difference was never so stark as described.  

Relief of Heracles-Verethragna (100 – 200 CE): a combination of the Zoroastrian diety Verethragna and the Greek hero Heracles. Slab from Masjid-e-Soleiman, donated to British Museum in 1920 by Dr M.Y. Young

Iran was strategically located on the trade routes between China, India and the Medditerrenean. The region was influenced by many cultural traditions, but also developed its own traditions which continued to influence artists and thinkers in the Medieval and early modern period. During this period, the region continued to be cosmopolitan with important and well connected communities of Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. The communities experienced periods of persecution, but this should be compared to the experience of non-Christians in Europe. It is notable then that the exhibition does not explore this part of the Iranian experience.

The region continues to be important in geo-political terms, both because of its location and also its politics which is often seen by the West as being in opposition to American interests in the area. Much can be said in terms of politics, but Epic Iran probably sensibly focuses on the cultural expression of this political reality. It is perhaps important to argue that Iranian culture is not just an expression of anti-Americanism or a reaction against America’s anti-Iranism. It is much richer. 

The Poet and the Beloved of the King, Perviz Tanavoli (1964-65, Tate)

The rooms of modern and contemporary art are perhaps the gem of the exhibition. Pouran Jinchi’s calligraphic art draws on artistic traditions yet is strikingly contemporary. 

Perviz Tanavoli’s The Poet and the Beloved of the King is inspired by Persian love poetry. It shows structural forms combining the latent forms of Iranian architecture and the contemporary scientific aspirations of automata. Today it is a striking example of retro-futurism and I would argue one of the most important works of art from the 1960s.  

In summary, this is a fine exhibition: what it lacks in depth, it makes up for with breadth. The rooms are well designed, with good crowd-flow and mostly well placed objects, which means you can study the objects closely without getting too close to other people. As we expect from the V&A, the set design is impressive with some standout installations such as the dome in the central room.

The King’s Bodyguard, copies of glazed brick panels in the Palace of Susa which are now held in the Louvre. The copies were made in Paris 1889-91 for the V&A.

Epic Iran at the V&A is open until 12 September.