The Iranian


email us

Sehaty Foreign Exchange

    News & views

'Terra-Cotta Diplomacy' Brings Persian Art West In Rare Loan From Iran

The Wall Street Journal
March 2, 2001

There were people standing four-deep in front of the cases at "7,000 Years of Persian Art" here on a recent Saturday morning -- a lot of people, considering that, outside of Vienna, this dazzling show at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the best-kept secrets on the continent. Since it opened three months ago, nearly 200,000 visitors have braved the crush to see the 180 objects on transfer from the archaeological collection of the Iranian National Museum of Teheran.

Why the excitement? "Persian Art" is elegantly mounted but austere, scholarly and not even very large: In short, it has none of the attributes of an exhibit intended from the start as a crowd-pleaser. My guess is that the crowds come for the same reason I did; they want to catch a glimpse of a civilization and a country that has been largely off-bounds to the West for the past 20 years. This is the first time the Teheran museum has lent anything from its collection since the revolution of 1979. It's only the second time, following an exhibit that traveled under the shah's aegis in the 1960s, that a selection from the National Museum's collection has gone abroad. Who knows when it might happen again?

The 7,000 years of history in question run from the middle of the seventh millennium B.C. to the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D., with a little coda to the exhibit that illustrates how Islamic art drew inspiration from Persian traditions. The time frame, in other words, begins long before the mighty Persian empire rose to power under the Achaemenid dynasty that began with Cyrus in 558 B.C., reached its height under Darius I, and held sway until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. (After Alexander's death in 323, the Parthians and the Sassanians rebuilt the dominion of Persia, which remained a great power nearly up to the Arab arrival.)

The archaeological finds on show thus come not only from modern-day Iran's vast, culturally and geographically varied territory, but from the areas west across the Tigris and east into Asia held by the Persians in antiquity. While it's possible to see some common threads running through this long history and broad territory, Prof. Wilfried Seipel, the director general of the Kunsthistoriches Museum and the show's curator, has put the emphasis on a careful cataloging of the objects, not on iconography.

Some of the most astonishing things here come right at the beginning of the chronologically ordered show. And they are tiny. A mesmerizing clay miniature of a mother with a child in her arms is just 1.6 centimeters (5/8 of an inch) high, small enough to sit on a fingernail. From the Tepe Zaqeh archaeological site in northern Iran, it was made between 6500-6000 B.C. -- possibly the oldest example we have of that most durable of artist's subjects, maternity. From the Choga Mish site in the southwest, two minute amulets of pink stone, measuring about 2.5 centimeters (an inch) each and deftly carved like a tiny pig and a deity, are 6,000 years old.

Other highlights include painted terra-cotta bowls from northern Iran, so finely crafted it's hard to believe they date to the fifth millennium B.C.; delightful pottery "rhytons," ceremonial vessels in the shapes of rams and antelopes, made in northern Iran in the second and early first millennium B.C.; a glittering fifth century B.C. gold drinking horn resting on a winged lion, dug up Hamadan in the mountains toward Kurdistan; the great stone relief panels that decorated the palaces of Persepolis during the fifth century B.C. reign of Darius; and a twisted bronze mask of a man's face found in the southwest region of Khuzistan, possibly a portrait mask of Alexander the Great. One interesting question the curators raise is if the Persians absorbed art and ideas from their traditional rivals, the Greeks, after Alexander's arrival on the scene. A first century B.C. bronze statue of a man with elegantly draped clothing is one of the items that suggests they did.

It was thanks to the timid defrosting of relations between Europe and Iran in late 1999 that the Kunsthistorisches Museum was able to host "7,000 Years of Persian Art," Prof. Seipel told me. Taking advantage of Austria's generally good relations with Teheran, he had written to his Iranian counterparts at the National Museum more than four years before, and after President Mohammad Khatami came to power, a reply came. At the time, the Iranians were thinking about how they could use art to build diplomatic bridges, the way former President Richard Nixon once used "ping-pong diplomacy" to break the ice with China. "Terra-cotta diplomacy" with Teheran proved slow and complicated, however.

"Initially they wanted the Kunsthistorisches to host an exhibit of Islamic art, but I wasn't interested in that," said Prof. Seipel, whose own training is in archaeology. Although he didn't say so, it seems likely that the state-owned Austrian museum wanted to avoid any suggestion it was being used as a mouthpiece for the theocratic regime in Iran. It took an entire year to nail down which items could be borrowed, even though the deal had the crucial support of former Iranian Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, a liberal who also backed new Iranian cinema and freedom of the press. "It was a very nerve-wracking project at the beginning," said Prof. Seipel. And by the time the exhibit opened in late November, conservatives had forced Mr. Mohajerani to hand in his resignation.

After it closes here March 25, the show travels to Bonn in June and, if legal details can be straightened out, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Iran wants the U.S. to guarantee federal immunity from seizure to be certain it will get its artifacts back.)

Last month the Kunsthistorisches was in the news when it signed a three-way partnership with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It's easy to see what the Vienna institution contributes to that deal. Not only does it have one of the world's great art collections -- it has the savoir faire to bring off a tough show like this one.

-- From The Wall Street Journal Europe


 MIS Internet Services

Web Site Design by
Multimedia Internet Services, Inc

 GPG Internet server

Internet server by
Global Publishing Group.