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EXHIBITION Awe-inspiring

STEVE BISHOP recommends an exhibition tracing Iranian art, design and culture over 5,000 years

Epic Iran
V&A, London

MAINTAINING audience interest and a consistent narrative over a 5,000-year period is a significant challenge for the Epic Iran curatorial team, and they are helped by the jaw-dropping art works and artefacts on display, arranged in a chronology that explores the emergence of the Iranian nation and its evolution through art, design and culture.

The exhibition illustrates the extent of the skill, craftsmanship and attention to detail that has characterised Iranian art and design over the centuries.  It also reflects the extent to which Iranian culture absorbed influences from different political, ethnic and religious trends while retaining an authentic identity over thousands of years.

Beginning in 3200 BCE, the narrative skilfully guides the audience through key periods of Iranian history, from the earliest-known writing to the period of the establishment of the Persian empire in 550 BCE. Its capital, Persepolis, at the heart of one of the most extensive empires of the pre-Roman world, had a rich artistic culture. The metalwork, jewellery, coins, gold and silverware on display are testament to the artistic and artisanal skills of the period.  

The exhibition continues through the fall of the Persian empire,  the rise of Zoroastrianism and on to the literary legacy in Iran through an exploration of The Book of Kings — Shahnameh —completed by the poet Firdowsi in about 1010 AD.

The Arab conquest of Iran in the mid-seventh century was a key turning point in the historical development of the country, with the introduction of Islam in the religious sphere and a struggle for dominance between Persian and Arabic script in literature.

Manuscripts were incredibly refined, and poetry became part of the visual arts because of the use of poetic inscriptions, which appeared on items including ceramics, metalwork and even carpets.
Some of the spectacle of former capital Isfahan is created digitally, with three 10-metre-long paintings replicating tilework patterns from the city’s domes suspended in arcs from the ceiling to suggest a dome interior, and an AV projection uses the paintings to reconstruct the appearance of the full dome.

The final and weakest section of the exhibition, Modern and Contemporary Iran, covers the period from 1940 to the present.

It is where it treads more uncertainly and, while acknowledging the arresting of democratic development in Iran through the British-US-backed coup against prime minister Mossadegh in 1953, there is little sense of the impact of foreign intervention and the imposition of the shah upon an unwilling population.

There is little to indicate how the repressive regime of the shah led to the national democratic revolution of 1979, nor how the hijacking of that revolution by the Islamic clergy resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, dashing the hopes of establishing a democratic Iran for a generation.

Such powerful political impacts inevitably have repercussions in terms of art and design, and the exhibition could go further to address the struggle of modern artists to create in a climate of Islamic orthodoxy, and in which those opposed to the regime are routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured because of their beliefs.

These contradictions are not entirely ignored, but the conclusion of the exhibition is too ambiguous.  There is no doubt that Epic Iran highlights the richness of Iranian art, history and culture over thousands of years.  

But the future for the Iranian people should not be determined by a medieval past.

Runs until September 12, box office:




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