Five thousand years of mystical magnificence: Epic Iran at the V&A – review

V&A, London
Persepolis and Isfahan are dazzlingly brought to life in a blockbuster show that explores five jaw-dropping millennia of cultural history, from soaring domes to charging horses


Typical. You go for months without any culture, then 5,000 years of it come along at once. That’s what the V&A’s luxury coach tour of a blockbuster promises, and delivers, including quite brilliant recreations of Iran’s two most renowned sites, Persepolis and Isfahan. Epic Iran shows there is a cultural history that connects the country as it is today with the people who lived here five millennia ago. To put this in perspective, that’s like telling the story of Britain from before Stonehenge to the present and hoping it all connects up somehow. But in Iran, it does.

That’s partly because of a pride in history that preserved traditions across the millennia. The most important document of that is The Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, written at the start of the 11th century CE by the poet Ferdowsi. Iran had been converted to Islam in the seventh century, but Ferdowsi’s epic is packed with the heroic deeds and bloody battles of the ancient, pre-Islamic Sasanian empire. It is also written in Persian, as opposed to Arabic. There are gorgeous manuscripts of this classic. A masterpiece made in Tabriz in the 1500s for the Safavid ruler is open on a battle scene in which bejewelled horsemen charge each other across a sea-like expanse of blue: the painter takes time to depict little flowers blooming on the battlefield, just before the horses trample them.

That eye for nature is rooted in antiquity. A pottery jug in the shape of a humpbacked bull from 1200-800 BCE, a golden bowl from the same period with exquisite 3D gazelles bursting from it, and many more horned and frolicking beasts fill the earliest art here with animal life. In the Persian empire, which ruled much of the Middle East in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, the beasts become even more mythic and ornate. An armlet has horned griffins on it, in gold, lapis lazuli and other precious stuffs.

‘Isfahan’s walls and domes flow up around you’ ... Epic Iran at the V&A, London.
‘Isfahan’s walls and domes flow up around you’ ... Epic Iran at the V&A, London. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

The Persian empire is brought to stately, ceremonial life in one of the exhibition’s big set pieces. Real treasures such as a spindly gold model of a chariot and huge horn of plenty drinking vessels are displayed among ever-changing virtual images of Persepolis, as it was and is now. Persepolis was built for rituals and tribute ceremonies, not living in: its mystique soaks in as you watch a cast of its sculptures change colour to show how it was originally painted. Yet even here there was room for artistic delicacy. A real chunk of the reliefs of Persepolis, lent by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, shows one courtier touching his friend’s beard in a gesture of intimacy: the other reciprocates with a similarly warm tap on the shoulder.

Alexander the Great torched Persepolis and crushed the Persian empire. You can read the ancient Greek historian Herodotus if you want to see what the Persian empire looked like to outsiders and how the Greeks defined themselves, and hence “the west”, against it. What you get here is the view from inside. The ruler Cyrus the Great speaks for himself on the Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum, a clay roll incised with cuneiform letters telling how Cyrus has restored religious rights in his empire.

The artistic richness of Iran has to have come from its geographical openness to east and west, absorbing influences from China, Mesopotamia, Greece, the Mongols. That gives Persian Islamic art a subtle strength that in turn influenced the whole Islamic world. Readers of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red will know that as far away as Istanbul, miniaturists illustrated the Shahnameh and imitated the Persian masters.

The Cyrus Cylinder (539-538 BC), from the British Museum.
The Cyrus Cylinder (539-538 BC), from the British Museum. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

This artistry went into overdrive when the Safavid empire united Iran behind Shia Islam in the 1500s. And the V&A makes its dazzling capital Isfahan materialise around you. One of the reasons it can do so is that the Victorian founders of this museum commissioned full size copies of some of Isfahan’s most beautiful decorated walls and domes. These flow up around you, their colours merging with video images of Isfahan’s architecture on a dome-shaped screen above. I have never been to Isfahan but in palaces and mosques I’ve visited, it is the ensemble of light and space, sun catching on lustrous tiles, domes cooling the mood, that creates magic. They catch that rhapsodic feeling here.

Then, like Coleridge disturbed in his reveries of Kubla Khan, I was punched awake by reality. A 19th-century painting shows the women of a harem, and you realise the Persian past was not all poetry and paradise. Shirin Neshat’s 1998 video Turbulent makes a similar point. Across a dark space, two singers face each other on separate screens. While a man sings a medieval love poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi, a woman, alone in the dark, responds with an anguished wordless wail. There isn’t any model for her feelings, or the world she imagines. Iran’s next 5,000 years are still to be written, and the past probably doesn’t offer any answers.

Epic Iran at the V&A opens on 29 May.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Botticelli Reimagined review – Venus in the gutter
By submerging Botticelli and his Venus in the trashy pool of pop and tourist culture they have inspired, this landmark V&A show elevates them both

Jonathan Jones

02, Mar, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser review – a wonderful tumble down the rabbit hole
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Inspiring everything from Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit to Heston Blumenthal’s mock turtle soup, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues to feel delightfully modern

Jonathan Jones

18, May, 2021 @5:44 PM

Article image
You Say You Want a Revolution review: a dizzying trip to the heart of the 1960s
From CIA leaflets to Twiggy coathangers, the details matter in this sensory bombardment of a show, jam-packed with music, style and rebellious history

Alexis Petridis

06, Sep, 2016 @11:03 PM

Article image
Plague and hell fire: the V&A's window on to a dark, disturbing world
In the museum’s new permanent display of art from 1600 to 1815, a breathtaking Bernini sets us off on a journey from plague-ridden Baroque darkness to Enlightenment exuberance

Jonathan Jones

07, Dec, 2015 @6:05 PM

Article image
V&A exhibition reunites masterpieces of English medieval embroidery
Treasure trove includes intricate ecclesiastical items on loan from the Vatican and cathedrals in Italy and Spain

Maev Kennedy

28, Sep, 2016 @4:04 PM

Article image
All that glitters: V&A to show rare relics of England's finest embroidery
Exhibition will showcase the dazzling skill of English needle-workers, who stitched gold, silver and pearls into pieces coveted by kings and popes

Maev Kennedy

26, Apr, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
The V&A’s election show is ‘the artistic equivalent of a hung parliament’
All of This Belongs to You was supposed to be a timely defence of free, publicly funded museums for voters to consider. Instead, a number of weak exhibits turn its message into a shaggy dog story

Jonathan Jones

31, Mar, 2015 @3:04 PM

Article image
Visits to world's top 100 museums and galleries fall 77% due to Covid
Institutions across globe could take years to recover from disastrous 2020, suggests survey

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Postmodernism at the V&A … more than ironic teapots and ugly chairs
The V&A tries to encapsulate the postmodern epoch through its latest exhibition

Adrian Searle

20, Sep, 2011 @7:11 PM

Article image
‘Iranian culture has huge depths and continues to be relevant today’
Five thousand years of Iranian art goes on show at the V&A this month. A private collector who lent many of the treasures reveals what light they cast on the country

Rachel Cooke

16, May, 2021 @10:00 AM