REVIEW // Reintroducing 5,000 years of Iranian art and culture

Margaret Squires

Installation view of Epic Iran at the V&A i Installation view of Epic Iran at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Epic Iran
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
29 May – 12 September 2021

Epic Iran, on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 29 May to 12 September, promises to introduce British audiences to 5,000 years of Iranian culture. In so doing, the organisers hope to offer a fresh perspective that counteracts negative portrayals of Iran in the media. Epic Iran presents a sweeping view of Iranian artistic achievement from the earliest bloom of civilisation in the fourth millennium BC across the ages to the present day, showcasing a diverse range of media from relief sculpture to manuscripts, carpets, and contemporary photography. The exhibition draws from the V&A’s own outstanding holdings of art from Iranian lands as well as loans from European and American collections including the British Library, the British Museum, the Hermitage, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout every section of Epic Iran are works from the Sarikhani Collection, a London-based private collection exhibited publicly for the first time in its full breadth.

A closer look at the histories of the objects on display reveals that Epic Iran is no introduction for British audiences, but a continuation of centuries of encounter and exchange between the two cultures.

A splendid carpet hand-woven in Iran in the late sixteenth century holds within its knotted pile the impressions of three hundred years of English footsteps. The carpet, woven with cheerful vignettes of Safavid nobles engaged in courtly pastimes, comes to Epic Iran directly from Boughton House in Northamptonshire, where it was first spread across the floor as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. Persian carpets were coveted at the time as floor coverings for stately homes and palaces. In the following century, direct exchange between Iranian shahs and English monarchs saw the accession of Iranian works of art to the Royal Collections. A large manuscript penned in sinuous nasta‛liq script contains poems written by Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) himself. The Qajar shah gifted the volume, known as the Divan of Khaqan (a penname of the shah) to the Prince Regent in 1811.

The first two rooms in Epic Iran dedicated to Iran’s ancient civilisations reveal the increasing presence of Britons in Iran’s more recent past. British excavations at Persepolis spanned the nineteenth century and extended across Iran until the Islamic revolution in 1979. Casts produced in 1827 of some of the awe-inspiring relief sculpture at Persepolis are traces of the fascination they held and the desire to capture, preserve, and transfer knowledge of this extraordinary ancient civilisation. Objects on loan from the collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum (University of Oxford), and the Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge), demonstrate the physical transfer of such fragments of the ancient past as well.

Around the same time, another segment of the British cultural élite looked to a much later period in Iranian artistic production for inspiration of a different sort. A blue-and-white dish across the gallery from the Boughton House carpet features a carefully balanced design with alternating star-shaped panels of dense floral scrolls painted in vibrant cobalt and nearly imperceptible patterns incised directly into the bowl’s white surface. In the same gallery, a set of awe-inspiring scale reproductions of tile designs from Isfahan extend to the ceiling. The V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) commissioned these drawings in the late 1870s, the same decade in which the blue-and-white dish entered the collection. These efforts to study, collect, and display art from Iran were intended to reanimate British design at a time when some feared it had flagged in response to Britain’s rapid industrialisation. The success of this project is easily deigned on a walk through the nearby British galleries of the V&A, where floral scrolls reminiscent of this dish abound in the work of William Morris, Charles Voysey, William de Morgan, and other members of the late nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement.

More recently, ‘encounters’ between Britain and Iran become less binary and lines between the two cultures begin to blur. The Sarikhani family, whose expansive collection makes up a large portion of Epic Iran, belong to a cohort of Iranian collectors living in exile whose collections are a means of staying connected to art, language, and cultures of Iran and preserving it for future generations. Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, co-curator of Epic Iran, is a graduate of The Courtauld Institute of Art’s MA programme. The Sarikhani Collection and others like it also provide opportunities to educate audiences whose perceptions of Iran are maligned by fraught political relations with the West and negative portrayals in the media.

Epic Iran also includes work created by Iranian émigrés living in England. Shirazeh Houshiary, whose glass and stainless-steel sculpture, Pupa (2014), appears in the contemporary section of the exhibition, has lived and worked in London since 1975. These artists and collectors reflect the shift from a distant, bilateral exchange between Britain and Iran to the meeting and melding of these identities in the global age.

The challenges of political tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately prevented the V&A from exhibiting planned loans from the National Museum of Iran, which would have expanded the section on pre-Achaemenid civilisations in Iran. Longstanding talks between the two institutions ultimately fell apart in early 2020. Many of these works are nonetheless included in the catalogue and are referenced in didactics throughout the first sections of the exhibition.

Institutional histories and the movement of objects over time are not a focus of Epic Iran’s narrative, which instead employs objects as evidence of Iran’s artistic excellence across the ages. While the innumerable masterworks on display certainly support this, a greater degree of self-awareness about this exhibition’s place within a much longer exchange not only between Iran and the West more broadly, but the V&A and other lending institutions themselves would have given it more depth and necessary context. Instead, Epic Iranreinforces a well-established, detached view of Iran’s history and culture. If the goal is to reframe and challenge deeply held misconceptions about Iran, understanding one’s own place within that narrative should be considered a critical first step.

Installation view of Epic Iran at the V&A
Installation view of Epic Iran at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum, London