In Review

Epic Iran: what the critics are saying about the V&A’s new exhibition

This is a blockbuster that both dazzles and informs, shedding light on one of the world’s most misunderstood nations

This exhibition is nothing if not ambitious, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. It aims to explore the cultural history of Iran from 3,000BC to the present day, summarising 5,000 years of civilisation into a single, coherent narrative.

To put it in context, this is a bit like “telling the story of Britain from before Stonehenge to the present and hoping it all connects up somehow”. Yet extraordinarily, it “delivers”. Taking us from the very first civilisations established in the area covering present-day Iran all the way to the 21st century, via the triumphs of the Persian Empire, the conquest of Alexander the Great, the conversion to Islam and the downfall of the last Shah, it is a fast-paced “luxury coach tour through the ages”.

Featuring everything from “gorgeous” manuscripts and exquisite carved metalwork to contemporary art and “quite brilliant” recreations of Iran’s “two most renowned sites”, Isfahan and Persepolis, it convincingly shows that many of the country’s present-day customs have their origins in traditions practiced by “the people who lived here five millennia ago”. This is a blockbuster that both dazzles and informs, shedding light on one of the world’s most misunderstood nations.

“It’s a mind-expanding experience,” said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. Iran, typically viewed as “closed-off, restrictive and disconcertingly alien”, is revealed to have been a place of “astonishing cultural pluralism”, where “Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sufis and Muslims all mixed”.

Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, 1411

Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, 1411

Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Nor has it ever been a cultural backwater: one of the first things we see is a “skilfully wrought” silver antelope which is thought to date to 3000BC; at the time, Western Europe was still marooned in the Stone Age. We see “splendidly illustrated” manuscripts of “Persia’s greatest literary masterpiece”, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings; a 16th century carpet with poetry inscribed around its borders; and the famed Cyrus Cylinder (c. 539BC), a “barrel-shaped piece of baked clay” inscribed with what is believed to be the world’s first declaration of human rights.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is 15th century potentate Iskandar Sultan’s horoscope, a “visually dazzling” map of the Zodiac specifically fiddled to give the impression that Iskandar possessed the requisite “heavenly qualities”.

It’s all rather bewildering, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. In the space of a few rooms, we zip from Cyrus the Great to the “mighty” Parthian empire, to the complexities of the Zoroastrian religion – with its “fire temples” and “towers of silence”, in which vultures “picked clean dead bodies”.

The Qajar dynasty (1789-1925) is “stuffed into a corner near the end”, with many tantalising details left unexplored: what, for instance, became of the ballet-loving 19th century ruler who “demanded that upperclass Iranian women should raise their hemlines to imitate tutus”? But before you know it, it’s 1979 and the Shah has fled, paving the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini and decades of international isolation.

Even the final section, featuring some “brilliant, fascinating” artists, photographers and sculptors working in Iran today, crams their works together “like commuters jostling on the Underground”. To those of us who know Iran largely from “news footage of grim-faced mullahs”, this show will be “a revelation”. But nothing is given much “room to breathe”.

V&A, London SW7 (vam.ac.uk). Until 12 September

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