Beauty from a troubled land
The war in Iraq has raised urgent questions about the future of the nation’s museums, monuments and archeological digs. Often called a cradle of Western civilization, Iraq has been home to great civilizations -- Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon and Persia -- and their history is entrenched in the region’s cultural heritage.
But even as art historians and archeologists are warning against the possible destruction and looting of important sites, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is preparing for a landmark exhibition of historic art and artifacts from the region that includes present-day Iraq. Objects in “The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353" and the museum’s rich permanent collections give a visceral sense of what might be lost in the war. The exhibition, featuring 200 works from collections around the world, will be on view at the museum from April 13 through July 27.
The show is billed as the first to explore the artistic and cultural achievements in the Iranian world -- a vast swath of territory including modern Iran and Iraq -- after the Mongol invasions. Silk textiles, glazed ceramics, jewelry, gold and silver objects, handmade books and carvings of stone and wood illuminate a period of cultural flowering.
This might seem to be the worst possible moment to present a splashy exhibition from a distant land where American military forces are doing battle. Not so, says Linda Komaroff, LACMA’s curator of Islamic art, who organized the show with Stefano Carboni, her counterpart at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“If any other exhibition were opening at LACMA, it would probably not be a good time because it would be hard to compete,” Komaroff says. “This happens to be a subject matter that -- unfortunately, because we don’t want there to be a war -- ties in with the news.”
The world situation means that places where some of the art was created have become familiar to Americans. And there is generally more public interest in the culture and art of Iraq and its neighboring countries, she says.
None of this played a role in the conception or development of the exhibition. Komaroff began planning it six years ago. She and Carboni secured loans of artworks long before the World Trade Center was attacked and before President Bush cited Iraq, in his State of the Union address in January 2002, as part of the axis of evil.
But no loans were withdrawn before the show opened in November at the Met, where it drew an audience of nearly 200,000 during its three-month run, and it will remain intact in Los Angeles. The only difference between the roster of artworks in the two editions of the exhibition are light-sensitive works on paper and textiles, which have to be rotated, Komaroff says.
In a stroke of box-office savvy, the exhibition was named for Genghis Khan, the Mongolian conqueror (circa 1167-1227) whose empire reached from China throughout central Asia. In fact, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan” focuses on the dynasty of his grandson Hulegu, who ruled over a smaller area encompassing what is now Iran, Iraq, western Afghanistan, southern Russia and eastern Turkey.
The traveling show is not the only way to see Iraqi art in America -- or in Los Angeles. LACMA has developed considerable strength in its collections of ancient Near Eastern and Islamic art over the last four decades.
Ancient stone carvings and metalwork in the museum’s collection bear witness to the cultural history of modern Iraq. The Islamic objects -- works created after the rise of Islam in 651 -- provide insight into the artistic sensibility that still permeates many aspects of life in Islamic lands. A series of galleries is filled with intricately patterned, finely crafted Islamic objects that served a variety of purposes: functional, decorative and religious.
Most of the Islamic pieces in the museum’s collection are secular. It isn’t necessary to understand the religion to appreciate the mosaic panels, ceramic vessels, manuscripts, jewelry and textiles, Komaroff says, and it’s easy to see that they come from a tradition of fine craftsmanship and sophisticated decorative art.
The museum made its first major acquisition of ancient art from Iraq in 1966, with the purchase of five massive Assyrian alabaster reliefs from the collection of New York dealer Nasli M. Heeramaneck. Inscribed with cuneiform text and gracefully carved with monumental images of deities and royalty, the panels were made for the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled Assyria from 883 to 858 BC.
Excavated from a maze-like complex of reception halls, courtyards, sanctuaries, private quarters and offices near Nineveh in northern Iraq, the spectacular panels are displayed in the museum’s galleries of ancient art, on the second floor of the Ahmanson Building.
In 1973, the museum established itself as a serious collector of Islamic art with the purchase of 650 objects from the Heeramaneck collection, including metalwork, ceramics and glass. Three years later, the Ahmanson Foundation gave the museum a trove of ancient West and Central Asian bronzes from the same holding and the collector donated some Iranian ceramics.
In 1985, a bequest from collector Edwin Binney III added more than 100 works to the museum’s Islamic collection, most notably Ottoman ceramics and books produced as artworks. In 1988, Los Angeles collectors Hans and Varya Cohn boosted the museum’s ancient Near Eastern holdings with a donation of about 50 glass objects.
And just last year, the museum purchased about 775 pieces of Islamic art from the collection of Maan Madina, a Syrian-born professor emeritus of Middle Eastern languages at Columbia University. Encompassing the 7th to the 19th centuries, the acquisition includes 250 glazed ceramics and tiles, 65 textiles, 50 glass objects and 50 examples of calligraphy.
About half the works displayed in the museum’s Islamic galleries come from the Madina collection, Komaroff says.
Although the installation isn’t arranged geographically, many pieces from Iraq are on view in the series of galleries on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building.
Adding the Madina trove to LACMA’s existing 1,000-piece Islamic art collection made the museum the third best place to see Islamic art in the United States, ahead of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and many encyclopedic museums but far behind the Met in New York and the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The Met has 7,000 works of ancient Near Eastern art and 12,000 pieces of Islamic art. The Freer and Sackler have a smaller collection, but it contains a higher percentage of masterpieces than the Met’s holding, Komaroff says.
Wherever Islamic art is available for viewing and study, it seems to have a growing audience. “We’ve gotten a lot more hits on our Web site, and there seems to be more foot traffic in the Islamic galleries,” she says.
“My colleagues at other museums say that more people are in their galleries too. Those who teach say their class size is up.”
Los Angeles’ response to “The Legacy of Genghis Khan” remains to be seen, but the curator is optimistic. “I like to think that sometimes good things come from bad,” she says. “If people learn more about their neighbors, that could be a good thing coming from something bad.”