Near and Middle East and Africa
The Department of the Near and Middle East and Africa houses collections of Iranian, Afghan and Turkish art and also art from Arab and African countries.
The Iranian collection numbers over 1,500 objects of applied art and paintings, many of which are quite unique. This collection traces the development of Iranian art from the fourth millennium BC to the present day.
The earliest art of the peoples who inhabited the territory of present-day Iran from the fourth to the first millennium BC is represented by few, but valuable, exhibits. Among them are the hand-moulded ceramic vessels from Nehavend (4th millennium BC), Saveh (2nd millennium BC) and Tepe Sialk (1st millennium BC), which are distinguished for the austere monumentality of their forms. They are painted in black or red pigments or burnished. Among the rarities are the zoomorphic falcon-shaped vessel from Amlash (9th century BC) and the statuette of the goddess of fertility from Susa (2nd millennium BC). The first millennium BC is represented by the Lurestan bronzes, which initiate us to imagery akin to Scythian art.
The most comprehensive collection is that of medieval Iranian art, in which most items come from the period ot the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. A noteworthy group of exhibits represents Iranian pottery from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. The Museum prides itself on having one of the best collections of Iranian pottery in the Soviet Union.
Pottery-making in particular flourished in Iran from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Several cities emerged at that time as centres of ceramics, the most significant of them being Rayy and Kashan. It was from their workshops that the famous minai-lustre- and enamel-painted wares whose ornamentation in its motifs and character is reminiscent of book miniatures, and the wares with turquoise glaze and black painted decoration, emerged. This latter type is illustrated at the Museum by a unique vessel whose shape represents the fantastic bird Sirin. All these articles share an exquisiteness of proportion and a harmonious combination of shape and ornamentation.
The period from the twelfth to the fourteenth century saw also a flourishing of tile-making. Tiles were widely used in Iranian architecture for embellishing fagades and interiors. They were varied in shapes and decoration, and were assembled into large panels which covered the walls of buildings like beautiful multi-coloured carpets. The ornamentation of each separate tile was an independent decorative composition complete in itself. Very often such compositions incorporated various inscriptions, e.g. quotations from the Koran or lines of poetry.
The seventeenth century saw a revival of tile-making in Iran. By that time the character of ornamentation had changed to replace the variegated patterns of tiled panels by compositions based on a single narrative scheme. Among the seventeenth- to nineteenth-century examples in the collection there are many tiles with cobalt blue painted ornamentation, which was a speciality of Kerman, Meshed and Yezd. The decoration of nineteenth-century tiles often represents popular literary subjects or battle and hunting scenes.
Iranian carpets, which won recognition far back in the Sassanian period (3rd to 7th century), enjoyed their golden age in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time carpet-making evolved in all largest cities of Iran. The Museum possesses several excellent examples of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century carpets remarkable for their ingenious ornamental compositions and rich and saturated colouring.
Weaving in Iran is another craft with an age-old tradition. Court weavers of Isfahan, Kashan and Tabriz produced velvets and satins which found market far beyond the confines of Iran. The high standard of Iranian weaving is demonstrated by the specimens of silk, woollen and cotton fabrics from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Of great interest are, for example, the fabrics with representational ornaments. Some of such fabrics, in their treatment of figure compositions, display a marked affinity with miniatures in illuminated manuscripts-a fact which is not surprising, since the preliminary sketching for the weavers was often done by professional miniaturists.
Metalwork,which has been a highly developed craft since ancient times and which reached unprecedented heights during the Sassanian period, received a new impetus during the Middle Ages (12th to 17th century). Copper and bronze wares from that time combine a simplicity of form with elaborate ornamentation executed in a variety of techniques-carving, engraving and gold and silver inlays.
Manuscript illumination and calligraphy were also highly developed in Iran.
The earliest manuscripts in the collection are the Kullijat (Collected Works) by the poet Saadi, copied in 1441 by the calligrapher Human al-Munshi and decorated with exquisite illuminations, and the 1491 Khamsa with 56 miniatures which introduce the reader to the colourful world of Nizami's poetry. The miniatures in the Khamsa present a variety of compositional treatments. They range from skilfully handled many-figured battle and hunting scenes to love scenes of great lyricism and poetic beauty. The miniatures please the eye with their light and vivid palette which seems still more picturesque due to the ample use of gold. Almost every scene incorporates a landscape setting. The landscapes of the Shiraz school feature hills covered with blossoming bushes, cliffs of whimsical shapes, trees in bloom and brooks, while the landscapes of the Herat school are distinguishable by their trees with luxuriant green crowns outlined with yellow contours. The linear treatment of the faces and figures betrays a certain influence of the Shiraz school, but on the whole the iconography is characteristic of the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Herat school.
The sixteenth century is represented in the Museum by some splendid examples, such as the manuscript of The Gold Chain by Jami, copied in 1519 by the Mir Ali al-Husayni and illuminated in the Meshed style.
A fine example of Persian calligraphy and illumination is The Treatise on Calligraphers and Artists by Qazi Ahmad ibn Mir-Munshi al-Husayni copied in 1596-97 and illuminated in the seventeenth century.
The seventeenth century yielded a splendid galaxy of Iranian artists. The best-known of them is perhaps Riza-i-Abbasi. His Portrait of an Old Man, signed and dated 1614, is remarkable for its masterly execution, its calligraphic linear treatment and its subtle and subdued colouring. The contemporary miniaturists of Iran follow the great traditions of their predecessors.
The characteristic features of Iranian oil paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are determined, among other factors, by the historical situation of that period. The extensive diplomatic and trade contacts
between Iran and Western European countries caused an influx of European paintings into the country. This gave Iranian artists a possibility to copy them and to enrich their own repertory of pictorial devices by using light-and-shade modelling and perspective.
The number of extant eighteenth-century oil paintings is relatively small, but the Museum possesses several works from this period.
In the first half of the nineteenth century a new style was evolved by the court painters of Path Ali Shah (1797-1834), the second representative of the Kajar dynasty. The style was named after the dynasty itself. It was manifest in scores of portraits of the Shah, which were commissioned by the Shah and produced by the court painters. Those huge formal portraits showing the Shah in his regal splendour decorated the palace rooms and were presented to foreign ambassadors. A noteworthy example of this style is the Portrait of Path Ali Shah by Mihr Ali.
Having succeeded to the traditions of the monumental and miniature painting of the older days, the oil painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not only marked a new period in the history of Iranian art, but also to a great extent determined its subsequent development in the twentieth century.
Turkish art holds a special position within the culture of the Near and Middle East. It emerged as a national phenomenon during the late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries). Having absorbed the best artistic achievements of Byzantium, Iran and the Arabic countries, it blended them with the local cultural traditions of Asia Minor. Though relatively young, Turkish art, with its outstanding architectural monuments, paintings and works of decorative art, has made a notable contribution to the treasury of world culture.
The collection of Turkish applied art at the Museum (about 100 exhibits) illustrates the period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
The sixteenth century was the golden age of weaving in Turkey. Various fabrics-velvets, brocades, silks and so on-were manufactured in Bursa, Istanbul, Scutari and other cities, and were exported to various countries, including Russia where Turkish velvets and brocades were used for making noblemen's clothes and church vestments.
The silks are mostly decorated with representations of flowers-tulips, carnations and hyacinths-and the colours used are deep red or crimson, yellow and green with additions of gold and silver. The favourite motifs adorning velvet fabrics are large stylized fruits, pomegranate blossoms in oval frames and carnations woven in silver threads. Reticent in their colour scheme and unpretentious in their ornamentation, Turkish fabrics, due to the effective use of colour shades, create an illusion of an extraordinary wealth of decoration and colouring.
The sixteenth century also saw the flourishing of Turkish pottery-making. Its centre was at Iznik, a town on the Sea of Marmora coast, in the neighbourhood of which there were beds of white clay indispensable to the production of high-quality wares. In 1514, Sultan Selim I brought several Iranian potters from Tabriz to Iznik where they embarked upon the production of colour tiles for the decor of palaces, mosques, public baths and other buildings. In addition to tiles, Iznik workshops were also famed for their dishes, bowls and other ceramic wares.
The collection of Turkish ceramics is rather small but fairly versatile. Its bulk is formed by variously shaped dishes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Turkish pottery has a distinctive style in floral ornamentation, which ensures its immediate identification.
The ornamentation of Turkish ceramics, similarly to the ornamentation of textiles, is mainly based on loosely arranged floral elements. Geometric motifs, however, are also recurrent. The borders of dishes were usually painted with smooth curves of ribbon-like clouds or spiral waves surrounded by grass and flowers.
The shapes of Turkish ceramic wares are varied but simple. Their pale-pink or cream-coloured sherd is porous and fragile. They were covered with engobe, then painted and finished off with transparent glaze. The colour range of Turkish pottery is dominated by rich colour hues-either by dark-blue with green and violet, or by coral-red.
Turkish weaponry, especially sabres with characteristically curved blades, maces and damask-steel daggers, was renowned for its superior quality. The armourers (most of them were Armenians or Albanians) decorated the weapons for high-ranking Turkish warriors with niello, incision, engraving, chasing and gem studs. The blades often bear the gold inlaid signature of the armourer and the date of production. Several sabres in the Museum's collection illustrate the superb workmanship of Turkish armourers.
The Turkish section also comprises a small collection of carpets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
An important role in the history of world culture was played by the peoples of the Arabic East. The civilization of the peoples who inhabited Arabia has its origin far back in antiquity. Powerful states had existed there since as early as the mid-first millennium BC: first the Minaean kingdom and later the Sabaean kingdom. In the first millennium BC in the north-west part of Arabia the kingdom of the Nabataeans emerged. The art and architecture of the ancient South Arabic kingdoms were typologically related to the cultures of the West Asiatic peoples.
The Arab Empire, formed in the Middle Ages, embraced a vast territory comprising Arabia itself and also the countries of North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Southern Spain. The medieval cultures of different peoples within the Arabic world had much in common, but at the same time they possessed characteristic local features.
A systematic and comprehensive study of the great contribution made by the Arabic peoples to world art became possible after the victory of national liberation movements in their countries.
The collection of Arabic art is one of the youngest and most rapidly growing collections at the Museum. It mainly consists of works of medieval and contemporary art. Among medieval examples are fine metal wares from Iraq and Syria (13th to 15th century) adorned with engraved and chased ornamentation and silver inlays.
An interesting group of exhibits represents the Valencian faience, also known as Hispano-Moresque pottery. The name goes back to the time when the North African countries and Southern Spain were ruled by caliphs (7th and 8th centuries). The minor arts of these countries, which developed within a common stylistic trend, received the general title of Hispano-Moresque arts. The famous lustred pottery was produced in Moslem Spain from the twelfth century, and in the fifteenth century, after a period of decline the making of lustre-painted wares was revived with a new vigour and splendour. It was then that the Valencian faiences became widely famous outside Spain-both in the East and in Western Europe. They were made in towns near Valencia, one of which was Manises. The Museum possesses several Valencian bowls, dishes and vases from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Their noble laconic shapes, fine floral or geometric ornamentation and the golden sheen of the lustre create an extremely striking visual effect.
The collection of the contemporary art of the Arabic peoples includes paintings and works of applied art from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and Iraq.
The section of Afghan art is also a recently established one and is therefore rather small, one of the reasons being that Afghan culture for a long time remained a "closed book" for art historians outside the country. It was only in the 1920s, when systematic excavations began in Afghanistan for the first time, that the art of this country- which for many centuries has been connected with the countries of the Near and Far East- emerged as a separate subject for art historians to study.
Among the exhibits in this collection special mention should be made of the sculpture dating from the early centuries AD and of the Afghano-Baluchi ceramics and carpets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The department of African art is also fairly new. Organized in the 1960s, it has already accumulated over 600 items. These mainly represent contemporary minor arts, but there are also several very early examples and works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which give an idea of traditional crafts.
A vivid illustration of African art at its most typical is provided by ritual sculptures and masks.
The tropical part of Africa is inhabited by hundreds of various ethnic groups, each imparting its own specific features to its particular artistic activity. Contemporary art historians single out there several principal "artistic schools", which roughly correspond to the main historical and geographical parts of that area. These are the West Sudan, the Guinea coast, the Congo and East Africa.
The collection of African art at the Museum gives a more or less clear idea of the culture in each of these regions.
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