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Eurasian nomadic art recognized as seminal

By
FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- The ancient art of the nomadic peoples of the Eastern Eurasian steppes has always been considered derivative, but an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum proves that it was an original art that played an influential role on neighboring cultures ranging from the Bulgarian shores of the Black Sea to Northern China and Mongolia.

The show of 200 items, mostly miniature sculptural objects, marks the first exhibition of a recent gift to the Metropolitan by New York art dealer-collector Eugene V. Thaw of gold, silver, and bronze objects from the Eurasian steppes, prime examples of a long-overlooked aesthetic. The Thaw collection is augmented by the museum's own holdings and objects from several New York private collections.

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Eventually the Metropolitan will put on permanent display nomad art that has previously been dispersed among its departments of Greek and Roman art, ancient Near Eastern art, and Asian art. It will be one of the first museums to recognize this art as a major branch of the arts of the ancient world and a seminal source of artistic styles and motifs distinct from that of the nomads' distant neighbors, the Scythians.

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"The art of the steppes, characterized by powerful animal imagery and dynamic designs, is visually compelling to us today, as it must have been in ancient times to the peoples of sedentary societies who came into contact with the pastoral nomads," museum Director Philippe de Montebello said in an interview.

"Art historians are increasingly turning to the study of this tradition as an important source for the decorative arts in Eurasia in subsequent periods."

The exhibition, which will run through Jan. 5, is not arranged chronologically but by category - chariot and horse ornaments, short swords and knives, belt ornaments and fasteners, and garment plaques - because little is known of the history or culture of the nomads who flourished in the first millennium B.C. as livestock breeders, herders, and occasional farmers.

"We are only just beginning to understand this material," James C.Y. Watt, chairman of the museum's department of Asia art and organizer of the show, explained to UPI. "Only metal objects have survived, even in burials that have been found, so that is very limiting. Present-day knowledge of the nomadic world is insufficient for a systematic art-historical exhibition."

The metal objects on display include a wide range of animals known to the steppes peoples -- horses, deer, ibexes, gazelles, camels, wolves, tigers, leopards, rabbits, frogs, bears -- as well as mythological animals including the dragon. There are a variety of raptor birds such as hawks to remind the viewer that the Eurasian nomads are believed to have invented falconry, still a popular sport in Mongolia. The nomads also introduced wheeled vehicles and horseback riding to the Chinese.

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Although many of the subjects depicted in nomad art are violent in nature, some are benign. A jeweled golden buckle depicts a bear devouring an ibex and a bronze belt plaque showing a tiger with a long-eared wild ass in its jaws. A bonze ibex with horns the length of his body stands perkily atop of a canopy finial, surveying the world with a serene expression, and a silver belt plaque is formed of a horse resting comfortably in a kneeling position.

Although some metal objects are hand-wrought, the silver horse and many bronzes were cast in molds using the lost-wax method - highly developed by the nomads -- and could be produced in multiples. Many buckles and plaques were cast in pairs so that they have mirror imagery such as fang-baring wolves going muzzle to muzzle when the buckle is fastened. This is one of many examples of the sophistication of nomadic art.

The exhibition is filled out with examples of Chinese, Iranian, and Black Sea area Greek art that shows nomadic art influences or at least an interchange of artistic ideas. This interaction is most clearly defined in Northern Chinese Art of the Han dynasty in such objects as a naturalistic gilded bronze horse and bronze cauldrons and food containers attributed to nomad artists or cast in China with design features taken from the pastoral world.

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Further eroding China's myth of cultural purity is evidence that the nomads may have introduced plucked stringed instruments to dynastic China. Han dynasty bronze instrument tuners and zither string anchors from the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. are in animal forms common to nomad art, but the wooden instruments themselves have been lost to decay.

Of special interest to Western visitors to the show are several nomad objects found in a European setting. These include harness ornaments in the form of raptor birds and carnivore animals, made of silver with gilded details, and a wolf-shaped bronze belt buckle found at sites of Thracian Greek colonies in Bulgaria that were not only influenced by nomad art but actually manufactured Scythian art objects.

A book, "Nomadic Art from the Eastern European Steppes" (Yale University Press, 233 pages, $39.95, soft cover $24.95) has been published to accompany the show.

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