Met Museum exhibits Mesopotamian art

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 21, 2003 at 1:13 PM
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NEW YORK, May 21 (UPI) -- Just when much of the world is mourning the wartime looting of precious art from Iraqi museums, the Metropolitan Museum has opened an exhibition of more than 400 rare and exquisite artifacts created by ancient Mesopotamian cultures on loan from museum collections outside Iraq.

It is reassuring to view the best of what has been preserved of Tigris-Euphrates-Indus Valleys art from the dawn of recorded history by cultural institutions in Paris, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, as well as Ankara, Karachi, Riyadh, Damascus, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Fifty-four museums in more than a dozen countries have contributed to the show.

The argument that great universal institutions have no right to their holdings of the great art of other nations, considered by critics to be "illegal booty," will never again hold water. If these museums had not acquired and carefully preserved examples of Iraq's rich cultural heritage, who knows how little of it would have survived recent events in that country.

"After Kabul and now Baghdad, you have to reconsider whether having all your eggs in one basket is the best thing," observed Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, in an interview.

De Montebellow pointed out that the good news declared by "Art of the First Cities," a major show that was seven years in the planning, is that much has survived. The show would have been even richer if it had not been boycotted by Iran and if Syria had not withdrawn 90 works from the show. Loans from Iraq were, of course, out of the question.

Nevertheless, the exhibit is expected to draw some of the largest crowds in the museum's long history of blockbuster shows. It will run through Aug. 17 and will not travel elsewhere.

Chronologically and geographically arranged, the show begins with the art of Uruk, believed to be the first city of civilization with about 40,000 inhabitants, and follows the proliferation of urban centers throughout Sumer, the southern region of Mesopotamia. The time slot is the fourth and particularly the third millenniums B.C., when Egypt's civilization was coming into flower independently.

"The art produced in that distant place and time is little known to the general public," De Montebello remarked. "But the roots of our modern world can be traced back to developments that took place in and around Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, and this show signals a watershed moment in our appreciation of ancient civilizations."

Most representative of the luxurious way of life achieved in this early era is a reconstructed "Great Lyre," a harp whose front panel is decorated with a gold and lapis lazuli bull's head and delicately inlaid mythological scenes. It was found in a tomb excavated in Ur, dating to 2,500 B.C. and containing the bodies of three women, probably court musicians or dancers.

This is on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology in Philadelphia and there is a similar example in the British Museum. A third lyre, one of the treasures of the National Museum in Baghdad, is known to be missing from that institution along with the world-famous Warka (Uruk) limestone vase dating to 3,000 B.C. A photograph of the vase is included in the exhibition.

It took some special pleading on the part of Met curator Joan Aruz and associate exhibitions director Mahrukh Tarapor to get loans from museums in Middle Eastern for both political and religious reasons.

The National Museum of Saudi Arabia was reluctant to contribute a limestone sculpture of a standing male nude, a forbidden subject in the Islamic faith and never on display in Riyadh, but it was finally loaned to the Met. Syria finally broke down and sent three exhibits, including a powerful little statue of a king of Mari wearing a tufted skirt from the National Museum collection in Aleppo.

Figures of kings, none finer than a copper bust of a profusely bearded Akkadian ruler from the Met's own collection, are scattered throughout the show. The most interesting are several stone sculptures of a king also renowned as an architect, Gudea of Ladash. One of them hewn from beautiful black diorite show Gudea seated with a tablet on his lap depicting an architectural plan for a fortress, a stylus, and a graduated ruler.

There are not as many sculptures of females, but a statuette of a princess of Lagash whose lower part is lost, is of superb quality down to the feathery carving of her joined eyebrows and the fringes on her dress. Terra cotta statuettes of noble ladies with fantastic headdresses found at Mohejo-Daro, an Indus valley capital, are crude by comparison.

But a real headdress of opulent beauty with earrings to match is the dramatic centerpiece of one gallery. It was made for Queen Puabi of Ur and consists of a floral comb, leafy wreaths, hair rings, and ribbons wrought of pure gold and sized large to fit over a thick wig. Nearby are Puabi's beaded cape and jewelry, preserved by the University of Pennsylvania Museum since their discovery by university archaeologists in the 1920s.

The royal tombs of Ur also rendered up the British Museum's famous "Standard of Ur," probably the sounding box of a musical instrument, inlaid with shell and lapis lazuli and decorated with scenes of court and rural life. It is exhibited along with other tomb contents including an ancient game board with dice, a stunningly designed gold dagger, and many cylinder seals with royal names spelled out in Sumerian cuneiform writing.

These stone seals, exquisitely etched with human and animal figures as well as inscriptions, appear throughout the exhibit alongside samples of their impressions in wax that enable the viewer to appreciate the overall design. Thousands of such seals and cuneiform tablets, small and easy to conceal, were reported stolen from several museums in Iraq in both the 1991 and 2003 wars.

The exhibit is accompanied by a scholarly, sumptuously illustrated book -- "Art of the First Cities," Yale University Press, 540 pages, $75.

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