Press release

New Installation of Central Asian Art at Metropolitan Highlights Remarkable Treasure Traveling for First Time Outside Russia

Opened September 19, 2002
Great Hall Balcony (southwest), second floor

A new installation focusing on the art of Central Asia is on view on the Great Hall Balcony of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, illustrating the vibrancy and diversity found in objects created in the vast realm that stretched between Iran and China in ancient times. The 37 works of art in Glimpses of the Silk Road: Central Asia in the First Millennium are drawn primarily from the Metropolitan's collections of Asian and Ancient Near Eastern art, and include important loans as well as recent Museum acquisitions.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, stated: "An astonishing range of art was produced along the Silk Road during the first millennium, as our new installation demonstrates. Two ivory rhyta, on display for the first time outside Russia, are particularly remarkable. They are not only magnificent examples of ivory sculpture but also major achievements of Central Asian Hellenism. We are grateful to Vladimir A. Nabatchikov, General Director of the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, for this two-year loan."

The art of Central Asia is an amalgam of influences, combining Mediterranean imagery and Near Eastern motifs with Chinese and Indian features, that were transmitted throughout the region along overland caravan routes that later became known as the "Silk Road." A variety of ethnic groups has long inhabited the region, with nomads roaming the northern steppes and interacting with settled populations in the oasis areas. Two such nomadic tribes, the Parthians and later the Kushans, established control of the western reaches of Central Asia (roughly present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan), long a critical crossroads for cultural interchange. Art produced under their dominion (second century B.C.- fourth century A.D.) demonstrates an original interpretation of Hellenistic traditions, which were introduced to the region with Alexander the Great's conquest in 326 B.C., and maintained by ties with an expanding Roman Empire.

Chinese taste and technology, first transmitted with Emperor Han Wudi's (r. 141 – 87 B.C.) subjugation of the region, is reflected in the art created in the regions east of the Pamir Mountains. China provided the fabled silk for which the overland trade routes traversing Central Asia were named. Merchants, monks, and pilgrims, from various geographic areas and different backgrounds, transmitted luxury goods and raw materials, as well as religious beliefs , artistic styles and motifs, and technological innovations along these caravan routes.

Highlights of the installation include the ivory rhyta with complex relief decorations – one rhyton with a lion-griffin figure and the other with a centaur – from Nysa (in present day Turkmenistan). These extraordinary works of art were found among the second-century B.C. treasures unearthed in 1948 at the site. An incense burner/lamp (brazier) dating to the first or second century, on loan from a private collection, is another masterpiece. This elaborate bronze brazier with four-winged figures forming the feet demonstrates the melding of Indian and Hellenistic imagery found in the art of the Kushan Empire. Kushan multiculturalism is also reflected in four painted panels depicting Indian and Iranian gods.

The fascinating blend of eastern and western traditions that defines Central Asian art is also illustrated in sculptures from various sites, and in rare Buddhist wall paintings from the Kucha kingdom on the northern branch of the Silk Road, and from Khotan on its southern extension. An unusual sixth- or-seventh-century pottery model of a Bactrian camel provides a tantalizing glimpse of the trade caravans. Possibly derived from Dionysiac imagery, the three enigmatic figures on its packboards (two supporting a slumping third in the center) demonstrate the spread of western motifs to China. Two recently acquired examples of the lively metalwork, produced under the Tibetan rule of much of Central Asia from the mid-seventh to the mid-ninth century, as well as contemporaneous Chinese and Sasanian silver vessels, are among the objects on display.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a variety of education programs will be offered, including a series of gallery talks and a lecture ("Power, Wealth, and Salvation on the Silk Road") by Albert Dien, professor emeritus of Stanford University, on Sunday, October 6.

The installation was organized by James C. Y. Watt, Brooke Russell Astor Chairman, and Denise Patry Leidy, Associate Curator, of the Metropolitan's Department of Asian Art, together with Joan Aruz, Curator in Charge, and Elisabetta Valtz Fino, Associate Curator, of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.

Installation design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Sophia Geronimus, Senior Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer.

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