Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

West Asia: Ancient Legends, Modern Idioms

Artists of western Asia are heirs to the first civilizations known to man, and their landscape is rich with examples of art, from the first human-form statues to Islamic and modern art. In the twentieth century, artists borrowed elements from their respective ancient patrimonies in an effort to create a national and regional cultural identity. Several artists’ groups formed between the 1930s and ’60s adopted European artistic modes of expression to produce works inspired by their heritage and by a rapidly disappearing landscape victim to urban migration and industrialization. This trend was most evident in Iraq, Jordan, and, to a limited extent, Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Each country had its unique stages of development characterizing its artistic production, forging a synthesis of ancient western Asian cultures and Western styles. This unique synthesis is represented in the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in Iraq, and the Jewish Bezalel school of the early 1920s in Jerusalem. Jewish artists, traumatized by the Holocaust, rejected their European roots and turned to “Canaanite” myths and symbols in their quest for a national Hebrew identity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, life in many villages of western Asia had much in common with ancient life. Intrigued by this reflection of their heritage, artists depicted idyllic scenes of village life in areas such as the marshes of southern Iraq, a region ravaged in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein’s regime drained the wetlands and relocated the inhabitants.

In the last thirty years of the century, artists continued to borrow from their past but became more concerned with their immediate reality, drawing on ancient symbolism and mythology to portray contemporary political and social concerns. After years of conflict and several wars, the landscape itself became a symbol for self-determination, the redefinition of identity, and resistance to occupation (Fateh Moudarres, Refugees). Artists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Cyprus, as well as Israeli and Palestinian artists, have produced a large body of works dealing with contemporary issues of contested ancestral lands using photography, new media technology, sculptural installation, and digital processes (1999.240).

Art Inspired by the Ancient Landscape
The influence of ancient Sumerian and Assyrian art is commonly seen in public monuments in Iraq (Jawad Salim, Monument to Freedom). The colossal Babylonian human figure is a common theme in Iraqi sculpture (Ismail Fattah, Man and Mask). The landscape of the ancient city of Petra has inspired more twentieth-century Arab artists than any other ancient site, bringing together poets and visual artists in collaborative projects dedicated to its enduring beauty (Ziad Dalloul, Kitab al-Mudun: Petra). One Jordanian artist devoted over two decades of study and exploration to this ancient landscape (Suha Shoman, Legend of Petra II).

Works Inspired by Myth and Folktale
Western Asia is the source of many myths and legends, and each country has its favorites, stories that have become integral to the literary culture of each nation. For example, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (Suad al-Attar, Gilgamesh and Enkido) and Phoenician legends have been recontextualized into contemporary experiences allowing for associations between past, present, and future. Folktales passed down from one generation to the next became popular, especially among self-taught artists, as source material. Artists capitalized on audience familiarity with the characters and their attributes, introducing political and social commentaries in indirect and sometimes abstract presentations.

Signs and Symbols
Rooted in ancient beliefs, signs and symbols are integral elements of all art forms of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites, Hittites, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, and other ancient civilizations of western Asia. Many of these signs and symbols constituted a rational representational vocabulary; they also had magical and supernatural attributes. Commonly found on vernacular objects such as decorative vessels, amulets, wall murals, crafts, carpets, textiles, and furniture, ancient signs and symbols have been appropriated by modern and contemporary artists of the region. In the 1920s, for instance, Israeli artists of the first generation of European immigrants to Palestine made reference to ancient religious symbols as a way of creating an authentic Jewish art. Signs have also been used by artists in works that explore mystical symbolism and the subconscious, appearing either as part of the composition (Kareem Rissan, Iraqi Legend) or as the primary focus of the work (Mustafa al-Hallaj, Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man).