Review: A former agitprop from Persia arrives at Getty Villa

Propaganda is no longer what it used to be.

These days, a seedy movie like “2000 Mules,” a cinematic big lie about the big lie that rampant voter fraud denied the re-election of America’s last president, is what passes for shrewd disinformation. Widely mocked, it’s a mad “Triumph of the Will” without the formal skills of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl – pollution without beauty, the Triumph of Rubes and Grifters.

Oh, for the bygone days of ancient Persia.

What once was propaganda is glamorously displayed in a beautifully crafted silver plaque that anchors the final room of “Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World,” a new exhibit at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. Made in Constantinople around 629-630 AD, a period when the Eastern Roman power of Byzantium had surprisingly prevailed in a war against the Sasanian Empire of Persia, the nearly 20-inch plaque features an elaborate bas-relief signifying to help cement the triumph. In three registers, it tells the story of David and Goliath.

“Plate with David and Goliath”, Byzantine (Constantinople), circa 629-30 AD. AD, silver

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

David is the replacement for Heraclius, the relentlessly warring Roman ruler. Goliath is the largest, oldest and most powerful representative of Persia, established for a thousand years. At the top, the two agree to fight as a puzzled river god looks on.

In the center, the widest of the three registers, the fight has begun. Goliath has his spear and great shield raised, while David has charged his sling and waves a distracting cloak in his opponent’s face. How things might unfold from here is hinted at by the soldiers arrayed behind the two fighters: David’s pair stand straight and firm, Goliath’s twist and lean, ready to flee.

In the lower register comes the denouement: David knocks Goliath’s head off, presumably with his own sword. Framing them, the giant’s large pile of scattered weapons on the right dwarfs the winner’s small slingshot and three small rocks on the left.

The fine exhibition catalog, prepared by Getty director Timothy Potts and curators Jeffrey Spier and Sara E. Coles, draws a notable historical conclusion. It is believed that Heraclius, in his bloody Byzantine victory over Persia, beheaded the Sasanian commander. This would make the silver plate a rather specific allegory of the Eastern Roman Emperor as God’s designated champion on earth, like David, the victorious underdog in the fight against the Philistine giant.

That’s propaganda! Crafted in solid silver, befitting such a precious image, the spectacularly designed large plate was likely a royal gift made to impress an important dignitary. Heraclius spreads the word. He inflates his profile, accentuating his divine royalty and putting his money where his mouth is.

The show is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different Persian empire. The Achaemenids (550-330 BC), founded by Cyrus the Great and expanded by Darius I, kicked off and grew to encompass 2 million square kilometers – from the Balkans to the Valley of the Indus. It was the greatest empire ever, until Alexander the Great of Greece arrived with his armies and blew things up.

The Parthians (247 BC-224 AD) occupied the Silk Road to China, amassing great wealth through trade and fertilizing themselves with Greek civilization. The Sassanids (224-651 AD), great rivals of voracious Rome, showed remarkable endurance for more than four centuries.

Needless to say, a lot has happened in Persia over a thousand years. Too much, in fact, for a small exhibition to fully represent. “Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World” is strong on examples of material culture – pottery, jewelry, coins, metalwork and stone vessels, architecture and other common objects of life daily, mainly among the elite. But, given the museum’s three small rooms, it’s a miniature sketch of a miniature sketch.

An ancient carved stone relief of a bull and a lion

“Relief with a lion and a bull in combat”, Achaemenid, 359-338 BC. AD, limestone

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Still, there are wonderful individual objects to see. Impressive loans have come from the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Oriental Institute in Chicago and elsewhere. The David and Goliath plate comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Among the works is a fragment of a limestone stair relief from the ceremonial capital of Persepolis. (Each day, an immersive video of the capital’s main palace is shown on the first floor of the Getty Villa; it can also be viewed on getty.edu/persepolis.) In the piece a lion, represented from the front, clung to the back of a bull, carved in profile. Two powerful natural forces, animals with royal affiliations, are locked in mortal combat.

The dynamism of the relief comes from brilliantly executed visual tensions. An organic and serpentine line describing the forms establishes a muscular forward movement, specific to a staircase. The competing perpendicular composition of frontal and profile poses is architectural, like the structure of a building. The repeated modular patterns of animal harnesses and furs emphasize the ornamental function of the relief. Balancing them all is no small feat, masterfully accomplished by a designer whose name is lost to history.

A view of both sides of a small gold coin, one side with a kneeling archer.

“Daric of Darius I”, circa 510 BC. AD, gold.

(American Numismatic Society)

Lions and bulls featured on early Achaemenid coins, but a small gold disc heralds a change: a kneeling archer is the figure of Darius I, whose likeness on the large small coin affirms his position as a source of ultimate power. The tiny coin is just over half an inch wide – 8.36 grams of gold, worth around $500 today – and it’s just one of dozens of coins, seals and carved gemstones from the show.

They are a small but fascinating, style-changing archive of dynasties, rulers, events and timelines in history. Researchers use them to identify all sorts of things, like portraits of celebrities and festivals. The Getty has installed touchpads adjacent to each display of clusters of them, allowing a viewer to examine the object up close and access more information.

A section of colorful glazed brick wall in Darius’ Palace features a magnificent pair of sphinxes — seated, unlike their famous Egyptian cousins, who are mostly reclining. They wear horned crowns signifying deities. Although facing each other, their twisted male heads turn 180 degrees, as if to emphasize their likely role as guardians of the palace, not adversaries.

A white marble bust of a young man

Unknown artist, “Portrait of Alexander the Great”, circa 320 BC.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

The Getty has also inserted a work from its own antiquities collection which fulfills two functions. A highly idealized marble bust of Alexander the Great, sculpted after his death, is its own fictionalized propaganda: it celebrates a powerful human being as incredibly blameless, in order to extend Greek control beyond his incredible lifespan. (The sculpture has undergone minor alterations and suffered significant damage over the centuries.) On the other hand, its placement among Persian objects represents the museum’s effort to expand its own institutional focus on the ancient art of Greece. and from Rome.

Former Iran joins the pack. “Persia,” apparently the first major museum exhibit of its kind, is part of a series that Getty presents. The interactions of Greece and Rome with other Mediterranean cultures – Egypt, Thrace (modern Bulgaria), the Levant (coast of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) and the Eurasian steppes – make the subject of considerable recent research, largely by the Visiting Scholars Program of the Getty Research Institute. It is usefully compiled for catalog publication. Unfortunately, what the “Perse” catalog rightly calls an old “culture shock” can only be evoked in an exhibition on such a modest scale.

“Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World”

Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades
When: Wednesday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Tuesday. Until August 8.
Information: (310) 440-7300, getty.edu

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