Assyrian reliefs forebode Iraqi egomania

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Posted by andreas from ( on Friday, January 03, 2003 at 4:05AM : (New Jersey)

Assyrian reliefs forebode Iraqi egomania

Friday, January 03, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

It's easy to laugh at Saddam Hussein's edifice complex -- not just the innumerable outdoor portraits on gigantic plinths everywhere throughout Iraq, but the little details, like the way he stamps his name into every brick manufactured for the mosques, palaces and military structures he has erected. Vanity could only be mass-produced like that today. Or so we think.

Actually, that kind of obsessively transparent propaganda is a hoary tradition in Iraq, as a new installation at the Brooklyn Museum makes clear. Three thousand years ago, the mother of all warlike cultures grew up in the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris, and it was called the Assyrian Empire. Much of the prophetic literature in the Bible is actually about the threat posed by the Assyrians, who did eventually sack Jerusalem in 722 B.C.

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The Brooklyn Museum has just reinstalled a series of 12 gigantic alabaster reliefs that were carved in Nimrud, a little north of Baghdad, soon after 883 B.C., when Ashur-nasir-pal II assumed the Assyrian throne. The reliefs were assembled into a series of awesomely ornate rooms in a gigantic palace built by the king in his new capital, Kalhu (where Nimrud now stands).

Assyrian reliefs and their sphinxes -- gigantic, three-sided sculptures showing the body of a bull mounted by the head of a full-bearded man -- are quite common in major international museums. You can see them in Paris (a delightful room of alabaster sphinxes in the Louvre, in rows), London, Berlin, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They are common because they were so plentiful. Though the Assyrian empire lasted a bare 350 or so years, it spent much of that time carving testimonials to its kings' fidelity to religion and love of the hunt.

These things were meant to awe, and they still do. The Brooklyn Museum has reinstalled its reliefs in a long, high-ceilinged hall leading to its Beaux Arts Court on the third floor, setting them against deep indigo walls. Colossal figures walk there, kings and genies, and go about their 1st millennium B.C. duties, like spreading pollen and sending arrows into stags. Inspired perhaps by Egyptian models, the Assyrians developed their own, more muscular way of depicting the human form, with stylized musculature and great, staring eyes.

Alabaster is a soft, almost transparent rock (the wall over the southern entrance to Pennsylvania Station in Newark is made of alabaster), much prized for its warm glow. But the Assyrians chose it for its ease of handling. All these panels were once thickly and brightly painted, and you can see traces of pigment here and there, if you look sharp. The Brooklyn reinstallation does a fine job making the formal majesty of these works discernible against the dark blue walls (the beige-on-beige of the carvings, especially when covered with cuneiform inscription, does not naturally give a great deal of contrast).

In 879 B.C. Ashur-nasir-pal II celebrated the completion of these carvings and his two-acre palace with a great party; 69,754 guests attended, marveling at the size and vigor of the carvings. But within a few generations the palace was abandoned. In 1840, a 23-year-old Briton, Austen Henry Layard, noticed a mound from his raft as he floated down the Tigris and rediscovered them. So many were removed that the British Museum in London could not handle them all, and Layard began selling them to museums around the world. After stops in Boston and the New York Historical Society, these 12 panels came to Brooklyn in 1937.

These stones are reminders that grandiloquence is a very old thing in the Middle East. The Assyrians were wiped away in a blink, leaving these lovely rocks behind -- but little else. Reinstallation of 12

Alabaster Assyrian Reliefs

Where: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn

When: A permanent exhibition. Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. first Saturday of every month

How much: Contribution of $6 adults, $3 students and seniors is requested. Call (718) 638-5000 or see www.brooklynmuseum .org

-- andreas
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