Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 4, 2018
Zainab Bahrani Art of Mesopotamia New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016. 376 pp.; 414 ills. Paper $87.50 (9780500292754)
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When teaching a course on the art of Mesopotamia, perhaps the greatest challenge has been the absence of a current textbook on the subject. As Zainab Bahrani notes in her introduction, “since the mid-twentieth century, books on Mesopotamian art have fallen out of favor” (8). This lack may be explained by the opinion of some scholars that the ancient Near East produced no art at all, on the assumption that the category of “art” excludes objects created for other purposes. The standard text in the field, Henri Frankfort’s The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, was first published in 1954, with a fourth edition in 1970, and a fifth edition with supplementary notes and bibliography by Michael Roaf and Donald Matthews in 1996. While recognized as a foundational work in the field, it is woefully out-of-date in terms of its descriptive text, lack of distinction between excavated and non-excavated artworks, and dated methodological approaches. Understandably, it does not resonate with today’s student. Those who teach surveys of the art of the ancient Near East or Mesopotamia have pieced together articles, chapters from books, and primary sources. The absence of a comprehensive textbook, however, coupled with students’ lack of familiarity with the region, presents problems for undergraduates. Bahrani’s new textbook, Art of Mesopotamia, skillfully fills this enormous void in the field with engaging and accessible writing, a comprehensive historiographical review of Mesopotamian art history and archaeology, a selection of artworks that goes well beyond the established canon, up-to-date and innovative methodological approaches, and themes that will strike a chord with students and demonstrate the relevance of studying the art of ancient Mesopotamia today.

The chronological scope of this book is expansive, as it covers in depth the arts of early civilizations in Mesopotamia from ca. 3500 BCE to the Parthian-Arsacid Dynasty in ca. 300 CE. The inclusion of material that postdates Alexander’s invasion of the Near East in a survey of ancient Mesopotamia is uncommon but welcome, as it shows the continued interconnectedness of Mesopotamia with the Mediterranean world. What is more, this extensive coverage is also bookended by an overview in the first chapter of the arts of the Neolithic period stretching back to 9000 BCE, including the exciting discoveries at Göbekli Tepe, and in the final chapter by a short discussion of the ways the art of ancient Mesopotamia influenced Islamic art. The geographical range of the book goes beyond Mesopotamia in its inclusion of a chapter on Achaemenid Persian art. This addition is logical, given the conquest of Mesopotamia by Cyrus the Great, who claimed the historical royal titles used by Mesopotamian rulers—king of Sumer and Akkad, and king of Babylon.

The approach of Art of Mesopotamia is also novel. At the outset of the book, Bahrani states that it “begins with the premise that ancient Mesopotamian art is an important enough topic to merit attention in its own right, even while the arts are undoubtedly always part of their greater context” (8). Many books on ancient art focus primarily on the social function of the works. While Bahrani clearly addresses these issues through analysis of context, she also highlights these works as objects of art. Bahrani makes three key points to support her attention to the aesthetic qualities of these objects. First, the art and architecture of Mesopotamia played an important role in the early history of the discipline of art history, appearing in the writings of Vasari, Winckelmann, Hegel, and others. This important point is often overlooked by scholars who are perhaps more familiar with discussions of Greek and Roman art in these early texts, and it is good that Bahrani calls it to the attention of students first encountering the art of ancient Mesopotamia. She provides further analysis of the historiography of the field in the first chapter of the book, “The Search for Origins: Mesopotamia and the Cradle of Civilization.”

Second, Bahrani discusses the significance of the founding of the modern public museum in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which coincided with the rediscovery of ancient Mesopotamia through archaeological excavations. The exhibition of works of art from Mesopotamia in Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century had a great impact on artists at the time. As Bahrani notes, although today this is often ignored, Alfred Barr considered it important enough to include it in his now famous chart on the origins of Cubism and Abstraction for the opening exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. Bahrani also highlights modern and contemporary artworks from the Middle East that draw upon the art of ancient Mesopotamia. Those from recent decades dominated by war, such as the work of Hanaa Malallah, invoke ancient Mesopotamia as a place of “mourning and identity” (10). The placement of this discussion in the introduction alerts the reader, most likely an undergraduate student, to the artistic and political relevance of ancient Mesopotamian art today.

Third, Bahrani brings the reader’s attention to the extensive artistic and technical innovations of ancient Mesopotamia. For example, Mesopotamian artisans developed the lost-wax method of copper and bronze casting during the fourth and third millennia BCE in Mesopotamia, and its artistic potential is evident in two impressive large-scale, third-millennium sculptures, the head of a king from Nineveh and the nude male standard bearer from Bassetki. Bahrani highlights this critical artistic technique in a box feature, with a clear explanation and step-by-step illustrations of the process. She also emphasizes genres first seen in Mesopotamia that become important in the history of art, including commemorative or historical public monuments such as the famous limestone stele of Naramsin, which celebrates the victory of an Akkadian ruler of Mesopotamia over the neighboring Lullubi in Iran. Performative narrative is another artistic innovation of Mesopotamia, an early example of which can be seen on the Uruk vase from the Eanna precinct, whose relief sculpture, Bahrani tells us, blurs the boundaries between gods and their representatives, creating a liminal zone of representation that aids in the efficacy of the image in sacred ritual (46–48).

The organization of the book is clear and will benefit its primary reader. The introduction, fourteen chapters, and brief epilogue can be divided up neatly for a semester-long class. A more detailed table of contents appears before each chapter, after which is a box that includes the names and dates of periods, the major centers or sites, notable facts and events, important artworks, and technical or stylistic developments in art. Under this box of useful information appears a clear map. The chronological ordering of the book makes it easy to follow, while the highlighted themes and box features in each chapter—including topics such as connoisseurship and archaeology, Sumerian gods and myths, death and the afterlife, iconoclasm, and images of royal women, to name but a few—pique the interest of students. Terms in bold throughout the book are defined in a useful glossary. Bahrani’s careful selection and treatment of primary written sources help flesh out the meaning and functions of the artworks discussed. The over 400 high-quality color illustrations, some of which provide views that are not regularly illustrated, further aid in comprehension of these objects, as do clearly drawn and well-labeled plans of buildings and sites, some of which use color for added clarity.

The devastating destruction of ancient artifacts, structures, and sites in the Near East that has been ongoing for decades due to war and regional instability is on the minds of all who study the art and architecture of this part of the world. It is, therefore, sadly fitting and important that Bahrani ends this volume with an epilogue that brings this issue to the fore of students’ minds. Intriguingly, the epilogue opens by pointing out the reverence that ancient Mesopotamians showed their works of art and structures. This veneration is evidenced through conservation efforts described in ancient texts, such as the instructions for building and restoration rituals, and is seen in actual works of art with ancient repairs, such as the Uruk vase. Bahrani rightly compares these ancient practices to our own modern concerns for cultural heritage. The tension between conservation and destruction in this epilogue is felt intensely by the reader. This disquiet is perhaps the intention of the author, as it serves to raise our consciousness about the devastating impact that the destruction of the past, as part of the present, has on our own histories and identities.

In my own classroom, Bahrani’s Art of Mesopotamia energized and served as a springboard for class discussions on a variety of important and fascinating topics. The contemporary methodological approaches and themes engagingly conveyed in Bahrani’s volume appeal to today’s student. Frankfort’s The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient can now be retired and appreciated as a product of its era, and a new generation of students will certainly be inspired by this volume on the art of Mesopotamia. Bahrani’s excellent book is a great asset to the field of Mesopotamian art history, one that is long overdue and greatly appreciated. 

Cynthia Colburn
Professor, Art History Department, Pepperdine University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.