At the beginning of the last millennium before the Common Era, in the ninth century B.C., the idea of empire was stretching its legs. For the next 200 years, the Assyrians had claimed territories across the Middle East and Central Asia, from the Persian Gulf to the present-day Turkish southern province of Mersin, encompassing a wide swath of eastern Anatolia and snaking down throughout the Levant and most of the Nile that span Egypt.
Yet, despite its then-unrivaled military and administrative prowess overseeing such vast and diverse regions and peoples, the material culture of its palace artisans remains as the gleaming legacy of its brawny civilization whose visual motifs appear to be more Babylonian than Hittite. In its former imperial pale, millions of Syriac speakers are descendants of the Assyrians, characterized, in retrospect, by the decadence of its spoils transmuted into art.
Sculpted with the promise of earthly immortality, Assyrian palaces were vessels of aesthetic splendor glorifying the hyper-masculine strength of its conquests. The exhibition “Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq” at Getty Villa attests to the power of physical might celebrated through a steady flux of conflicts and festivities that preceded the classical notion of tragedy and comedy in mimetic works of earthly representation.
Mostly on loan from the British Museum in London, the special curation of ancient Assyrian sculpture is temporarily on display within the lavish complex of the Italianate mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The works span the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C. and are fronted by a series of 19th-century expedition drawings by English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard gleaned from the Getty Research Institute.
Layard knew how to decipher cuneiform and employed his skills as a draughtsman and art historian when observing the monuments of Nineveh firsthand in 1849 and 1853. As the author of “Nineveh and Its Remains," Layard was a name of note among the eastward travelers of late colonial British society. It is not by coincidence that he simultaneously assumed the roles of politician and diplomat following his keen, exacting illustrations of elaborate reliefs.
The drawing "Siege of a City on the Bank of a River,” which Layard made on the spot during his second expedition to Assyria, has no comparably sized parallel among the reliefs held under the museum light for moderns to see in California today. It shows two broad, horizontal tracts of riparian terrain, as a royal procession on one side of a river is juxtaposed with battle scenes on the other.
The British Museum’s loans are, essentially, the shared multinational treasures of Assyrian people in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. In reference to Layard and the colonial context of archaeological and museological history, the tangible heritage of the anonymous Assyrian artists whose work is curated at the Getty Villa speaks to the problematic nature of universalizing the appreciation of cultural artifacts.
The repercussions of modernism are still felt and endured by those who have inherited non-Western identities, including people who speak endangered languages and whose traditions, whether secular or religious, preserve older ties to land and community than that prescribed by current national prerogatives. Despite vast differences in time and geography, the importance of ancient Assyrian art is not merely to appease an anachronistic curiosity.
And it is just the collapsibility of temporal and regional exoticism to the immediacy of the moment, perceived through a prism of visual symmetry, that keeps the contemporaneity of Assyrian art fresh. As exhibited at the Getty Villa, the reliefs have been restored and conserved with profound attention to detail. Their contours are as vibrant as they are lucid, communicating the social codes of their day when bulls, lions, eunuchs and musicians competed for royal favor.
One such gypsum relief, titled, "Royal Lion Hunt” is dated 645-640 B.C., during the reign of King Ashurbanipal. Excavated from a dig in the North Palace in Nineveh, the mane of the lion it depicts is clearly engraved and bears an optically rich geometry as sharp as the beast's claws as it emerges from a cage, jaw down, with a penetrating, carnivorous glare. The stone, split in two and standing together, shows three illustrative scenes carved lengthwise.
Each scenario is a demonstration of the lion subdued. The killing, enslavement and exhibition of the caught lion can be thought of as similar to the possession and glorification of Eastern civilizations as they exist in the palm of Western methods of art and science, which, beautify, and thereby seek to cleanse the guilt of an underlying postcolonial, geopolitical strain. Assyrian palaces shot, chained and displayed lions as a proud source of authority.
Interestingly, the Orientalist painting that was in vogue when Layard was documenting his archaeology on the Assyrian palace often used the image of a lion as a metaphor for the despotic rulers who were imagined to slam their iron fists over the wild, far-flung territories whose ancient ruins and the myths that encircle them continue to impact lives of people in the lands where eastern Turkey borders Syria, Iraq and Iran.
For sovereigns overseeing a major empire, that which is unexamined is not worth conquering. In other words, palaces in Iraq spoke to that aspect of elite Assyrian culture which was concerned with how its rulers were perceived. “The Humiliation of the Elamite Kings,” also uncovered at the North Palace of Nineveh, showed how during the reign of Ashurbanipal in 645-650 B.C., even Assyrians, who to museum-goers in California would symbolize the primeval origins of civilization in the East, had their own directional complex.
Assyrians in ancient days very well could have considered themselves to be “Western,” or central, against the fringe realms they vanquished. “The Humiliation of the Elamite Kings" is a testament to their cruelty, as they not only forced their captives from the eastern neighboring kingdom of Elam to become their servants but engraved that conversion and their domination onto the stone of their kings’ highest plane of worldly habitation.
Such reliefs as “The Humiliation of the Elamite Kings" are provident for students of premodern forms of anthropology, as the distinctions of the peoples of Assyria and those from Elam are discernible by the features of their respective clothes and bodies. After thoughtfully reading the curatorial analyses, the diverse characteristics of the sculpted figures come alive, patterned with a visual literacy as legible as the cuneiform alongside them to any Assyriologist.