Arts | Oregon

‘Breath of Heaven’ Showcases Ancient Art From Civilization’s Cradle

OPB | Sept. 5, 2013 midnight | Updated: Sept. 5, 2013 11:38 a.m.

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Sixty-four treasured objects from the ancient Middle East culled from notable American collections are now on display at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth: Ancient Near Eastern Art from American Collections features small, iconic pieces rarely exhibited in the Pacific Northwest, according to museum director John Olbrantz, who co-organized the exhibit with Trudy Kawami, research director at the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation.

The two began working on the exhibit in 2007, eventually securing pieces dating between 6000 B.C.–500 B.C. from 21 different lenders, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.

“We wanted the exhibit to represent the very best that’s available in American collections,” says Olbrantz. “The objects are exquisite; they have incredible presence.”

This "Male figure" was excavated from the Nintu Temple, Level VI at Khafaje, and dates to the mid-to-late Early Dynastic Period, 2700–2500 B.C.

This "Male figure" was excavated from the Nintu Temple, Level VI at Khafaje, and dates to the mid-to-late Early Dynastic Period, 2700–2500 B.C.

Penn Museum image no. 152346 / Hallie Ford Museum of Art

Noteworthy images highlighted by Olbrantz include a marble head of a Sumerian goddess excavated in the 1920s, a male figure carved from alabaster around 2700–2500 B.C. and found at Khafaje in present-day Iraq, and a 4,000-year-old bronze of the king Shulgi which was used like a modern-day cornerstone.

Olbrantz and Kawami wrestled 6,000 years of history, more than 10 different cultures and a broad geographic swath into three thematic areas: the Human Realm, the Divine Realm and the Animal Realm. On the gallery walls are maps showing where each piece was unearthed; large photomurals depicting historic sites such as the Great Ziggurat at Ur and the audience hall at Persepolis; and period quotations that Olbrantz — an ancient art historian by training — handpicked from ancient literature and the Old Testament.

A series of free events is tied to the exhibition. They include six Thursday-evening lectures, including one by noted archaeologist Dr. Brian Fagan at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 12; a family activity day on Oct. 12; storytelling sessions about the literature and poetry of ancient Mesopotamia; and four Tuesday-night screenings of films adapted from the mystery novels of Agatha Christie, who was inspired by her work at archaeological sites.

This relief fragment from the Seattle Art Museum was excavated by William Kennett Loftus in August of 1854 from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh.

This relief fragment from the Seattle Art Museum was excavated by William Kennett Loftus in August of 1854 from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh.

Seattle Art Museum / Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The 15-year-old museum is best known for displaying historic and contemporary regional art, including Native American art. But about every other year it has held a significant exhibition on a topic of art history. Past shows have included ancient Egyptian art, Italian drawings from the 16th and early 19th centuries and ancient bronzes of China and Mongolia.

This particular exhibit holds special significance for Olbrantz. He first conceived the idea with the late Jim Romano, curator of ancient art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, shortly before Romano died in a car accident in 2003. Olbrantz has dedicated the exhibit and its accompanying book to Romano, his best friend and “a kindred spirit.”

“The fact that we made this happen,” says Olbrantz, “is really gratifying.”

Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth: Ancient Near Eastern Art from American Collections is on display through December 22, 2013.

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