West Asia: Ancient legends, Modern Idioms

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Artists of western Asia are heirs to the first civilizations known to man and their landscape is rich with examples of art, from the first human-form statues to Islamic and modern art. In the twentieth century, artists borrowed elements from their respective ancient patrimonies in an effort to create a national and regional cultural identity. Several artists’ groups formed between the 1930s and ’60s adopted European artistic modes of expression to produce works inspired by their heritage and by a rapidly disappearing landscape victim to urban migration and industrialization. This trend was most evident in Iraq, Jordan, and, to a limited extent, Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. Each country had its unique stages of development characterizing its artistic production, forging a synthesis of ancient western Asian cultures and Western styles. This unique synthesis is represented in the work of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in Iraq, and the Jewish Bezalel school of the early 1920s in Jerusalem. Jewish artists, traumatized by the Holocaust, rejected their European roots and turned to “Canaanite” myths and symbols in their quest for a national Hebrew identity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, life in many villages of western Asia had much in common with ancient life. Intrigued by this reflection of their heritage, artists depicted idyllic scenes of village life in areas such as the marshes of southern Iraq, a region ravaged in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein’s regime drained the wetlands and relocated the inhabitants.

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