Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Ancient Iran from the Air:” acclaimed archaeologist David Stronach presents Georg Gerster’s forthcoming book on Iran, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this Saturday

Georg Gerster's aerial photograph of the Sassanian City of Gu/Firuzabad, Iran. The city is divided into 20 parts, radially structured and extends over a plain crossed by pathways, drainage ditches, and irrigation channels. The tower at the heart of the city was essential for measuring the radial lines and also had a symbolic significance, as did the city’s circular shape. Gerster is about to publish a new book of aerial photographs of ancient Iran. Photo: Georg Gerster.

My first encounter with Swiss photographer Georg Gerster’s magnificent aerial photographs of the monuments of the ancient Near East opened up a fascinating new world—one of tantalizing beauty,  riveting abstraction and amazing compositions.  For over 50 years, Gerster has been delighting audiences the world over with his breathtaking aerial shots, ranging from mountains and deserts to agrarian and industrial landscapes as well as world’s most spectacular archaeological sites and ancient monuments─from the temple at Karnak, Egypt, to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, to the Great Wall of China, to the “big houses” of Caserones above the Tarapacá Gorge in remote Chile.  Not familiar with his work?  Google his name and the images are immediately familiar—they’ve appeared frequently in National Geographic and, in the 1970’s, Gerster did a series of now highly-collectible aerial images for Swiss Air, images which they developed into posters that represent a fabulous fusion of land art, minimalism and Gerster’s brilliant artist’s eye.  He started in the Sudan in 1963, on board a Cessna 72 with a Swedish pilot and has since taken photographs in 111 countries on all six continents.  

Desertification: Sistan, Iran. Barchan dunes in the process of reburying the remains of Dahan-e Ghulaman, an Achaemenid site first excavated in 1962. Georg Gerster, 1977. Photo: Georg Gerster copyright.

Gerster is about to make big news again with the publication of Ancient Iran from the Air, a new book of aerial photos of ancient Iran.  Between April 1976 and May 1978, Gerster flew across the length and breadth of Iran to photograph the memorable landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments that characterize this storied land—the Sassanian city of Bishapur, the Sassanian imperial sanctuary at Tak-kt-I in Suleiman, Luristan, and Cheqa Nargesm in Mahidsasht, Iran—to name a few.  Most of the photographs were safely stashed away in his archives in Switzerland.  

Quite recently, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley and Co-Director, UC Berkeley-Yerevan State University Excavations at Erebuni, working with Gerster and a number of reputed specialists in the art and archaeology of Iran, arranged to have these images published.   Ancient Iran from the Air provides—from a distinctly novel angle—a fresh appraisal of the greater part of the long history of the built environment in this crucial part of the ancient Near East.

Isfahan, the Pre-e Bakran cemetery, near Isfahan. Photo: Georg Gerster copyright.

On Saturday, December 3, 2011, at 2 p.m., Stronach will give a presentation at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor featuring a selection of Gerster’s most arresting aerial views—and include the latest background information about those prehistoric, Achaemenid Persian, Parthian, Sasanian, and early Islamic sites “visited” through the medium of aerial photography.  Stronach is one of the world’s leading experts on ancient Iran, particularly the ancient city Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC).  In 2004, he was honored as the recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement, the highest honor bestowed by the AIA.  In the 1960s and 70s, Stronach was the Director of the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran.  In addition to a long and distinguished teaching career at UC Berkeley, he has delivered lectures on ancient Persia all over the world.

“It is a miracle that these precious images dating before the revolution were preserved,” said Dr. Renée Dreyfus, FAMSF curator of ancient art and interpretation.  “Today, it would be impossible to fly over Iran and capture its dramatically varied landscape and its ancient and fabled sites and monuments.  From these aerial images, you can observe so much more than you can ever glean from visiting this wonderful land.  David Stronach’s new publication will be an invaluable addition to the study of Iran, both ancient and more modern.”

This program, sponsored by the Ancient Arts Council, continues the celebration of Professor David Stronach’s 80th birthday.  The Ancient Arts Council is one FAMSF’s many specialized groups.  It offers regular programming, including lecture and tours, for those who share an interest in ancient art and the preservation and promotion of antiquities and culture of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.

Lake Maharlu, Iran. The level of Lake Maharlu, a salt lake, fluctuates over the year. When it is low, mature reddish brine collects at deep points of the drainage channels near the shore, and salt crystallizes on the lake. 1976. Photo: Georg Gerster, copyright.

In his best-selling catalog The Past from Above (2003)(p. 10) Gerster is quoted as saying ”distance creates an overview, and an overview creates insight,” a truism which is integral to archaeological research.  Aside from their aesthetic impact, Gerster’s photos show the landscape, the geographical context and the area covered by a settlement, together with surrounding natural resources.  An aerial view also occasionally allows for the discovery of some previously unknown monuments that have been invisible from the ground.  

“William M. Sumner, who excavated the Elamite capital at Anshan (Tal-I Malyan) in south-western Iran, wrote to tell me that when he saw an aerial photograph of the site that I had taken when the sun was low in the sky, he saw and understood more in ten minutes that he had done in ten years of regular work on the ground. (The Past from Above, p. 25)  

If you go:  Allow ample time as you won’t want to miss the Legion’s other rare treasures in stone:

The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy on loan trhough August 20, 2011 from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, which is undergoing renovation.  The exhibition, in Galleries 1 and 2, consists of 37 exceptional 15th Century devotional figures, mourners in a royal funeral procession. The sculptures, each approximately sixteen inches high, and carved from the finest alabaster, are from the tomb of John the Fearless (1371–1419), the second duke of Burgundy.  The figures are all cloaked and are representative of all different strata of society.  They appear to be sharing grief by praying, reflecting and singing and represent the highest level of artistic accomplishment, with exquisite treatment of drapery and detailed carving extending to areas not be visible to the public eye.  The figures are displayed so that they can be walked around and examined up close.  In their original setting, the elaborate tomb of John the Fearless located at a monastery on the outskirts of Dijon, they would have been displayed flush against the tomb.  The Mourners are one of the centerpieces of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. (Preview the sculptures in 360º and 3D at

Bernini’s Medusa: on loan from the Museu Capitolini, Rome (through February 12, 2012), Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s remarkable Baroque masterpiece Medusa, believed to date from roughly 1638 to 1648, is on exclusive display in the U.S. at the Legion.  The sculpture has been newly cleaned and restored and installed in the museum’s Baroque gallery 6 with impeccable lighting and nuances previously unnoticeable are detectible.  Believed to date from around 1638 to 1648, this extraordinary work takes its subject from classical mythology, as cited in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It shows the beautiful Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters, caught in the terrible process of transformation into a monster whose hair is a mass of twisting snakes. Onlookers staring directly at her would turn to stone.  The Medusa will be displayed exclusively in the U.S. at the Legion of Honor in the museum’s Baroque gallery 6, where it can be seen in context with the Museums’ great collections of paintings and sculpture from the era of Bernini.  (Take a virtual tour of the Musei Capitolini here.)

Details: “Ancient Iran from the Air,” Saturday, December 3, 2011 – 2:00 pm, Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, San Francisco.  Cost: Free with Museum admission to Ancient Arts Council members; $5 suggested donation/non-members.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment