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Monumental Art of the Assyrian Empire: Dynamics of Composition Styles.

Monumental Art of the Assyrian Empire: Dynamics of Composition Styles. By PAULINE ALBENDA. Sources and Monographs on the Ancient Near East, vol. 3.1. Malibu, Calif.: UNDENA PUBLICATIONS, 1998. Pp. iv + 72, maps, 27 figures, 29 plates. $13 (paper).

In this monograph, Pauline Albenda continues her series of investigations into Assyrian wall reliefs, focusing here on the innovations seen within standardized decorative systems. Reviewing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's reinstallation of its ancient Near Eastern collections, Holland Cotter writes that "Assyrian art is about winning through intimidation" (New York Times, 22 October 1999, p. E39). What Albenda has done is to analyze the artistic strategies that led successive Assyrian kings to victory.

According to the author, there were five basic stylistic principles: (1) activity, both subtle and vigorous; (2) symmetry, especially mirror reflection, repetition, and rotation; (3) centrality, or the ordering of subject matter in tripartite lateral sequences; (4) triangularity, as used particularly in royal lion hunt scenes; and (5) dimensionality, in which human activity is situated in space and time. Each principle is discussed in its own chapter, accompanied by line drawings and photographs in separate sections at the end of the book. While the emphasis throughout is on elucidating royal innovations, only the dimensionality chapter is organized formally by king. It is more or less left to the reader to pull together a list of new devices introduced in specific reigns and to keep the chronology and historical context straight.

For Assurnasirpal II, the new features Albenda identifies include tighter, more precise groupings of subjects, with the lion hunt rendered in a taut triangle of king, prey, and chariot, rather than in its previously linear arrangement. In his battle scene reliefs, the Assyrians progress inexorably at a constant rate of speed, steadfast against the enemy's fragmented directionalism.

At Sargon II's new palace at Khorsabad, there are for the first time double processions, as well as pictorial ordering within and between rooms. His siege reliefs remove the attacked citadel from its formerly central position, focusing instead on the besieging Assyrians. In Sargon II's landscapes, the horizon rises to the top of the panel, setting the Assyrians firmly in foreign parts.

Sennacherib pioneered new vertical alignments among registers, thereby creating tiered depths of field. His scenes of foreign workers effectively use repetition in order to demonstrate royal control over the captive labor force.

Numerous innovations mark the reliefs of Assurbanipal. His battle scenes, for example, are organized in circular routes with varying densities of figures. In his well-known panels depicting the defeat of the camel-mounted Arabs, their demise is rendered by a sequence of falling and fallen camels and riders. Rotation symmetry is fully developed, and processions move in more than one direction.

The foregoing summaries give an idea of the wealth of acute observations and stimulating analyses Albenda offers at every turn. The book is refreshingly free of the dense verbiage too often characteristic of art-historical prose in recent years. Yet on occasion, the author's economy of expression left this reviewer wishing for more discursiveness. Take for instance her brief mention on p. 4 of the role of natural light in Assyrian reliefs. This important issue with its many ramifications could surely have benefited from more than two short paragraphs. To pick another example, one paragraph (p. 29) provides not nearly enough scope for exploring the relationship between Assyrian relief sculpture and painting. So few scholars currently treat Assyrian art that the author's modest brevity is all the more keenly felt.

As already noted, the illustrations are at the end, the photographs commendably on semi-glossy stock. But the editors would have much better served the book by integrating the text, line drawings, and photographs, with all seventy-two pages on plate quality paper. The resulting price increase from the present bargain of $13 would not have been ruinous. For a monograph like this one, where most of the arguments depend on illustrative support, it seems counterproductive to separate the material into three parts, especially given the fact that computerized programs make image layout so easy these days. Even the plates themselves are sometimes awkwardly arranged, particularly detrimental in the case of the frieze continuations (ills. 516, 7/8 [at right angles to each other!], 14/15, 21/23). The use of graphic design technology would have greatly enhanced the book. The editors may wish to reassess their own "dynamics of composition styles" before undertaking another art-historical publication.

These production matters aside, Albenda has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the Assyrian period as an era of intense artistic creativity. In the service of empire, the wall reliefs demanded ever more ingenious responses to the challenges of representing standardized subjects. Even as the Assyrians won their battles militarily, they triumphed artistically in their palaces.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Foster, Karen Polinger
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Words:795
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