Iran Modern Highlights Contemporary Art History in Tehran

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1977. Mirror, reverse glass painting, and plaster on wood. 41 1/2 x 41 1/2 in. (105.4 x 105.4 cm). Image courtesy of Asian Society, New York

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1977 part of Iran Modern. Mirror, reverse glass painting, and plaster on wood. 41 1/2 x 41 1/2 in. (105.4 x 105.4 cm). Image courtesy of Asian Society, New York

ART REVIEW: Iran Modern is a reminder that there was a time when Iran had a symbiotic relationship with the West


Houshang Pezeshknia, Khark, 1958. Watercolor on cardboard H. 20 1/6 x W. 27 9/16 in.. Babak Pezeshknia Collection. Image courtesy of Asian Society, New York

NEW YORK, NY., —The recent historic nuclear deal agreement between Iran, the United States and five other world powers have continued to generate a lot of mixed reactions across the globe. While some think the deal to temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear ambition is a great deal, others have condemned it. Israel, for instance, has vehemently denounced the deal, calling it a threat to Israel’s existence. Even in the United States, the debates have been toxic. Some Democrats and Republicans have expressed disdain for the agreement, condemning the Obama Administration for supporting a deal that does not force Iran to totally dismantle its nuclear plants. Many of those who have criticized the Iran deal point to Iran’s history. Iran, they contend, cannot be trusted, and that the only reason Iran is reaching out is because the sanctions put in place by the Obama Administration has crippled Iran’s economy, causing unprecedented hardship for Iranians.

Iran Deal: Singing and Dancing in Tehran

Deafening as the criticisms have been, the Iran nuclear deal has many supporters. Many Foreign Affairs experts have spoken out in favors of the Obama Administration, noting that the deal is a great first step in the effort to finally halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Many Iranians have also celebrated the deal. Since the deal was announced, there have been singing and dancing in different cities of Iran. A video commemorating the deal has also been produced. Borrowing from the Obama Yes We Can video, the video features Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran. Ironically, important as the development between Washington and Tehran is, it has not succeeded in reshaping the idea of Iran as a member of the “axis of evil”, as President Bush described it. Instead, it has further ensconced that notion in many minds: The recent debates and discourses about Iran’s nuclear ambition and the funding of terrorists, have rekindled the history of Iran as a terrorist nation and a leading supporter of terrorism across the globe.

But while all these debates rage on, Iran Modern, an exhibition at the Asian Society in New York is trying to present another view of Iran that has eluded many Americans and others around the globe for many years. Iran Modern is the first major museum display of its kind ever mounted outside of Iran focusing on Iran’s dynamic modern art scene. Curating Iran Modern was not an easy endeavor. Fereshteh Daftari and Layla S. Diba guest co-curators of the show were confronted by the challenge of finding works for the show. While the intention for both scholars was to present an authentic insight into the artistic and cultural development in Iran from about 1940-1979, the sanctions put in place by the United States made it impossible for the curators to loan works from institutions inside Iran. Consequently, they looked elsewhere and loaned works from collections in America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Iran Modern: Sanctions and the Fruitless Search for Works

The inability of the curators to loan works from institutions in Iran was a major setback to the original objective of the curators, which was to present a broader look at Iran’s artistic development. Even the curators acknowledged this limitation, noting that the works in the show by no means meet the parameters to adequately reveal Iran’s cultural and artistic development three decades prior the1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite the obstacles, however, Iran Modern features major works by 26 outstanding Iranian artists. These works provide snippets into how cultural, societal, religious economic and Western modernism shaped artistic growth in Iran.

Although Iran Modern focuses on the artistic development and modern art scene in Iran, it also allows a look into a major but often overlooked aspect of the Iran’s history. The show goes back to the early 1940s during the long secularizing reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, from 1941 to 1979. During his reign, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was often described as an indispensable ally of the West, ensured growing collaborations between Western nations and Iran. A significant indicator of that relationship was the inclusion of Europeans on the faculty of the School of Art at the Tehran University. The rapport became even more developed during the Iranian oil boom of the 1970s when Western nations became more involved in Iran’s economic development and oil industry.

Iran was prosperous during the oil boom. By mid-1970s Tehran, Iran’s capital city was also reflecting the economic buoyancy permeating the country. Art began to flourish even as Tehran became an important cosmopolitan center and a major tourist destination. Galleries popped up across Tehran and artists began to get increased patronage from young collectors and tourists, who found the new artistic trend very significant. The establishment of museums like Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and other museums further gave Iranian artists something to celebrate. Support came from individuals and government as demand for artworks for exhibitions and festivals increased. The increased acquisition of both Iranian and international art for collections also gave Iranian artists the opportunity to create more works as well as develop their skills.

Many Iranian artists took the opportunity of the emerging art market to improve their skills. While some traveled outside the country to continue their studies, others stayed at home to sift through past and present artistic developments to foster their skills. The confluence of ideas, from Iranian artists who traveled outside the country and those that remained in Iran, led to series of innovative artistic developments that privileged Iranian tradition while also contesting the dominance of Western modernism.

Iran Modern organized thematically across two floors presents a fragment of, according to the curators, “key examples of the pluralism and innovative spirit of the time covered by the exhibition.” The exhibition begins on the second floor with works by Faramarz Pilaram (1937-82), Parviz Tanavoli and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, who in the 1960s introduced a series of works that become associated with the Saqqakhaneh art movement. Although the movement was mainly artistic, it carried with it a religious connotation. The name Saqqakhaneh, references a type of Muslim shrine in the form of a public drinking fountain. But more importantly, it is a reminder of the deaths of Shi’ite martyrs who died of thirst during the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680 because they were denied water by their enemies.

Saqqakhaneh art movement developed in opposition to dominant Western artistic influences of that period. Instead of dogmatically following Western ideas of art, members of this movement began to search for new ideas in their own environment, culture, and religion to shape a new artistic movement. They borrowed from Shi’ite folk art, Islamic calligraphy, pre-Islamic art, religion, culture, and these concepts became central to their works. To articulate their new artistic expressions and intentions, members of the Saqqakhaneh art movement began to incorporate these new influences in their paintings, sculptures, and ceramics, creating a new visual language.

Zenderoudi is one of the notable members of the Saqqakhaneh art group. His works are characterized by charm motifs, religious arts, Islamic inscriptions, and calligraphy, which are creatively incorporated with abstract geometric shapes to achieve powerful, decorative and visually pleasing artworks. But even as Zenderoudi was incorporating traditional Iranian motifs in his works, he was also infusing elements from Western formal artistic traditions. In one of his earlier works that is part of the show, Zenderoudi integrates traditional and Western artistic ideas to create an impressive piece. In the large linocut print made around 1958, Zenderoudi depicts the Karbala battle in a style that juxtaposes Western Expressionism and Iranian folk narrative painting. The hybridity of this piece gives context to the fact that Iranian artists found value in Western formal artistic practice even as they propagate their own art ideology. That idea is further expressed in another piece created around 1960. Embedded in clouds of calligraphy is a beautiful silver and gold painting of a severed hand. The severed hand, a Shiite symbol, is intrinsically integrated with Islamic calligraphy in a manner reminiscent of pop art.

The thematic section titled Calligraphy and Modernism provides a look into how Iranian artists explored Islamic calligraphy in their works. Although many of the works in this section are decorative and beautiful, they, however, transcend aesthetics. A closer look at many of these works point to a time in Persian history when calligraphy was also a medium for protest or social critique. In a work by Reza Mafi, a calligrapher turned painter, that tradition of using calligraphy to communicate disapproval or protest is effectively articulated. In 1978 as the revolution was erupting, Mafi created a tiny yet powerful piece through which he depicts recent events in his country. In the painting, he strategically explores calligraphy both as a decorative tool and element of protest. In Mafi’s painting, red Islamic calligraphy becomes raging flames reaching for the sky in an unfathomable combustion. Behind the rising inferno are clenched fists, signifying the unrelenting resistance and unity for those involved in the struggle of the revolution. Mofi’s ability to capture both the turbulence in his country and the resistance of the people in such a small piece is what makes this piece outstanding.

The Section on Politics & Iranian Modern Artists presents several Iranian artists who have used their work to protest human right abuses, women’s right, repression, tyranny and other issues of oppression in Iran. This section has works by artists like Houshang Pezeshknia, Ahmad Aali, Ardeshir Mohassess, Siah Armajani and Nicky Nodjoumi, who effectively use their work to reflect the Iranian Revolution and the inherent consequences. The paintings, sculptures, cartoon and mixed media works in this section are reminders of that complicated aspect of Iranian history under Shah’s Reign.

In the last two decades, the discussions about Iran and the West have been based on a binary relationship. Politics, terrorism, and war have obscured other important issues like art and culture. Iran Modern is a reminder that there was a time when Iran had a symbiotic relationship with the West. The relationship permeated every aspect of life including art. The annual Shiraz Arts Festival, for instance, brought performers from all over the world to Iran. Also, the Faculty of the School of Art at the Tehran University had European art teachers, who set the foundation for many of the artists in Iran Modern. With all the acerbic debates and conversations between the West and Iran, it is probably inconceivable for many people that Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has a collection of art by prominent Western artists like Jackson Pollock, Donald Judd, and Robert Rauschenberg amongst many others.

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The total impact of the relation between East and West is reflected in many of the works in Iran Modern. Many of the works in this show combine Iranian tradition with Western artistic traditions to make statements about their own country. Iran Modern is a reminder that modernism is a globally interconnected phenomenon and not a singular conception. The confluence of ideas inherent in the over one hundred works by the 26 artists featured in this exhibition shows a conversation not just between Iranian tradition and Western modernity, but also other cultures and traditions.

Iran Modern, on view through January 5, 2014, at the Asian Society in New York, 725 Park Avenue New York, NY 10021

Abolghassem Saidi, Untitled, 1973. Oil on canvas 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. Collection of Sam Bayat-Charlotte Denise Madeleine Bayat. Image courtesy of Asian Society, New York

Parviz Tanavoli. Heech (Nothing), 1972. Bronze on wood base. 22 1/4 x 12 x 8 inches. Base: 5 x 5 x 5 inches . Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Asian Society, New York

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