Michael Busch

The most significant art exhibit on view in New York at the moment is “Iran Modern,” a beautifully curated show that opened recently at the Asia Society. The exhibit symbolizes something of a breakthrough for the United States, marking the first major museum show in the country dedicated to modern Iranian art. There’s a lot to like.  In contrast to the uninspired “American Modern” retrospective down the road at MoMA, which fails to register a pulse despite its abundance of top-shelf art, “Iran Modern” is focused, exciting and, by turns, revelatory.     

The exhibition showcases roughly one hundred works of painting, sculpture, and photography produced in Iran between 1945 and 1979.  Taking root in the years immediately following the Allied withdrawal from the country at the close of World War II, Iranian modernism flowered for thirty years until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power on the crest of revolution. These were, themselves, years of revolution. Iranian artists struggled with and celebrated the intensity of the socioeconomic and cultural modernization experienced by the country in the postwar era, establishing radical new modes of expression in response to these changes and managing to carve out an aesthetic space for themselves that was at once fully modernist and entirely Persian.  And yet, the three decades of Iranian modernism following the Second World War have received curiously short shrift from critics and scholars alike.

“Iran Modern” covers a period that ranks as one of the most understudied and poorly appreciated eras in art history. This is as true in Iran as it is beyond the country’s borders. Part of the problem naturally results from the Islamic Revolution.  What critical attention has been paid to modern Iranian art tends to be directed at those works engaging directly with the revolutionary regime, or that which treats the experience of living under religious authoritarianism. The quality of the best of it is so remarkable (I’m thinking here, for example, of the wondrous, postmodern films and photography of Shirin Neshat), that it’s no wonder older, less accessible works find themselves marginalized in the popular imagination. But there’s another reason, too, that shouldn’t be overlooked.  

The arrogance of western self-regard was, at least at the time, a contributing factor. If it wasn’t western, or at the very least an imitation of what was showing in the galleries of New York and Paris, it wasn’t deemed modern by the kingmakers of haute couture. The “American Modern” exhibit currently at MoMA suggests as much, offering a strange twenty-first century defense of the museum’s position sixty years ago when many attacked it for focusing on European art to the exclusion of work being produced in the United States.  MoMA’s argument now, as it supposedly was then, holds that the museum’s focus was on both. One might conclude, then, that it was the art produced everywhere else that presumably got the curatorial shaft. 

Faramarz Pilaram, Untitled, 1972; Oil on canvas

Complicating matters further, Iran’s brand of modernism challenged the west’s modernist orthodoxy more than most. As evidenced in the exhibit, many Iranian artists were uncompromising in their refusal to abandon the currents of local culture and tradition, which had been under siege for most of the previous century and a half. There had been the Great Game, foreign occupation during the World War II, then the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Western influence was not relegated to political domination alone, however. Iranians were hardly immune to the forces of western culture that  were spreading across the globe, and which were being brought back home by nationals who had lived, studied, and traveled abroad. 

In his introductory essay for the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, Hamid Keshmirshekan notes the impact of western modernism on Iranian sociocultural development in the immediate postwar period. Iranian art academies during the 1940s “encouraged the adoption of modern western art through teaching and exhibition strategies. At the same time, the growing intellectual atmosphere in Iran had strengthened the desire of its young artists to experience new western artistic approaches. Moreover, in the postwar years, a large number of famous European works—including novels, poems, and philosophical works—were being translated into Persian, and analytical discussions on these materials increased among the Iranian intelligentsia.” 

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, c. 1975–1976; Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster & wood

The impact of what was transpiring in artistic circles in the United States and Western Europe can be felt in some of what’s on display in “Iran Modern.” The pleasing compositions of Leyla Matine-Dadftary, Mossadegh’s granddaughter and an artist who spent considerable time in London and Paris, bring to mind Matisse and even, in her lovely portrait “Lydia,” Alex Katz. The restless, rough abstractions of Manoucher Yektai, with their densely caked canvases smeared and exploding with paint, would be perfectly at home in the galleries of Alfred Barr’s  MoMA even at the height of the museum’s worship of western art. So, too, would the pulsating pieces by Bhjat Sadr, whose pallet-knifed lines cut through blocks of color to create a thrilling interplay between the mysteries of positive and negative space.   

It wasn’t long, however, before Iranian avant-gardists grew weary of the western embrace. Much of this can be understood through the lens of the shifting political terrain during this period. The mild support some had felt towards the weak Shah—the chief sponsor and cheerleader of Iranian modernization—during the 1940s and 1950s developed into outright hostility as his reign became progressively autocratic and antagonistic to the merchant and clerical classes, and Iran’s sociopolitical space grew increasingly suppressed. The coup that jettisoned Mossadegh from power effectively suffocated any hope that the Shah would allow for the rule of constitutional law. It also opened the door to foreign control over of Iran’s vast oil deposits, as western companies struck deals with the Shah that allowed them to capitalize handsomely from the sale of Persian energy.  Iranians rightly felt humiliated, and outraged.    

By the early 1960s, the country’s political stability was in serious doubt. Prime Minister Ali Amini, seen by some as a progressive political force in Iranian politics, resigned his office after running afoul of the Shah; Khomeini established himself as the country’s chief religious authority following the death of Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi; and Jalal Al-Ahmad published Westoxification, a leftist political work bemoaning the corrosive effects of western influence in Iran. Al-Ahmad’s tract struck like a thunderbolt, fundamentally altering the course of political opposition to the Pahlavi dynasty. Ervand Abrahamian observes in Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic that though Westoxification “contained a strong Marxist flavor and analyzed society through a class perspective,” it also “advocate[ed] a return to Islam,” an exhortation which ultimately helped set the stage for a coming together of revolutionary forces. That front would ultimately topple the old regime in 1979.  Notes Abrahamian, “al-Ahmad was the only contemporary writer ever to obtain favorable comments from Khomeini.”  

Nicky Nodjoumi Untitled, 1976; oil and charcoal on canvas

The changing political landscape can be traced through the art on show at the Asia Society. In the same year that Westoxification appeared in print, Faramarz Pilaram would produce three gorgeously geometric pieces – “Laminations,” “Mosques of Isfahan,” and an untitled watercolor, all on view in the exhibit – that place Shi’ite iconography at the center of each painting. These works make for a stunning trio, shining in their golds and silvers, insistent on the flattening of spatial depth, and beautifully arranged. While Pilaram’s own work would later flower into a focus on calligraphic meditations that are astoundingly powerful and almost hypnotic in force, other artists began mining Persian mythology and the motifs of Islamic faith in their own paintings and sculpture.     

Some will suggest that the increasingly overt religious symbolism in the work of this period undercuts the modernist sensibility supposedly at work. I’m not so sure. For one thing, Iranian artists were hardly the only ones meditating on the significance of religious iconography in their work at the time.  As Jed Perl reminds us in an essay on spiritualism in modern art, “In the 1930s, Picasso, a Spaniard infinitely more pagan than Catholic in outlook, did many studies of the Crucifixion; and in the late 1940s, Matisse was absorbed in the design of the Chapel at Vence, which includes the Stations of the Cross. In the United States, Barnett Newman titled paintings Abraham and Chartes, produced a series of paintings called the Stations of the Cross, and worked on the design for a synagogue. All around the world, there were major religious projects by the greatest architects, by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and many others.” Yet even if Iranians were unique in this respect, the focus on Shi’ite religious belief here is modernist in both form and function.      

Just as abstraction was the portal through which Western artists escaped the confines of realist representation, the focus on religion and classical mythology allowed Iranian modernists to turn away from the West itself. The most profound expression of the need to break from outside influence and return to the reservoirs of Iranian tradition and experience took shape in the work of the Saqqakhaneh movement. Less a properly organized school of production than a tendency of like-minded artists, Saqqakhaneh, in the words of Fereshteh Daftari, incorporated “motifs drawn from artisanal objects, mostly religious in nature, of a very popular kind found in bazaars, saqqakhanehs [religiously inspired water fountains memorializing Shi’ite martyrs denied water during the battle of Karbala], shrines, and religious processions.”

The results, though not always successful, were undoubtedly revolutionary and, in some cases, extraordinary.  The in-your-face sculptures and mixed-media compositions of Parviz Tanavoli—the most brazen of Saqqakheneh-spirited artists—are highlights of “Iran Modern.” Tanavoli’s early efforts, such as the colorfully whimsical “The Poet and the Beloved King,” or the more austere but no less kooky “Bronze Prophet,” don’t quite find their footing, aesthetically, but signal the artist’s preoccupation with tradition, iconography, and ordinary objects – subject matter which anchors the astonishing works that would follow.  Breaking with the playful character defining his previous works, Tanavoli went on to produce severe, monochromatic sculptures, such as “Confrontation” and “Heech Tablet,” that suggest an increasing interest in the significance of myth, written language and the existential struggles inherent to faith, as well as its rejection. 

The focus on script deepens with “The Poet,” and Tanavoli’s exquisite “Oh Persepolis,” with its golden cuneiform plates that recall the glories of ancient Persia as much as they do the growing sense of political crisis during the mid-1970s when it was produced.  As Daftari suggests, “The ‘Oh’ in the title may be more than just an expression of awe or nostalgia for an ancient civilization. It also betrays sarcasm, perhaps hinting at recent events in Persepolis, which in 1971 had been the site of controversial celebrations. Tanavoli appears to converse in the dialects of power with the subversive intention of denunciating and not glorifying the ideologies sustaining those powers.” The sense of subversive intent, and a commitment to plumbing the significance of symbols, can also be detected in Tanavoli’s “Heech (Nothing),” maybe the most commanding piece on display at the Asia Society.  It is a figurative work of sculpted script teetering on the knife’s point between the cheap and the sublime, but which Tanavoli successfully engineers to achieve an internal coherence that is as disarming and powerful as the best of Brancusi.   

Preoccupation with the written word was not Tanavoli’s alone. The classically trained calligrapher Reza Mafi explored the possibilities of layered letters and words in a series of beautiful ink drawings and oil paintings, including a majestic, untitled work from 1973 where the blood-red scripted letters set against a dark background become flames of raging fire consuming a fading, ghostly fist raised in defiance. In another untitled work produced five years later, Mafi’s aqua green and blue lettering billows exuberantly from the depths of a darkened void, literally spilling over the frontiers of the painting’s top right corner where it overtakes the dead white spaces of the work’s inner frame.  The effect is trippy, darkly thrilling, totally ‘70s.  

If Mafi was intent on drawing out the dynamic rhythms of calligraphic script, Mohammad Ehsai was concerned with exploring its architectural possibilities.  Ehsai’s interlocking constructions on the canvas, rendered most intricately in “EREHAYE KHAYAM,” a work from 1968, are striking and bold, clearly influenced by New York School modernists and, interestingly, anticipating the glorious era of wild style graffiti that would unfold shortly thereafter in the United States.  Indeed, an untitled painting of Ehsai’s from 1974—with its tightly pressed, overlapping, text in blues and greys over a solid yellow background—would have made a fine burner on the IRT that same year in New York City. These are joyful works, celebrating style and color, completely divorced from the political turbulence that was then coursing through the markets and mosques of Iranian society. 

As the revolution drew closer, some Iranian art began assuming an explicitly political character. A number of examples are on view at the Asia Society. The effects of repression and state terror, for example, are all consuming in a pair of frightening works by Nicky Nodjoumi. The first depicts a gang of secret police running through the night-darkened streets dragging behind them a limp, hooded body. In a nearby painting, “Standing Tall,” we get a sense of the fate awaiting that kidnapped victim: A handcuffed prisoner stares defiantly at the viewer, his discomfiting gaze no less penetrating for the red sheet that has been wrapped around his head, tied at the neck. Hints of torture play across his ash blue torso in sweeps of wispy reds and pinks. The man in the painting, the Marxist poet and revolutionary Khosrow Golsorkhi, would, in fact, be executed, but refused a blindfold when facing the firing squad. Golsorkhi wished to stare his killers in the eye. 

Rana Javadi, "Breaking into the Police Station," 23 Bahman 1357 (February 12, 1979); Gelatin silver print

When the revolution arrived, it was captured most arrestingly not through painting or sculpture, but by the camera. The overwhelming forces that dispatched the Shah and ushered in an era of theocratic governance couldn’t be more movingly represented than in a series of gelatin silver prints by Bahman Jalali, Rana Javadi and Magnum’s Abbas.  Taken together or individually, the photographs here are magnificent – startling.  We get the snapshots of inexorable crowds looting government offices and toppling the old regime, just as we do the uncertain faces of those welcoming in the new, as well as the violence of street justice playing out on the periphery. And we get Abbas’s “Women Welcome the Ayatollah Home,” one of the truly remarkable photos taken in the twentieth century which defies the eye to focus, and which blurs into and out of abstraction and realist representation. 

It is here that “Iran Modern” closes, and does so on an ambiguous note. If there was an immediate response to the revolution in the modern art of Iran, the curators aren’t saying. Did the fall of the Shah effectively bring the era of Iranian modernism to a close? We aren’t told. Nor is judgment passed on the regime that would take power in 1979, and continue to hold it to the present day. Perhaps this is just as well. The final images that continue stinging the mind’s eye long after leaving the museum – the giant portraits of Khomeini buoyed by the waves of revolutionaries pouring through Tehran, the sea of women welcoming the exiled Ayatollah home, the horrors of a woman being lynch-mobbed by a gang of furious men – offer stark reminders about the often uneasy relationship between politics and art, and the risk that the former can sometimes threaten the very existence of the latter. 

Yet if there’s a lesson from the exhibit, it is one of redemption. The show ends as it began – with great uncertainty. Iranian artists at the doorstep of modernism were forced to pick up the pieces of a society changed by war and foreign occupation, and from this forge new modes of expression, a new aesthetics. They succeeded, as “Iran Modern” clearly demonstrates. One assumes Iranian artists were faced with similar challenges in the wake of the revolution, as well, but that they got on with business, however difficult it has been. And that’s the thing about art: Like people, it’s resilient. Politics may destroy, refashion, or rebuild society. Art adapts and survives.