Avant-garde painter and sculptor, Jazeh Tabatabai, died in Tehran on Saturday
Tavoos Quarterly,Nos.5&6,Autumn2000-Winter 2001
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Jazeh Tabataba’i is a hard-working and capable plastic artist whose continued effective presence along four decades of contemporary Iranian painting and sculpture has greatly contributed to the prosperity and wealth of this country’s art. Dealing with such topics as traditional patterns, folkloric visual creations, myths, poetry and manifestations of urban life, he has embarked on a keen review of contemporary social life Jazeh Tabataba’i is a hard-working and capable plastic artist whose continued effective presence along four decades of contemporary Iranian painting and sculpture has greatly contributed to the prosperity and wealth of this country’s art. Dealing with such topics as traditional patterns, folkloric visual creations, myths, poetry and manifestations of urban life, he has embarked on a keen review of contemporary social life and aptly succeeded in recreating it in the domains of painting and sculpture. His deep love for art, his eagerness for acquiring experience, and his creative powers lead Jazeh towards creating novel paintings and sculptures which constitute a precious treasure of contemporary culture documents.
Manijeh Mir-‘Emadipainting and sculpture. His deep love for art, his eagerness for acquiring experience, and his creative powers lead Jazeh towards creating novel paintings and sculptures which constitute a precious treasure of contemporary culture documents.
Jazeh Tabataba’i was born in Tehran in 1930, in a family most of whose members were inclined towards arts, particularly music and painting. His grandfather was the painter E‘temadi, entitled “Mofatteh-e Rang”, who also designed and wove carpets, and it was from him that Jazeh drew his first inspiration. His father, a military man, preferred his son to follow a political and official career, but Jazeh was attracted towards writing, painting and sculpture ever since his early youth.
He writes his first story, Sand and Reed, at the age of twelve. Later, he turns to writing plays, such as Withered Blossoms, Lord Chichioff, Footprint, and Mister Moochool, which he directs and stages at the Kanoon-e Pishahang. In 1946, he publishes his Story of a Little Boy.
In his youth, he produces his first work, a bas-relief collage, working late at night, unseen by his father. During World War II, his terror of mass killings and his abhorrence of violence elicit his emotional reaction. At nights, he overturns his wooden bed and the space beneath it becomes an underground shelter above which war machines plough the blackened face of the earth. The planks of the bed are covered with black and red splashes of paint and red and white crosses. Shattered, bloodstained doll heads and limbs lie in a corner, while crushed jeeps and trucks and burnt airplanes and wrecked weapons are visible in another. On the right hand side of the work, a shattered skull represents bellicose Mars. The nightmare of war, about which he hears on the newly founded radio, fills his nights, and in the morning, life returns to normality and the daily routine continues.
Meanwhile, the young artist is faced with a work that inspires a new period in his career. Mofatteh-e Rang had hung his daughter’s wedding khoncheh on a wall of his home, as a decorative tableau. A sangak bread sprayed with poppy seeds was pasted with fish glue on a wooden tray amid wild rue and frankincense seeds and colorful paper flowers. The objects pasted on the khoncheh were discolored and altered. Old age had given those incongruent objects an unexpected and beautiful unity.
Seeing this work, the artist realizes that such everyday objects as wedding khonchehs and household utensils can have different functions as well and serve purposes other than their usual ones.
He obtains various diplomas and takes different courses. He goes from the conservatory to the theater school. He earns an acting diploma in 1950 and opens Lux Film Studio on Lalehzar-No Avenue with an official authorization.
He holds his first exhibition of paintings in the neo-miniature style. In the same year, he graduates both from the ballet academy and Dara’i High School. He then enters the Faculty of Law, from which he soon drops out.
In 1951, he publishes the story The Alligator’s Tooth. In 1954, he earns a first grade in theatrical direction and fundaments from the Faculty of Literature and stages the play Sailor Shirt. With his acting diploma in hand, he goes on to the Faculty of Fine Arts to learn sculpture. In 1960, he graduates from the Faculty of Fine Arts and publishes the book The Chess of Life. Before that, in 1955, he has opened the Modern Art gallery at a time when art galleries have not yet achieved a desirable function in Tehran. Although Apadana and Aesthetic galleries have been created in 1949 and 1954, respectively, art galleries have not yet become established institutions. The Modern Art gallery takes shape first on Bahar Avenue and then in his present house on Pa’eez Street. This gallery is the gathering point of innovative painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and artists. Alongside artistic exhibitions, the first Poetic Evenings are held in its hall.
Jazeh’s painting is diverse, but with a common factor, namely “folklore”, or, more precisely in his case, “popular rites and mores”. Actually, he belongs to a category of Iranian painters known as “traditionalist innovators”, whose main characteristic is that they have adopted indigenous culture as a means of expressing their conception of the world around them. This attitude sets them apart from the group of “free innovators”, who are not bound by local characteristics and seek to achieve a universal expression using a cosmopolitan language that is derived from their conception of the inherent function of plastic arts.
In the 1950s, the painter touches on diverse approaches in order to achieve a personal expression. Setting aside such works as A Man of Our City (1956) and Mother, Child, Tulip (1957), which resemble curricular studies, we are confronted with works that reveal Jazeh’s early efforts at depicting his mental world. In his color sketches The Beloved and the Lone Gazelle, The Lover of Gazelles and Source, You Were on My Mind, his painting Patch and Moaning, his color sketch I Travel With the Clouds, and his paintings O Cypress, Tell Me, Red Embarrassment and Goli Agha, made in 1956, and Smoke and Fumes, Weary, Hot and Lost and Panthea in the Fire, made in 1957, the artist’s attempt at a stylization of objects into curvilinear compositions is perspicuous. He seeks to achieve a new understanding of Iranian aesthetics by pondering on the elements and composition of miniature painting, indigenous handicrafts and folkloric arts. These efforts are backed by traditional teachings acquired during his curricular studies.
Jazeh has created a multitude of divs in the various periods of his career, but most of them were made between 1955 and 1957. His div-marked works, whether lithographs, block-printed cloths or “coffee-house” canvases, are mostly influenced by folkloric painting, although the influence of children’s painting should not be neglected either.
Jazeh says: “For me the pomegranate is a symbol of the world, which contains a multitude of separate clusters each of which is filled with many seeds that can be men or planets in a galaxy. This world is closed and enigmatic. This pomegranate is depicted unopened in most of my paintings, except in one, where a bull has torn one open and been rewarded with a bloody death.”
The creature Jazeh calls “Not bird, not man” is created in the 1950s, although, as his gazelles later on, it becomes the predominant element in his paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. In his Falconer, a marionette-like little girl is perched as a falcon on a prince’s arm. Yet, the main characteristics of this creature reach completion in the early 1960s. In his Ashi-mashi Bird, dated, 1961, we are faced with a creature the like of which we had seen in folkloric paintings, particularly on “pseudo-porcelain” plates or bronzed figurines of birds used on mourning signs. Jazeh gradually alters this traditional creature, transforming it into a fairy-like bird that becomes a mythological element of his works.
A cursory glance at his works of the 1950s reveals that he essentially tries to convey the vision of his hasty mind with a minimal amount of line and color. Later this manner reaches its peak in his “string balls”. These “string balls”, the 500 series of which are printed in a booklet, have a simple structure and constitute a rebellious reaction against his figurative paintings, in the sense that here the background achieves perfect harmony with the main subject and the central masses of the painting. Secondly, forgoing the figurative of men and animals, the painter succeeds in recording his feelings
more boldly and freely. Thirdly, breaking free from the traditional limitations of symmetry and likeness, and refusing to deal with social issues, he tries, by adopting the method of automatic creation, to rely on the fluent current of his imagination, to give free rein to his subconscious, so that whatever befits the “creative moment” and the “creative verve” flows onto the canvas.
The 1960s were a prosperous decade, not only for Jazeh, but also for a great many artists and literary figures, because the Iranian economic boom, the transformation of Tehran into a metropolis, the development of international communications, and the ensuing cultural growth and artistic prosperity, particularly in the domains of poetry, painting and cinema, had all occurred within that period. The performance of five biennials, the official recognition of modern painting by cultural policymakers, the serious attention given to plastic arts by the mass media, the art critics and the public, the emergence of a market for paintings and sculptures, the presence of private and public collectors, and the popularity of art galleries and museums had made for a lively market and provided painters and sculptors alike with an opportunity to make the best of that apparently prosperous market.
From the 1960s onward, several main changes and differences become visible in Jazeh’s works. Firstly, in the domain of painting, he recognizes the particular artistic language of his own invention, purifies it and strives at its harmonious development. He knowingly employs the elements scattered in some of his past paintings and, adopting adequate novel techniques and relying on his growing aesthetic knowledge, he devotes his efforts at bringing them together in a harmonious and artistic manner. Thus, transcending their apparent diversity—collages, abstract string balls, neo-miniatures, khonchehs and bas-reliefs, which were none but exercises toward achieving his own artistic expression— Jazeh’s paintings reach a harmonious space in which they approach consistency while retaining their diversity. The unity of his painting style makes his canvases immediately distinguishable from others’ works in terms of composition, coloring, tracing, conciseness of expression and choice of themes.
Although Jazeh likes diversity, he recognizes that prevailing conditions have drawn him to work in different domains. In winter, when conditions for writing, sketching and painting are more favorable, he often writes poems, carries on with his notes on artists, continues his stories and makes small paintings, whereas in clement seasons, he works on larger canvases and turns to sculpture. Yet, his mental outbursts inflict so many exceptions to this apparently rational approach as to deny it the character of a general rule.
Views on Jazeh Tabataba’i
Jazeh’s paintings combine bold free lines—which sometimes appear crude to the ordinary viewer—with bright colors as pure and vivid as a child’s soul, adorning his emotional space with colorful warps and wefts and enlightening it with the radiance of reality… His Rural, Antelope and Parrot sketches, which are made of iron, illustrate this solidity. The clarity and fluency of these sketches in no way detracts from their solidity and attractiveness.
Nader Naderpoor on Jazeh Tabataba’i, April 1961
[Jazeh] is the founder of the first art gallery in Iran. He has trained many prominent pupils, but does not consider himself their teacher. He believes that, rather than teaching his knowledge to his students, a true teacher strives together with them at discovering the unknown, learning in their company, so that both his students’ and his own personality keep growing. Jazeh is highly revered among most of our renowned artists. Such painters as Ovissi, Sepehri, Vaspoor, Ghandriz and Varga Sina’i have made imperishable portraits of him and several squares in Iran and abroad are adorned with his works.
Amir-Hossein Aryanpoor on Jazeh Tabataba’i
… Jazeh Tabataba’i’s renewed style of painting can have another—deep, remote and inexpressible—origin as well. Allow me to open the discussion with the fact that, in Islamic Iran, painters initially had to alter reality, which prompted them to seek a plastic language to express the truth… In psychological terms, this task in fact constitutes a mental phenomenon… Let us remember that, in Plato’s view, an artist, whether poet or painter, must hang on to the world of ideas and existing essences, forgoing that of feelings. The existing world and ideas also has a past of several millennia… An essential distinction exists between Jazeh and the European fauvists. The fauvists give priority to color over form, whereas, on the contrary, Jazeh utilizes color in opposition to form, employing the former to clarify the latter. He simply uses color as a means of delimitating or blurring. This is what Iranian miniaturists did in the past.
Excerpts from an article by the Spanish scientist Luciano del Rio
Although he is a man from the twentieth, perhaps the twenty-first, century and the material he has used is the malleable iron of this century, you see the Iranian blood of ancient times running in his sword-wielding lion, his candle-bedecked man, his good shaliteh-wearing divs, his khonchehs of slanted-necked brides, his birds that are neither bird nor woman, even his Spanish lady with a fan.
Siroos Tahbaz, March 1992
Mother was sick in bed.
I took her a fruit after dinner.
She didn’t eat the single apple I had put on the plate.
She handed it over to me and said:
“Paint it for me,
as a memory to keep.”
I painted it. She said, “It’s beautiful, but
I would have liked it to be an apple like my existence,
just as I am.”
· Jazeh Tabataba’i •