Articles | Visual Arts
Contemporary Art of Iran

Contemporary Art of Iran

Ru’ in Pakbaz
Tavoos Quarterly,No. 1, Autumn 1999

The precursory signs of a new development in Iranian literature and arts coincided with the preliminaries of the Constitutional movement, and this development became evident after the Revolution (1906). Painting and sculpture – unlike poetry and novel writing – were not directly influenced by this movement, but found an opportunity to grow against the background of the social and cultural changes resulting from the Revolution. Mohammad Ghaffari [Kaml-ol-Molk] was the most prominent artistic figure of that time.

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As the last true painter of the Qajar court, he was the first one to break away with the obdurate traditions of Iranian painting and resolutely turn toward European naturalism (such a comprehensive and fundamental shift toward Western painting cannot be seen in the works of Abolhassan Ghaffari [Sani`- ol-Molk], Mahmood-Khan Malek-osh-Sho` ara and other painters active during the reign of Nasser-ed-Din Shah). After his study travel to Europe, Kamal-ol-Molk founded the with the assent of the government and following his own artistic views (1911). If this event is considered as the starting point of contemporary Iranian art, its evolution can be divided into four periods: 1911 to 1942; 1942 to 1958; 1958 to 1978; and 1978 to the present. [It is notable that this subdivision in mainly adopted in order to simplify this historic evolution and does not necessarily indicate clear-cut transitions in the artistic evolution of the contemporary era.] First period. Kamal-ol-Molk’s aim of founding the was to train neophyte art students following Western academic methods. Although this school never developed into a full-fledged academy, it paved the way for the progress of visual arts in . Thanks to Kamal-ol-Molk’s efforts during the fifteen years in which he directed this school, several technically capable painters and sculptors were trained. Most of these later followed the master’s method in teaching and in their artistic work. Meanwhile, painters trained in Russian schools were also active in , but their artistic and teaching methods were not different from those of Kamal-ol-Molk. At approximately the same time when Kamal-ol-Molk retired from teaching, the school had practically become an institution dedicated to ancient crafts. Later on, another school aimed at reviving traditional arts and crafts was also founded in , Governmental supportive initiatives, including holding competitions and awarding prizes, encouraged renewed efforts on the part of artists.

Often resorting to naturalistic devices and occasionally dealing with genre scenes, they attempted to bring about a change in the tradition of “Persian miniature painting”. Such an attitude toward tradition, which derived from the policy of cultural renovation followed during the reign of Reza Shah, also met the approval of foreign Iranologists. This kind of hybridization was also current in the time’s architecture and bas-reliefs; with the difference that, in these cases, familiar elements of ancient Iranian art were utilized. But in the domain of portrait painting, and wherever resemblance was important, the employment of the past heritage was cast aside.
Thus, two distinct trends emerged in the official art of Reza Shah’s period: on the one hand, the pursuit of the methods of European academic art and, on the other, an attempt at reviving ancient painting in a mold conforming with the time’s tastes (it is notable that, after more than half a century, these two trends are still perceptible in part of contemporary Iranian art). Among the exponents of the first trend, one must mention Esma`il Ashtiani, Hassan- `Ali Vaziri, Abolhassan Sadiqi (the sculptor), `Ali-Akbar Yassami, `Ali-Mohammad Haydarian and Rassam Arzhangi, and Hadi Tajvidi, Hossein Behzad, Hossein Mossavver-ol-Molki and Sevoroguin are prominent figures among the painters attached to the second trend. Here, mention must also be made of Coffee-house Painting, which flourished at the time beyond the domain of official art.
Second period. With the engulfment of into World War II and the removal of Reza Shah, a new ear began in the history of contemporary Iranian art. The advent of scant social freedom and more direct contacts with manifestations of Western culture (due to the presence of Allied armies in ) brought about an opportunity for a search of artistic innovation.
In particular, under the influence of the foreign teachers of the Fine Arts Faculty, new horizons of European art were opened to Iranian students of art. The Iranian youths’ acquaintance with the works and lives of the forerunners of modern art aroused the thought of freeing themselves from traditional constraints. Rejecting the molds of the previous period’s official art, some painters of the new generation found their favorite models in the works of the Russian realists and French impressionists, and the most enthusiasts among them became enraptured with Cezanne and Van Gogh. Even some of Kamal-ol-Molk’s followers touched upon new subjects and methods. Nevertheless, the influence of Kamal-ol-Molk’s school was still strong. A little while later, upon returning from study travels to , several graduates of the Fine Arts Faculty put forth even newer models. Fascinated by cubism and expressionism, they gathered in the new bastions of modern art – the “Khoroos Jangi Society” and the “Apadana Gallery”. For one decade thereafter, a hot confrontation raged in artistic circles and the press between the followers of ancient and modern art. In these years, with the education of young people in search of novelty in art academies and as a result of the activities of artists freshly back from Europe and the United States and the publication of reviews advocating new poetry and painting, the modernistic movement developed and eventually benefited from governmental support. The most active painters of this period can be divided into three groups: the modernists; the traditionalists, and the moderate. Hossein Kazemi, Jalil Zia’poor, Hooshang Pezeshknia, Javad Hamidi, Ahmad Esfandiari, `Abdollah  `Ameri, Mahmood Javadipoor, Mehdi Vishka’i, Sadeq Barirani, Soodabeh Ganje’i, Marco Grigorian  and Sirak Melkonian were in the first group, `Ali-Asghar Petgar, Reza Samimi, Ja`far Petgar, Behzad, Abutaleb Moqimi, `Ali Moti`, Mohammad-`Ali Zavieh, `Ali Karimi and Hossein Altafi, plus the most faithful disciples of Kamal-ol-Molk, belonged to the second, and `Ali-Akbar San`ati, Mohsen Moqaddam, `Ali Rokhsar, Mahmood Owlia’, Markar Qarabeigian, Andre Govalovich, Minassian (the painter of marine scenes), Sambat (the watercolorist), Habib Mohammadi, Reza Foroozi and `Abbas Katoozian ranked in the third. For many years, graphic art had aroused interest in connection with publication and advertisement, but serious activity in this domain actually began during World War II. Before that, a number of painters trained at the School of Fine Arts, including Hossein-`Ali Mo`ayyedpardazi and Yahya Dowlatshahi, had also been active in the field of illustration (since the time of Reza Shah, Mo`ayyedpardazi had been busy designing postage stamps and official documents and drawing caricatures and portraits of famous cultural figures). Their method was perpetuated by such illustrators as Leily Taqipoor and Taymur Roshdi, but, on the other hand, Mohammad Bahrami, Buyuk Ahmari and Siroos Emami began newer experiments, particularly in the field of book cover design.
In fact, the new methods of illustration, poster drawing and graphic design were first put into practice by several graduates of the Fine Arts Faculty. These, of course, lacked specialized knowledge and had only turned to this field following their personal tastes or to earn a living. During the war and then in the course of the national movement for the nationalization of the country’s oil industry, alongside the development of the activity of the press, an opportunity appeared for political and social cartoons to be produced. Generally speaking, in comparison with painting, the graphic art of this period was still in its infancy.
Third period. The date at which the first Tehran Biennial was held (1958) can be considered the beginning of a new period, because it was a particularly significant event in terms of its results in contemporary Iranian art. In fact, by bringing together and introducing the modernists’ works in a large exhibition, it conferred official recognition to the modernistic movement. Apparently, the aim of the Biennial’s organizers was to bring about the means of reviewing and assessing novel Iranian works, acquaint the public with modern manners and select several works (by a jury of Iranian and foreign experts) in view of their presentation in international exhibition. Undoubtedly, holding biennials (although these were only held five times) played an effective role in the development of painting, sculpture and hand-painting and the introduction of the latest works of Iranian artists. But this initiative caused artificial and temporary movements to appear in contemporary art as well; i.e., the type and manner of each biennial’s award winning works became models for young artists and prevented them from further research and personal experimentation. Thus, waves of expressionism, abstraction and neo-traditionalism arose one after another from the context of these biennials. Among the winners of these five biennials, we come across such names as Marco Grigorian, Nasser Oveissi, Abolqassem Sa’idi, Sohrab Sepehri, Behjat Sadr, Mohsen Vaziri-Moqaddam, Hossein Zenderoodi, Faramarz Pilaram, Mas’ood ‘Arabshahi (in painting) and Parviz Tanavoli and Jazeh Tabataba’i (in sculpture). Another important event of this period was the establishment of the (1961) with the aim of educating experts in the field of applied arts.
This school not only provided an opportunity for graduates of art colleges to continue their studies, but also responded to the educational needs of the new generation by creating new curricular branches. Scores of modernist painters, sculptors and designers were educated under the supervision of its Iranian and foreign instructors and their activities affected the further developments of contemporary art. In order to give an identity to their work, a number of them drew inspiration from traditional art (and soon became known as saqqa-khaneh artists). Others hastily turned toward Western manifestations in order to keep abreast with the developments of international art. And some graduates of the Fine Arts Faculty joined these two groups. In this way, a large and unprecedented movement began in all domains of visual arts. In the 1960, despite serious and fanciful works mixing together, modern art found the opportunity to flourish. Undoubtedly, the novel creations in various fields that have remained from this period constitute the backing of present- day Iranian art. An inquisitive researcher will find valuable lasting examples among the works of Zia’poor, Hamidi, Sepehri, Oveissi, Sa’idi, Bahman Mohassess, Tanavoli, Mansooreh Hosseini, Hannibal Alkhas, Vaziri-Moqaddam, Leily Matin Daftari, Mansoor Ghandriz, Morteza Momayyez, Ardeshir Mohassess, Ahmad ‘Ali, Zenderoodi, Pilaram, ‘Arabshahi, Sadeq Tabrizi, Manoochehr Safarzadeh, Farshid Meaqali, Gholamhossein Nami, Mohammad Ehsa’i, Rahim Najfar and Parvaneh E’temadi. In these years, a new type of official art was taking shape. The court and the highest ruling authorities, many governmental departments, and even private sector institutions pursued the policy of patronizing art and artists. The Iran-America Society, the Goethe Institute, the Iran-Italy Institute and the ] held exhibitions of the works of modernist Iranian painters, sculptors and designers.
Several museums, galleries and art centers had been established in and other cities. Such galleries as New Art, Borghese, Seyhoun, Saba, Mess, Litho, Zarvan, Zand, Saman and Ghandriz were active in , each following a manner of its own to introduce and promote modern art. Thus, the number of artists and the diversity of their works increased day after day. In order to obtain a general picture of this artistic exuberance, we only have to mention the names of some other artists active in those days: ‘Ali Azargin, ‘Ali-Reza Espahbod, Aydin Aghdashloo, Davood Emdadian, Fereydoon Ave, Habibollah Ayatollahi, Jamal Bakhshpoor, Bahman Borujeni, Bijan Bassiri, Ru’in Pakbaz, Mohammad-Ebrahim Ja’fari, Mohammad-Reza Jowdat, Qassaem Hajizadeh, Mehdi Hosseini, Vahed Khakdan, Bahman Dadkhah, Iran Darroodi, Garnik Der-Hacopian, ‘Abdorreza Daryabeigui, Ja’far Roohbakhsh, Sarkis Zakarians, Marie Shayans, Changiz Shahvaq, Manoochehr Shaybani, Koorosh Shishehgaran, ‘Ali-Akbar Safa’ian, Bahran ‘Alivandi, Kamran Katoozian, Tali’eh Kamran, Parviz Kalantari, Behrooz Golzari, Reza Mafi, Siroos Malek, Hossein Mahjubi, Asghar Mohammadi, ‘Ali-Asghar Ma’sumi and Mass’ud Yassami. For various warranted reasons, sculpture never developed as widely as painting and graphic art. Modern sculpture appeared with the first Tehran Biennial, which was rather a test for the talents of modernist painters. Nor did any links exist between pioneers such as Tabataba’i and Tanavoli and previous sculptors-including Sadiqi and San’ati. Tanavoli, relying on what he had learned in , rapidly raised himself to the level of a successful professional sculptor and, by doing so, paved the way for others. In subsequent years, such painters as Monir Farmanfarma’ian, Vaziri-Moqaddam, Asghar Mohammadi, ‘Arabshahi, Pilaram, Nami and Kazem Rezvanian touched upon three-dimensional experiments, but none of them was as successful as Bahman Mohassess in establishing himself as a sculptor as well. From among the other sculptors active in this period, one may cite Shahvaq, Ardeshir Arjang, Nahid Saliani, ‘Ali Qahhari and Mahin Noormah. Here, mention must be made of Yuaf Darsh, who, benefiting from an ordered mind and a vast view, played a significant role in educating younger sculptors.
Even before the fundaments and techniques of graphic art were taught in Iranian schools of art, a new movement emerged in this domain which was mainly due to the efforts of Morteza Mommayyez. He began his artistic activity as a painter, but soon revealed his creative talent in such various fields as graphic art and illustration. The constructive influence of Mommayyez as a teacher and artist lasted for many years. If individuals as Javadipoor, Barirani, Parviz Mo’ayyed-e’Ahd, Melkonian and Hooshang Kazemi had previously been active in graphic design, now Qobad Shiva, Kamran Katoozian, Mesqali, Khosrow Bayat, Serge Avakian, Mohammad Pooladi, Behzad Golpayegani, Aghdashloo, Ebrahim Haqiqi, Arapik Baghdassarian, Fowzi Tehrani, Mohammad Mahallati, ‘Abbas Kiarostami, ‘Abbas Saranj, ‘Ali-Asghar Mohtaj, Mostafa Owji and many others had widely turned to graphic art.
The illustration of textbooks began with the work of such painters as Mohammad-Zaman Zamani, Kalantari and Gholam’Ali Maktabi. Later on, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults provided modern painters and designers with a vast arena of activity in the field of illustration. It was in that favorable environment that Mesqali, Dadkhah, Nikzad Nojoomi, ‘Ali-Akbar Sadeghi and Nooreddin Zarrinkelk brought about a drastic change in the illustration of children’s books. Zarrinkelk and a few other of these illustrators also achieved considerable results in making animation films. In these years, intellectual humoristic work was born out of newspaper caricatural activity. Undoubtedly, Ardeshir Mohassess, with his keen mind and capable pen, was the most prominent initiator and continuator of black humor in . Among the designers active in this field, such names as Baghdassarian, Kambiz Derambakhsh and Mostafa Ramazani may be cited.
Photographic art became established in through the efforts of Hadi Shafa’iyeh, Ahmad’Ali, Bahman Jalali, Ebrahim Hashemi, Parviz Nabavi and others who had studied in other fields than photography. In the first photographic exhibition held at the Ghandriz Gallery (1964), besides professional photographers, several architects, filmmakers and writers had also displayed their photographic experiments. At the time, the capabilities and particularities of the photographic idiom were not very well known. Some worked in news, documentary and advertisement fields, and many merely considered the camera as a means of hunting “interesting subjects”. At any rate, artistic photography and acquired sufficient importance for having independent exhibitions dedicated to it. Among the artistic photographers active in those years, besides the ones already mentioned, one may mention Assad Behroozan, Nasser Gabbay, Nicole Faridani, Sudabeh Qassemloo, Mass’ud Ma’sumi, Kamran Adle and Maryam Zandi.
In this tumultuous period, the limited capability of traditional art to evolve became yet more evident. Javad Rostam Shirazi, Clara Abkar, Hooshang Jazizadeh and many younger artists kept repeating the hybrid methods of their predecessors. Only such painters as Mahmood Farshchian and Jalal Sussanabadi were able, by introducing novel features in the form and context of their work, to break out of this confined circle. At the time, the waves of modernistic enthusiasm had marginalized this type of painting. Notwithstanding supportive initiatives such as holding a large exhibition of the works of miniature painters and illuminators in a governmental art gallery (1975), this situation persisted until the next decade.
Fourth period. With the advent of the Islamic Revolution (1979), another period began in the history of contemporary Iranian art. In the new conditions, with the denial of the existence and function of the official art pursued under Mohammad-Reza Shah, many administrators and a number of artists left the scene. A young, unexperimented force came to the fore and, in a hasty and radical reaction, rejected all that had been done in the past. In the heat of the Revolution, a large number of proficient and neophyte artists tried to adjust themselves with the people. After the Iraqi army’s invasion of and during the war, wall painting, panel drawing and poster design on epic, religious and political themes further flourished. The necessity for propaganda, exhortation and swift, wide-ranging information occasioned the production of a multitude of slogan works throughout the society. Another aftermath of the Revolution was an increase of the population in search of artistic production. In particular, women turned largely toward artistic activities. In response to the ever-increasing number of people wishing to take up art courses, several new art schools and innumerable private art classes came into being. Soon, with one or two ancient art galleries resuming their activities and the establishment of several new ones, the market of artistic works began flourishing anew. Following several years of haphazard activity, The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art began organizing regular biennials and triennials of works created by graphic designers, illustrators, painters, photographers, cartoonists, portraitists, ceramists and sculptors. Hundreds of minor and major works were introduced in each of these exhibitions and thousands of people went to see them [It is notable that 264 painters took part in the 1991 biennial, whereas the painters participating in the 1958 biennial numbered only 45]. These facts indicate the quantitative growth and the development of activities in all artistic fields, yet no fundamental change appears to have taken place in today’s Iranian art.
In the painting of this period, the diversity and disparity of tendencies increased. Calligraphic painting continued along its former path to the very limits of repetition and degradation. Hybrid painting, which continued its marginal existence in the previous period, now found a favorable ground for manifesting itself. Other forms of decorative painting embodying Iranian and oriental features also found the opportunity to appear. From among the multitude of those active in these traditional fields, one may cite the names of Farah Ossuli, Nasrollah Afje’i, Mohammad-Baqer Aqa-Miri, Mohammad-‘Ali Taraqqijah, Shahla Habibi, Mohammad-‘Ali Rajabi, ‘Abdollah Rahimi, Rostam Shirazi, Jalil Rassuli, Roohbakhsh, Farshchian, Reza Faza’eli, Ardeshir Mojarrad Takestani, Moti’ and Majid Mehregan. On another hand, many painters, including Samila Amir-Ebrahimi, Parviz Izadpanah, Mass’ud Behnam, Nami Petgar, Jamaleddin Khorraminezhad, Mostafa Dashti, Haydeh Zarrinbal, Hojjatollah Shakiba, ‘Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Morteza Katoozian, Mina Noori, Gisella Sian’i, Ahmad Vossuq Ahmadi and Ahmad Vakili, utilized naturalistic figurative methods to express their objective themes or subjective topics. Other painters such as Hossein Ahmadinassab, Nasser Arasteh, Ya’qub Emdadian, ‘Ali Reza, Nafisseh Riahi, Hadi Zia’eddin, ‘Ali Golestaneh, Mohammad-Hossein Maher, Manoochehr Mo’tabar and Ahmad Nasrollahi tried in different manners to take a step beyond conventional naturalism.
Despite the variations and fluctuations of the works of some painters of the past generation, the modernistic movement continued.
In this context, such painters as Ahmad Amin-Nazar, Shahla Hosseini, Mehdi Hosseini, Bahran Dabiri, Iraj Zand, Mehdi Sahabi, Homayun Salimi, Jalal Shabahangi, Sa’id Shahlapoor, Koorosh Shishegaran, Manoochehr Safarzadeh, Ya’qub ‘Ammamehpich, Ra’na Farnood, Farideh Lasha’i, Nosratollah Moslemian, Farshid Maleki and ‘Ali Nassir added to the diversity of their tendencies by new experiments. Also, within forms not unlike the ones mentioned above, but with a strong emphasis on political and religious subjects, the works of such painters as Morteza Assadi, Iraj Eskandari, Nasser Palangi, Kazem Chalipa, Hossein Khosrowjerdi, Zahra Rahnavard, Habibollah Sadeghi, Hossein Sadri, Gholam-‘Ali Taheri, Mostafa Goodarzi and ‘Ali Vazirian came to the fore. And in recent years, a large number of younger painters have begun their activities in relation or without any relation with the above-mentioned tendencies. In this period, graphic design, poster art and illustration have developed considerably. Besides the continued large-scale activity of experienced designers, including Mostafa Assadollahi, Haqiqi, Halimi, ‘Ali Khosravi, Saranj, Shiva, Amrollah Farhadi, Kamran Katoozian, Mesqali and Momayyez, younger talents such as Shahrzad Asfarjani, Bijan Jenab, ‘Ali Khorshidpoor, Abolfazl ‘Ali, Vazirian and many other students of Morteza Momayyez entered this arena. Ahmad-Reza Dalvand, Hadi Farahani, Hooman Mortazavi, Tuka Neyestani, and Mass’ud Shoja’i Tabataba’i showed their illustration abilities in the press. Childern’s books illustration also acquired a new prosperity with the works of Sara Iravani, Mohammad-‘Ali Bani-Assadi, Nayyereh Taqavi, Mohammad-Reza Dadgar, Reza Lavassani, Firoozeh Gol-Mohammadi, Karim Nasr, Akbar Nikanpoor, Vakili and Abolfazl Hemmati Ahu’i. And similar progress was made in the field of cinema graphics. Another point is the rapid expansion of computer graphics is recent years, to the extent that today almost no graphic artist or illustrator considers the new technology superfluous.
Well known photographers such as Bahman Jalali, Yahya Dehqanpoor, Maryam Zandi, Akbar ‘Alemi, Nasrollah Kasra’ian, Kaveh Golestan and Turaj Hamidian had begun their work in the previous period, but it was during the Revolution and the war that photography acquired its due status alongside other arts (it is necessary to remind that independent photography courses were begun at this time in art colleges). The social and political conditions in those years caused photojournalism to progress immensely. But various types of artistic photography gradually found an opportunity to manifest themselves, particularly experiences of the younger generation. Here, without going into the details of the various tendencies that have emerged today in photography, we only mention a few other names from among the active photographers: Sadeq Tirafkan, Mohsen Rastani, Afshin Shahroodi, Seifollah Samadian, Jassem Ghazbanpoor, Mohammad Ghafuri, Mohammad Farnood, Kalari, Behnam Monadizadeh and Mehran Mohajer. Recently, after a lull lasting several years, sculpture too has begun a new movement with the works of Fatemeh Emdadian, Reza Khayyatan, Behrooz Darsh, Hamid Shams, Shahlapoor, Hossein Qaragozloo, Mohammad -‘Ali Madadi, Iraj Mohammadi, Reza Yar-Ahmadi and several others, and it appears that this movement will further accelerate in the future. Mention must also be made of Mohammad-Mehdi Anooshfar, ‘Arab-‘Ali Sharveh, Yuness Fayyaz, Mohammad-Mehdi Qanbeigi and Mahin Noormah, who have played a significant role in the development of artistic terracotta work.
In general terms, reviewing the history of contemporary art, we can conclude that, despite the persistent efforts of Iranian artists, a mature and comprehensive accomplishment susceptible of presenting a specific aesthetic model to the world of present day art has not yet been achieved.
The reason for this situation must be sought not only in indiscriminate emulation and copying, but also in shortcomings resulting from the failure of Modern art to become institutionalized in the Iranian society.
For the same reason, such factors as political changes, governmental policies, the views of foreign circles and the marker’s tastes have affected the evolution of contemporary art more than inner stimuli and aspirations. Certainly, our society is not poor in terms of talents, but the future of Iranian art depends to what extent these potential forces are guided towards creativity and innovation.
[In this article, no mention has been made of Iranian artists who live in other countries and have not directly affected the evolution of contemporary Iranian art.]