Selections’ editor-in-chief Rima Nasser shares the highlights of an unforgettable trip to Iran
One of the highlights of 2015 was the week I spent in Iran, where I was immersed into a world of ornate mosques and stunning palaces, breath-taking gardens and world-class art, some of it on show to the public for the first time in close to 40 years.
Iran’s Modernist Wonder Woman
The trip began with the opening of Towards the Ineffable: Farideh Lashai. The first major retrospective of the Iranian modernist artist, who was born in 1944 and died in 2013, the exhibition opened on November 20 and runs until February 26. Organised with the support of the Lashai Foundation, the exhibition also marked the first time that the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has exhibited a number of important work by Western artists in their collection since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The show’s curators, Italian scholar, art critic and art historian Germano Celant — former senior curator at New York’s Guggenheim and artistic director of Milan’s Prada Foundation since 1993 — and Iranian curator, architect and filmmaker Faryar Javaherian, paired a number of Lashai’s pieces with work by other celebrated Iranian and international artists. Their selection includes pieces by artists who had influenced her work, including Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Sohrab Sepehri, Franz Kline, Bahman Mohassess, Behdjat Sadr and Nasser Assar.
Like those of many Iranian artists, Lashai’s life was punctuated by experiences of revolution, displacement, exile and return. She rose to prominence in the 1970s, and Towards the Ineffable charts a timeline of her life, showing how her work evolved over decades of experimentation and contextualising it against a background of the history and development of Iranian art more generally.
Lashai, whose work spans paintings, video, poetry and fiction, was inspired by the rich history of Persian art and also by Western modernism. Gallerist and art dealer Leila Heller has described her as “the most important Iranian-woman modern artist” and she is particularly famous for her depictions of nature. A tomboy and prolific painter as a child, Lashai left Iran as a teenager, studying literature and translation in Germany and learning crystal design and carving at Reidel Studios, a glass manufacturer in Austria, before returning to Iran full time in the 1970s. A feminist and activist, she had several successful solo shows in Iran but after being arrested and detained for two years, from 1974 to 1976, she moved to America, then back to Iran once again in the 1980s. Towards the Ineffable provides a glimpse into the breadth of her oeuvre, showcasing paintings, sculptures, glass designs for the Reidel Studio, and even elements of her work as a writer and translator.
Lashai’s work is hung on white walls, while pieces by the other artists on show are hung on grey. Seeing them together emphasises the true power of Lashai’s paintings, which transport viewers into her deceptively peaceful world. Her landscapes, combining traditional and avant-garde techniques, seem to capture the essence of nature, at once peaceful and wild, beautiful and chaotic.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are her innovative painting and animated projection pairings. Accompanied by the strains of soothing classical music, her vivid canvasses are transformed into moving tableaux. Crows peck at the ground and white rabbits — Lashai’s favourite animals, which she often used as a stand-in for herself — lollop in and out of her paintings, hopping playfully, as though kicking their back legs into the air with joy. Charlie Chaplin appears, parading beside the canvas with his distinctive walk, feet pointing outwards, his walking stick tapping alongside. These magical projections appear innocent and childlike, but also contain a more adult element of pathos.
Art Luminaries in Discussion
A fascinating afternoon of talks about Lashai provided additional context about her life and work. Venetia Porter, curator of the Islamic art collection at the British Museum, shed some light on Lashai’s final work, When I count there are only you… But when I look, there is only a shadow, explaining how the piece uses drawings and video projections to reinterpret Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s famous series of etchings The Disasters of War, executed between 1810 and 1820. Porter linked the artist’s fascination with Goya back to a short story she wrote in 1967, at the age of 23, and subsequent works throughout her lifetime.
For When I count there are only you… Lashai used a complex digital process to make Goya’s tortured figures appear and disappear. “For a mere second or two, the viewer sees the image as Goya intended it, the scenes of torture and agony, and then the empty desolate landscapes return,” Porter explained. “The effect is remarkable. What Lashai wished to explore was the idea of how an action makes a mark on a place.”
Prominent Dutch curator Catherine de Zegher delved deeper into Lashai’s difficult life, after which Celant and Javaherian had an open discussion about their approaches to staging her work.
“Farideh represents the richness and complexity of an intellectual and an artist, a woman, who has passed through and suffered troubled times in Iran, reflecting them in her works, from paintings to poetry,” explained Celant. “Her path is mixed with tribulations and obstacles, emigrations and disasters, including the social and the personal, which are reflected in her activity. Her roaming from art to design, from literature to cinema, forms a unity that acts as an echo of her life.”
Celant went on to explain why he chose to exhibit Lashai’s work alongside work by European and American artists. “The logic I have followed, along with Farayar Javaherian, has been to frame the unrepeatability of her path, creating, from the beginning, an artistic context that might serve to position her historically and internationally,” he said.
“The exhibition as a whole affirms the intersectionality of history and individuality, the international and the national, context and person,” he added, “in order to recognize original and unique figures, such as Farideh Lashai, whose creativity and unusual ideas, activities, modes of representation and imagination have established a core foundation upon which it is possible to construct a contemporary Iranian identity.”
A visit to the museum’s basement vaults revealed the space where for 36 years a collection worth an estimated $3 billion was stored, invisible to the public eye. The story of the museum’s collection is fascinating in its own right. Acquired in the 1970s by Iran’s former Empress, Farah Diba Pahlavi, the wife of the deposed Shah, the collection has remained largely hidden since the 1979 revolution, aside from one or two short exhibitions of a limited number of works.
The vault contains the more than 1500 pieces that have languished unseen for decades, among them works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle with Open Blouse and Francis Bacon’s triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, both of which are destined to remain hidden below ground because of their depictions of nude or semi-clad subjects.
Among the 41 never-before-exhibited artworks chosen to accompany Lashai’s work upstairs were Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground, estimated at a value of $250 million by Christie’s five years ago, and Francis Bacon’s Reclining Man with Sculpture.
The Heart of Tehran’s Art Scene
Since the birth of Iranian modernism in the 1940s and ’50s, the country has enjoyed a rich and varied art scene. Today, Tehran’s art scene is flourishing thanks to regular cycles of exhibitions, lectures, screenings and performances. During the opening week of Towards the Ineffable, I visited four local galleries showcasing some of Iran’s most promising emerging and established contemporary artists.
Assar Art Gallery, which was founded in Darakeh in 1999 and relocated to central Tehran in 2004, was showing a series of colourful paintings by Alireza Adambakan. Entitled Asar (headless or endless), the exhibition featured seven vivid canvasses, part of an ongoing series in which the artist juxtaposes his innermost emotions with the religious narratives that formed the backdrop to his childhood.
Ab/Anbar gallery, established in 2014 as an independent entity aiming to advance contemporary art in Iran through exhibitions, lectures, screenings, performances, and publications, was hosting Callidrawing, a solo exhibition of work by Reza Abedini. The show featured 89 inventive and experimental works that straddled the border between drawing and calligraphy, the artist’s two longstanding modes of work.
Aun Gallery, founded in 2009 to promote and support talented young Iranian artists through month-long solo exhibitions throughout the year, chose to exhibit work by Abbas Akbari. Stone Paste consisted of a selection of ceramics, presenting new perspectives on an 800-year-old work of art, the mihrab — a niche in the wall of a mosque at the point closest to Mecca — found in Meydan Mosque in the historic city of Kashan, now located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Aaran Gallery, an institution founded in 2009 that aims to foster artistic exchanges between South-West Asian, North African and South-East Asian nations, was finishing up Beyond Blue, a solo show by Sasan Abri. Abri uses colours as a means to express emotions in his work, explaining that his monochrome portraits in blue express the infinite simplicity of life and its meaning.
Meeting Monir Farmanfarmaian
One of Iran’s best-known artists, 91-year-old Monir Farmanfarmaian has achieved recognition at home and overseas. Her Tehran studio is fascinating in its own right. The walls are covered with clippings from newspapers, catalogues and websites that have written about the artist’s work over the course of her 70-year career, while old black-and-white photographs and a colourful painting of a vase of flowers added a pictorial element to the ensemble, highlighting Farmanfarmaian’s eye for aesthetics.
Last year, the artist had her first — long overdue — solo exhibition at a major museum in New York, a city where she spent half her life. She first moved to New York to study art in 1944 and then returned after the 1979 revolution, spending 26 years in exile. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974 — 2014, was held at the Guggenheim, a museum she used to visit as a young woman back in the 1950s, when it was known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.
The artist’s distinctive brand of geometric abstraction has its roots in both Islamic art and modernism, and her cut-glass mosaics combine traditional techniques with a contemporary aesthetic. Farmanfarmaian explained that, following an accident earlier in the year, she had been working mostly from home in recent months, creating designs for her elaborate mirror pieces and sending them to her studio, where her team fabricates them according to her instructions. It was a pleasure to witness the unveiling of two new pieces, as yet unseen even by the artist herself. Both were stunning mirror works, which played beautifully with the light.
After soaking up so much modern and contemporary art in Tehran, Kashan was the perfect contrast, a city where tradition reigns supreme. A visit to the stunning Abbasi House, an 18th century property with mirrored ceilings and six courtyards, allows for the peaceful experience of wandering in the beautiful landscaped gardens. It was here, amid lush lawns and flourishing trees, that a magical moment transpired. Out of nowhere, a white rabbit appeared, hopping calmly across the grass. It seemed as if Farideh Lashai herself had chosen to make an appearance in the form of her beloved spirit animal.
One of the finest examples of Kashan’s traditional architecture is Manouchehri Traditional House, a boutique hotel featuring nine stunning guest rooms, a restaurant, cinema, brocading and velvet weaving workshop, gallery, bookshop and internet café, lovingly restored to its historic beauty by Saba Manouchehri. Located in the old Jewish area of the city, known as Sarepole, the house has come back to life under her painstaking efforts.
Manouchehri studied jewellery making at Tufts University of Massachusetts and is also a talented sculptor. Upon her return the Iran, she decided to open a gallery to promote the work of young Iranian artists and to restore the house as a means of preserving the city’s traditional beauty. She even opened a centre for silk weaving, a skill for which the area was historically known.
My final two days in Iran were spent in beautiful Isfahan, where I visited some of the world’s most spectacular mosques. In their beautiful mirrored mosaics, I saw the inspiration for the work of Monir Farmanfarmaian, and was able to reflect on the ways in which — like that of Farideh Lashai — her work is a positive fusion of Eastern and Western influences. It seemed a fitting end to a trip that began with the message of coexistence and tolerance projected by Towards the Ineffable, which may come to be seen as a historic symbol of warming relations between Iran and the West in years to come.
From the lens of our editor
Selections’ editor Anastasia Nysten shares some of her luminous photographs capturing the spectacular architecture of Iran
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on pages 45-57.