Art cannot jump out of a vacuum: the formation of an artwork is always subsequent to a primary origin, background, and context, even if this relation turns out to be a critical negation of the source case. This principle is evident enough, though most artists are reluctant to acknowledge it! So, to understand an artwork, an artist, or an art movement, it seems legitimate that we ask about its background and origin: What has any given painter, photographer, or other visual artist created their work in reaction to? Under what or whose influence have they created the work? What are they taking a stand against? And what are the things they have been deconstructing, reconstructing, revivifying, or demolishing? I can imagine that such a concern with the “source” of influence and inspiration — especially when divided (as we’ll see below) by, among other things, a “foreign”/national dichotomy — may seem somehow bizarre or pointless from a more contemporary or “cosmopolitan” standpoint. Such would seem the case especially from a Western perspective, I surmise, which customarily has seen itself as heir, and historically opened, to a shared “European” civilization and culture to take inspiration from. Furthermore, the situation in the contemporary, globalized art world has increasingly become transnational and borderless, to an unprecedented degree. So, then, why bother to divide artistic connections, sources, and resources along national or cultural lines? I have three reasons for using this “naive” model as a heuristic map for the vast possibilities related to receiving inspiration from existing works, movements, and traditions. Firstly, the model used in this essay has been reduced to a minimal skeleton, so as to be somehow “analytical” (in the logical-Kantian sense of the term) in nature; that is to say, an artist of whatever background simply cannot but be affected by one (and often more than one) of the four elements that I outline below. Secondly, whatever one’s normative judgment may be, historically speaking, the reception of modernity in general, and artistic modernity in particular, in countries outside the West has effectively happened along Western/non-Western lines, and it remains so to a considerable degree, notwithstanding — or perhaps rather because of — globalizing trends in contemporary art. And, thirdly, I offer an entirely practical reason for analyzing artistic inspiration along national lines: our subject and the following argument necessitates such a tabulation as a heuristic method.1So, with this background in mind, I propose that the sources and origins for an artist’s work fall into four categories, here simplified for the sake of making the argument:
Since this essay takes up art in Iran as context for its argument, and since each of the four categories above is loaded with fierce presuppositions, ideologies, and disputes, we first need to address some of these questions and presuppositions by clearing up the present text’s stance on each of them.
1.Artistic and cultural tradition: Is it necessary for the art we value to engage in conversation with or take advantage of the cultural-artistic tradition of its cultural territory? Simply: “no.” The “good” art of a region is not necessarily the art that has a clear and definable correspondence with its cultural geography. Within the historical configuration of the relation between the art of the global north and the art of the global south in terms of contemporary art, the hegemonic discourses expect global-southern artists to follow this line of engagement, and many of them, knowingly or unknowingly, answer this call.
2.Art of the present and near past: Is it necessary for the art we value to enter into a relationship of inspiration and influence with the art of its contemporary or near past? The answer is a “conditional no.” An artist, or a group of artists, from a given historical lifeworld may not be in direct connection with the art of their own space-time, and they can, for example, have a dialogue with an artist or artistic tradition from some other corner of the world. But if the art of a given cultural geography is not connected with the contemporary or modern art of its country of origin — whether positively or negatively — in such a way that one can trace a “movement,” or at least a constant streak, then the problem needs to be examined pathologically. That is to say, we need to look for the mechanisms of attraction and repulsion and the cause behind them in the context of the art of that country. The hypothesis posed in this essay is that the art in Iran — from the Qajar era to the present time — has been suffering from such a discontinuity.
3.History (with a lowercase “h”): Is it necessary for the art we value to be connected with the historical realities of the present time or near past (“contemporary history”) of its country or cultural territory? Here, the reply is “yes.” However, let me clarify again that what I mean by “history” is not the narrative, historiographical sense of History (i.e., the major events in political and social spheres). Instead, I’m referring to a phenomenological-experiential sense of the totality of the material magma of public and private life in the preset and near past. Of course, the final product made by an artist may deal with general or universal issues that do not have any clear correspondence with the specific historical realities of their own specific lifeworld. However, the point is that even a completely universal, “humanistic” art of any given era takes advantage of the flesh and blood of the artist’s historical and immediate personal experiences to various degrees. Here, history becomes filtered through the workshop of artist’s subjective imaginary. Art is the realm of the concrete universal; it comprises the parts that have the capacity to summon the whole. That is why an art willing to directly address the universal — suspending its own historicity, its historical determinacy — will diminish the universal to a hollow shell.
I must stop to add here that this last point (engagement with the reality of the present historical time) corresponds and connects with the previous one (engagement with the present art of the territory that the artist is subjected to). Current artistic works and movements and the common lifeworld of their near past can be regarded as configurations of or replies to the problematic of contemporary history, or a more interiorized version of it, provided by the artist’s predecessors and contemporaries.
4.Artistic and cultural traditions of the world at large: And the last question: Is the art we value permitted to take advantage of and engage in conversation with an artistic heritage and tradition that is outside the country or the cultural territory it is subjected to? Admittedly, except for ardent cultural conservatives, there are few who won’t reply with an instant “yes” — and so, too, is this my reply. This seemingly simple question, though, entails some complexities that stand out — especially when, in the present historical context, we regard the existing “balance” between the central and peripheral countries, the global north and south. Because, in this context, the issues both of influencing and being influenced and of the assumed cultural and artistic conversation do not occur in a homogenous, coequal universe. Rather, they take form amid a complex “force field” where powerful focal points, according to their range of attraction and repulsion (inclusion and exclusion), to a great extent determine the path and direction of influencing and being influenced, and so cause movements against the mainstream to be faced with difficulties, complexities, and — eventually — distortion and redefinition. In such a context, even the requirement for a global-southern artist to engage with their local history or culture is issued according to those dictates and values that are distributed by the global force fields of institutional and discursive power — the paradigmatic examples of which can be traced across most debates of the last decades inspired by the discourses of postcolonialism, representation politics, and identity politics.
Therefore, one can say: Yes, every artist is free to choose their art historical and cultural sources of inspiration from any point within the world’s geography and history. However, if the artist’s source of inspiration turns out to work as a foreign body that blocks the possibility for the artist to “unmute” the singular historical experience of their inner or historical world, the result is rather like a conversation with specters and not a real one with real people regarding real issues. Besides, it should not be forgotten that artworks of the highest quality mostly, during the process of giving form to the material debris of their historical lifeworld, attain new forms that emerge from the specific historical moment that they inhabit.
As mentioned in reply to the second question, I hypothesize that in Iran’s modern art,2 apart from some exceptional cases to which I will point later, very rarely do we find any kind of inner exchange between works of artists and artistic currents. In other words, seldom are we faced with any trace implying an impact and a continuity of stylistic currents that would lead to the formation of native traditions and subtraditions. Of course, in different periods of Iran’s art, we find some stylistic and thematic similarities and affinities among contemporaneous artists, but these cases are mostly of the sort that willy-nilly appear in a particular present, in a specific time period, and under the influence of external historical transformations or a shared cultural and discursive milieu. Such spontaneous similarities do not necessarily bring about any long-term impact on the succeeding art, or even a constructive conversation in that present time between contemporary actors.
Now, to elaborate on some periods of Iran’s art from the three or four final decades of the Qajar era (1789–1925) to the present time, and to make clear what I mean by the (relative) lack of continuity and historical interrelation in Iran’s modern art, three periods are noteworthy. First, a period beginning in the 1890s, with a focus on artists like Sani al Mulk (1814–1866) and what happened after him, until a short while following the end of the first Pahlavi (roughly, up to the CIA-directed coup of 1953). Then, the period when modernism in Iran blossomed and peaked in the 1960s to the mid-1970s. And, finally, the contemporary art from the 2000s onward, which makes up the main focus of the argument and conclusion here.
Except in some peculiar cases — like art historian Yahya Zoka’s astutely early mention in 19633 — Sani al Mulk hasn’t received the attention he deserves in the sparse literature available on Iran’s art history. Furthermore, for the most part, he is mentioned in the same breath with the artists that shaped the well-known facade of the art of the Zand and Qajar dynasties. Of course, some texts occasionally give him, as well as Mahmoud Khan Saba (1813–1893), a “unique” position in this history. But either they offer no explanation as to why they deserve such a position, or they focus exclusively on a few of their exceptional works — the most distinguished example being, perhaps, Saba’s painting استنساخ (Transcription, 1890–91). The point here is that these studies — or more accurately, brief sporadic mentions—were mainly influenced by the theoretical paradigm that looked for signs of an early “modernism” in the tradition of Iranian art, from Persian miniatures to the works of Sani al Mulk and Saba. So, when encountering a work such as Transcription — which is particularly susceptible to such readings — emphasis is put on the distortion of the figures, the bold combination of light and shadow, the composition, and generally the work’s modern tone to highlight its expressionistic, geometric cubistic, and overall “modernist” character, so as to recognize Saba as the harbinger of modernism in Iran.4
Transcription is indeed a spectacular work and is not impervious to such readings. But when an interpretation emphasizes the formal modernistic traits of this work, it, on the one hand, assumes a retroactive position that imposes its own a posteriori knowledge of modernism upon an artwork produced outside that historical orbit. On the other hand, which is not unrelated to the first point, such an interpretation sets an incomprehensive conception of modernism-as-formal-innovation as the framework to understand Iran’s art at the threshold of its becoming-modern — offering a superficial understanding of modernism in itself,5 and setting an unproductive (to say the least) paradigm for it.
Here I meant to talk about Sani al Mulk but got sidetracked by Saba! But this was not for nothing. Firstly, the attention drawn by this particular work of his offers some clues about the current attitudes and expectations regarding the art of Iran at the threshold of its modernity. Furthermore, Transcription bears little resemblance to Saba’s main oeuvre and hence fails to be the touchstone for a modernist interpretation of his work in general. Not only is this painting unique among Saba’s works, but it has no affinity at all to Sani al Mulk’s approach to painting. Basically, no piece among Sani al Mulk’s paintings has the same relation to his body of work as Transcription has to Saba’s. Sani al Mulk’s paintings, rather, form a coherent whole, both in subject matter and style, so that we hardly can single out one of them as a sign of transformation, importance, or an unconventional or revolutionary orientation in his work. By this I do not mean to praise Sani al Mulk, nor despise Saba’s Transcription. Instead, I want to draw attention to the question as to what—and on what grounds and to what extent — can or cannot be regarded as the earliest signs or, so to speak, the “prehistory” of modernism in Iran. On the one hand, are we allowed to see a single artwork as representing, according to stylistic and external standards, a rupture from the preceding art and its epistemological framework? And, on the other hand, to what extent must we search for the “definitive element” of becoming-modern in the artworks of an era as a silent objective fact — as a partial and provable “datum,” out there in “reality itself”? In other words, the question is not merely “What happened back then?,” since this question itself is bound to our conception of “What is happening now”; that is to say, the “now” of the interpreter of history, who gets to decide the starting point of a path on which they occupy the present point. Any projection of the past simultaneously summons and redefines a future that now has become our present time; and, more importantly, based on an understanding of the present, we cast about for a past that is supposed to be the starting point of our current situation. To put it in a nutshell, our definition of the “inaugurating event” of any social or cultural movement represents our historically informed understanding of the present and of our possible future(s).
So, the distinctive point of Sani al Mulk’s work must be sought somewhere else. If a latent modernism exists in Sani al Mulk’s (or Mahmoud Khan Saba’s) work, it’s not to be sought in his formal distortions or stylistic traits — since these were, to some extent, an inextricable aspect of whole swathes of Iranian art during the period from the late Safavid era to the late Qajar era, the result of a collision and incongruity between two incompatible visual regimes (the so-called Western, representational regime, and the vernacular visual regime of Persian Miniature). Rather, the modernism resides in the gradual permeation of the flesh and blood of the historical reality of the artist’s time through the static conventional remnants of the existing Iranian visual regime. It is in Sani al Mulk’s compositions that, for the first time, the conventional physiognomy of the Qajar visual style, in a sense, “breaks out in a sweat” — and the venom of historical reality oozes out of it. In a word, Sani al Mulk’s modernism should be sought in his realism. And let us keep in mind that modernism in art, in its more theoretical sense, did not begin with the “modernist” movements of the last decades of the nineteenth century, and especially not of the first decades of the twentieth century (as definitions oriented around a formalistic art history suggest); instead, it emerged through the 19th century realism — beyond the stylistic connotations of this term — that fundamentally subverted the previous regime of representation and opened up, in various media, the realm of representation to the furnishings of a historical world bereft of its legitimizing old values.
To return to the main argument: this brief description of Sani al Mulk is meant to illustrate the possibility or capacity in his work for the formation of a kind of modernism that does not rest on end products or results (styles and modernisms that, decades later, became the bedrock of artistic practice for most Iranian modernists) but, rather, that takes as its point of departure the origins, the processes, and the moment of genesis of the modern. Put another way, Sani al Mulk’s intersection with modernism arises from working with the materials and debris of history, putting-them-into-form, and, through that, unmuting a history. Because how, without regard to history, is one able to achieve the subjectivity that distances itself from history and thereby shapes it?
I believe that, basically, it is the discontinuous history of modern Iranian art itself that hindered this possibility to be actualized. Because, once Iran’s art became aware of the existence of its historical “Other” and entered its divergent force field — a tendency that reached its peak in the last two decades of the Qajar period (1905–25) — a great part of Iran’s modern art6 totally lost its immanent perspective. So, we may ask, in particular: What happened in Iran’s art following Sani al Mulk? In what amounts to a deception of the historical reality of art perpetrated by “art history,” it seems that no one was supposed to look back, and a hurried moving forward was all that there was — a process (the long process of the so-called westernization of Persian painting since the Safavid era) whose presumed ultimate goal seems to have been a mirror-like representation of reality. And what was the result? Iran’s art passing over the “courtly realism” of Sani al Mulk, and coming to instead arrive at the glossy, classicist works of Kamal-ol-Molk (1847–1940). And Kamal-ol-Molk’s paintings became regarded as the consummate point of what was presumed to be a painstaking process of reaching an “image of reality.” But which one was the image of reality: Sani al Mulk’s distorted figures and faces that suffer the disease of history, or Kamal-ol-Molk’s atomistic depiction of every single tile, every strand of hair, and every minute detail of whatever that came into his sight?
In that period of the history of modern art in Iran, Kamal-ol-Molk represented a categorical U-turn, which, decades later, led Iranian “modernism” to set out, with no feet on historical ground, to become the antithesis of the classicism practiced by Kamal-ol-Molk and his followers. With a lag of some decades (both in relation to where Sani al Mulk stood and to the history of artistic modernism in the West), instead of looking for the enemy in its surrounding ruined history, Iranian art launched its modern “revolution” through reacting to imagery produced by a superficial borrowing of cubism and other “modernist” styles. To put it in more drastic terms: the history of Iran’s modern art at its commencement suffered an unmediated antithesis whereby neither did its “representations” have any trace of reality nor did its “modernism” distance itself from its “real” context (because it had no contact with its historical reality in the first place). Moreover, this antithesis caused a blockage that left later generations of artists no other choice, in the 1960s and 1970s, than either to resolve it with an imaginary synthesis in the manner of the Saqqakhaneh artists or to create their own kind of modernism through more personal resolutions (the latter leading to some of the best works in Iran’s history of modern art).
Most art historians and other observers believe that the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s were the peak of Iran’s modern art, or at least its most productive period. Whatever one’s personal evaluations might be, figures like Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (b. 1937), Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937), Massoud Arabshahi (1935–2019), Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980), Abolghassem Saidi (b. 1926), Ardeshir Mohasses (1938–2008), Bahman Mohasses (1932–2010), Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam (1934–2018), and Manoucher Yektai (1921–2019), among a few others, are considered the main figures of Iranian classic modernism. To assess the impact and the “continuation” of the presence of these founding figures of Iran’s modern art, we had better move forward some decades, and from the perspective of the present time question the conditions of the presence and effectiveness of these artists, under whose cloak the subsequent generations of artists supposedly emerged. Let us ask this question, in an almost uncouth manner, about some of these figures one by one.
First, let’s look at Bahman Mohasses. According to almost unanimous consensus, at least at the present juncture, he is regarded as one of the three most prominent figures in the history of Iran’s modern art. But, today, who might we identify as the inheritor, the bearer, or as inspired by his work — or, even, a critic of Mohasses’s work who, in the positive sense of the term, finds bona fide relevance in his work to closely engage with, or even who attempts to destroy and deconstruct it? Of course, we may find some obscure effects of, for example, his way of finishing the background, the kind of deformation of his figures, or even the hidden “worldview” in his work within the practices of later artists. But is this enough to talk about the “history of effects” or the “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte) of an important figure in Iran’s art?
What about Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam? What have Iranian artists done over these succeeding decades with his geometric abstraction? And where can we find a trace of his important wooden statues? Who, too, might we name as the heir of Manoucher Yektaei’s epic-lyrical abstraction? Indeed, I am asking not just in relation to the present period, in which the art market and art discourse do not much favor that kind of abstract art; I mean the whole span of years beginning from either artist’s mature work up to the 2000s, during which time abstract art was among the main “legitimate” options for an Iranian artist. As mentioned above, the only real case that can be made for a more lasting effect of 1960s and 1970s art is in connection with the Saqqakhaneh movement and the artists related to it: something went on in one direction through a lasting presence of Farsi typography in a variety of forms, and in another as a form of abstract painting inspired by the so-called traditional motifs and patterns that saw semipopularity again in the 1980s and 1990s (and, more generally, has never been out of sight one way or another, during the whole of Iran’s modern art era).
As simple as the question about the effectiveness of the seemingly “influential” artists in Iran on the next generations may sound, it is an important one. Because, as we have seen, in most cases the answer reveals a lack of influence. On the other hand, the few cases that obtain a positive answer — the confirmed “presence” of an artist of that generation in Iran’s recent art — can cast light on some layers of the problem. Either in the case of Saqqakhaneh art (to a lesser extent) or in the case of artists like Ardeshir Mohasses and Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) (to a greater degree), with a minor refocusing of attention we can see that these artists’ power — more specifically, their “effectiveness” on Iran’s art of the last two decades — is mainly a result of their potential compatibility with the dominant discourse and paradigm of art production in the historical context (of contemporary art) in which they have proven to be influential. Of course, here I make no argument about the quality of this influence or of the artistic merit of the works by artists as different as Mohasses and Neshat. If, for example, Mohasses has caused more curiosity and effect within Iran’s recent art, it is because of some characteristics in his work that have accorded with the discourses ruling over contemporary art in Iran for the last two decades (and for the last several decades in the world at large). Therefore, these characteristics have offered a possibility for adaptation, influence, borrowing, or any other variety of effect — for instance, the sociopolitical dimension and subject matter of his work; his humor, satire, and ironic and rational-critical approach; his medium, which used to be considered minor and outside the realm of “high” art; and, finally, at a more subtle level, his non-grandiose, unheroic, and “unmodern” visual style at a time when a presumed “modernist” attitude was dominant.
Some may reply, “Is it not the case that the reason for a past artist’s effectiveness in any given present moment is always their compatibility with that moment’s standards and values?” After all, what is unusual about that situation — it is the very dynamics of “effective history.” Generally speaking, yes, that is true. However, the issue is that the deeper the layer of affecting-and-being-affected and the more genuine the artworks or the artist — in contrast with the more popular artists or art forms that follow another dynamism — the more we are faced with the obverse of that pattern: it is the present artist’s internal, undefinable connection with an artist from the past, the present, or from some other place in the world that leads to the effective artist’s “relevance” and importance in the present artist’s view, and not the other way around.7 Besides, an artist who never puts any thought into the significance, effect, or finally the “success” of their work in the present evaluative channels of the art world is not, necessarily and perhaps usually, influenced by the artists who are considered “prominent” in the present horizon of reception. The concrete, immanent (though, usually distant) sense of relatedness of an artist to another’s work is an internal, hidden, and conceptually not-so-definable relation. Hence, to the same extent — if not more so — that such a sense of relatedness can be aroused by a first-rate artist, it may also be launched by peripheral or unexpected artists and pictorial sources. In the same way, if, in the argument presented here, instead of Bahman Mohasses, Massoud Arabshahi, and Parviz Tanavoli we examine the effect of some less famous artists, like Fereydoon Mambeygi (1940–2007), Changiz Shahvagh (1933–1996), and Saeed Shahlapour (b. 1944), then we would find the same level of reduction in effect and influence, inclining toward a kind of “nil” and plain simple oblivion.
Let’s now analyze this issue in the context of “contemporary art.” However, a note must be made before proceeding further. I strongly refuse to claim, in a provincially prescriptive manner, that Iranian artists must be influenced by the important Iranian artists. The issue of influencing and being influenced in relation to art mostly takes place through hidden, complicated, and mediated networks that one cannot, just through a brief survey, understand or expect to easily discern a perceptible pattern in. Moreover, being affected is far from being a “national” or geographically confined issue. In more simple words: one cannot, with a “local” or culturalist attitude, pass down the verdict that the artists of a country must be influenced, in the first place, let alone exclusively, by certain artists from their own home country or cultural territory (as we discussed in section I). The point, though, is that it seems logical to expect Iran’s modern art to show more historical interconnectedness and coherence than it does — even as an act of negation or active negligence — especially with respect to its contemporary period. To cast more light on the issues that bring us to such a verdict, we may proceed by merely enumerating some of them: the situation of Iran and Iran’s art in the twentieth century, with its limited contact with, and access to, the art world outside Iran; the distinguished situation of Iran in comparison to the art in Europe, where most countries are, to a large extent, heirs to a shared culture and art history and where, especially at the peak of modern movements in the early decades of the twentieth century, artists acted as a body with a single center and set of problems; and, finally, the fact that in Iran and other countries with a similar (historical) situation — that is, countries that have had to create their modern art in all spheres following a historical delay — a higher level of unity and interconnectedness among artists (in regard to the problems and challenges they faced) seems inevitable. All these factors prevent us from simply considering the lack of a relation of influencing and being influenced in Iran’s art as the result of a healthy pluralism, that is to say, artists’ freedom in choosing the sources and origins of their works.
The “contemporary art of Iran” of the last two decades has some specificities that distinguish it from the movements we have briefly discussed so far, and it furthermore provides the most outstanding example for the argument at hand. Due to the country’s peculiar relation to European countries and the United States — the so-called modern world — and the relation of Iran’s art to the art in these countries, Iran’s modern art has, from the very beginning, always been “externally motivated” to some extent. This means that its driving force and source of inspiration, borrowing, or imitation has been Western art. This is not a problem in itself, and I do not mean to take this historically “inevitable” correspondence, á la cultural conservatives, as a pretext to condemn whatever this process has yielded. The main issue is, rather, the manner of confrontation with the “Other” and the strategies acquired in this regard, either consciously or unconsciously.
Here I want to point out that a situation of being influenced by or modeling oneself after (which covers a wide range of) Western art has been the case from the Safavid to the Qajar era (i.e., the period we’re dealing with here). We see this in works by artists like Sani al Mulk, Mahmoud Khan Saba, and Esmail Jalayer (1848–1896). This historical current, from its beginning to the present, has taken place through the observations, attractions, and interests of the artists themselves. However, if, apart from these personal factors, we want to take notice of the agents, forces, incidents, and institutions behind this current, we have to admit that this borrowing, especially at its initial stages, was exclusively materialized through Iranian artists’ travels and studies in Europe (which were mainly made possible by the financial support and recommendation of the court or the king himself). It was only later that this exchange took on other forms. For example, the embassies and cultural attachés of the Soviet Union, United States, and some other countries played a role in promoting, encouraging, and exhibiting Iran’s modern art. This resulted in, for example, a 1946 exhibition of modern Iranian art developed through a collaboration between the “Soviet Union–Iran Cultural Council” and the Iranian Office of Fine Arts in Shahpour Gholam Reza Pahlavi’s palace. It included the most eminent modernist artist of that time: Hossein Kazemi (1924-1996), Mehdi Vishkaei (1920-2006), Javad Hamidi (1918-2002), and Jalil Ziapour (1920-1999).8 For such events, though, the collaborating embassy or foreign cultural center never really intervened in the orientation or selection of artists and artworks, instead mostly playing the role of a host and patron (of course, the nuances of this relation must be scrutinized, but, generally speaking, this is the case). One other example that allows us to clearly distinguish the agency or role of external motivations and factors in forming the art of a period goes back to the late 1950s. During this period, some of the players and institutions of the second Pahlavi government willingly took certain measures to increase and, in a way, orient Iran’s modern art. In relation to visual arts specifically, this initiative led to the foundation of Tehran’s first biennale, in 1958, which was launched as a way to select Iran’s representatives for the 1958 Venice Biennale in Italy (although, neither in this case can we reduce the art and artists that drew attention and appealed to audiences to external and governmental-based factors).
The case of contemporary art from the 2000s onward, though, is much more extreme. A few events in particular triggered an unprecedented wave of art and artists without the slightest resemblance to Iran’s preceding art, neither in terms of visual regime nor with regard to problems and concerns — and all this within a few years and under the direct impact of a few factors. Some may object that the development of modern painting in Iran in the 1940s and 1950s was a new and unprecedented process, too, and took place under the influence of external factors. But, in my assessment, these are two incomparable cases. Iran’s modern art, from the early examples at the turn of the 1940s to the beginning of the 1960s, developed over at least twenty years — if we leave aside its background during the transformations of the late Qajar era. Contemporary art, by contrast, except for one or two individual cases, had no track record prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the events leading up to the formation of “contemporary art” in Iran were clearly identifiable for its supporters and initiators. This is why anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of the visual arts in Iran during the past two decades already knows, as a rule, what I’m referring to here: firstly, the assignment of Alireza Sami Azar as manager of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, following Seyed Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and his new policies for the museum, which, most notably, led to the First Conceptual Art Exhibition in 2001 and the 6th Iranian Painting Biennale in 2003, both of which featured a significant number of artists from the new generation (and who also won the main prizes of the biennale). The second, and consequentially the more determining, factor was the holding of Christie’s first auction in the Middle East in 2006 in nearby Dubai — then the second auction, the third auction, and so on. These auctions, in turn, appear to be a result of increasing oil prices in the world markets and the accumulation of oil dollars in the Middle East. Cognizant of this fact, Christie’s sensed the opportunity to enter the region’s art market for a closer intervention.
TMoCA’s new strategy to present and promote “contemporary art,” especially in the two above-mentioned exhibitions, attracted and formed a broad range of young artists and art students who were mostly born in the last two or three years of the Pahlavi era or the first couple years after the 1979 revolution, and who now, following the Dovom-e Khordad transformations,9 felt a fresh sense of possibility, freedom, and power to choose and fight for it. On the other hand, a truly influential factor was the coincidence of these transformations with the first Christie’s auctions in the region: this created a new, unprecedented market for Iran’s art, which, with its objective, naked force, played a substantial role in forming a major part of Iranian art and its future. One can imagine that without the financial and “professional” possibilities ushered in by Christie’s presence — which was followed by other international channels and markets — the attraction of this new art and identity would instead have died away after a while for both the newly minted generation of young artists as well as for the older ones who had abandoned their previous direction to invest in the new, contemporary art.
It is not an exaggeration to refer to the young Iranian artists who emerged in the 2000s as a “generation,” since, as was mentioned, this transformation in Iran’s art scene happened alongside a generational transformation, as the post-revolution baby boom generation reached maturity and entered the stage. The resulting wave of artists mostly had their first individual exhibitions in the early 2000s and gradually became recognized by the larger community of artists in Iran. The following statistics may better illustrate the scope of these changes.10
So far in this text we have not talked about photography. But this medium is helpful in exploring the characteristics of this period as well as to make clear the dimensions of this transformation, and, furthermore, photography found increasing importance during this period (following its increasing importance in the paradigm of contemporary art in general). So, let us proceed with some notes about the field of photography, and then shift to painting and new media.
The medium of photography experienced noticeable change during this period. Throughout the 2000s, thirty-six photographers held their first exhibitions, all born between 1977 and 1983. And if we extend the age range to include those born in 1972 to 1983, we arrive at the significant number of forty-five debut exhibitions for photographers. But the youth were not alone here — based on the sense of movement and the emergence of a new scene and market for art during that period, some of the previous generations of artists joined this activity too. So, accounting for all these exhibitions during the 2000s, regardless of any age limits, we arrive at sixty-six first photography exhibitions! Moreover, these numbers account for artists who have continued their careers as photographers (or as photo-based new media artists) up until the present day; otherwise, this number of first exhibitions would no doubt be even larger.
In the fields of painting and new media, between 2001 and 2009, thirty-seven young artists held their first solo exhibitions, thirty-three of whom were born between 1977 and 1984. This is a substantial number that, even though no similar study exists for the two preceding decades or pre-revolution years, seems very unlikely to have been equaled in earlier periods. Besides, thirty-one of these artists presented their first exhibition in the four-year period between 2002 and 2005 alone. And, no doubt, the scope of this transformation would have been even bolder but for the much smaller number of galleries in Tehran (where almost all these exhibitions were held) at that time versus today. From their very first exhibitions, these artists mostly worked within the framework of “contemporary art” (statistically, most were painters, but their paintings followed the characteristics of contemporary art, or of postmodern, concept-centered, and figurative painting) and basically put distance between themselves and the paradigms of (modern) art from the previous two decades.
The most noteworthy point here is that the majority of these young artists, except for those trained outside Iran, were students of the artists who had reached the peaks of their career in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e., the two post-revolutionary decades of art in Iran), and who practiced and taught in line with the dominant semi-modernist visual language of that time (here I’m thinking of artist-instructors like Mehdi Hosseini (b. 1943), Ahmad Vakili (b. 1961), Yaqub Ammamepich (b. 1946), Karim Nasr (born 1952), Mohammad-Ebrahim Jafari (1940-2018), Homayoun Salimi (b. 1948), Farshid Maleki (b. 1943), and Ahmad Amin Nazar (b. 1956)). In other words, the young artists who emerged in the post-Khatami era rarely showed signs of their masters’ influence — with the exception of very few cases, and at the level of some technical or stylistic traits that, willingly or unwillingly, linger on in the work of pupils, such as particular brushstrokes and color sensibilities. This generation of young artists’ abrupt turn toward the newly established contemporary art — which verged on a total mutation — shows the movement’s scope and significance incredibly clearly, especially when we look at the careers of the somewhat older figures of this generation (born 1967 to 1974). These slightly elder artists had their first exhibitions prior to the period of contemporary art’s emergence in Iran — even just two or three years before the turn of the 2000s—and we can clearly, objectively, see this mutation appear in their practices. The works of their “old period” are executed in the manner of the thematic and stylistic models of the 1980 and 1990s, and the artworks created only a few years later — again, in some cases, just two or three years — we see a totally different manner of art or painting: that of the “contemporary.” (Please see the first group of images.)
On top of this, the mark of the pre-revolution masters is no more traceable in their works than that of their immediate masters (except, as mentioned above, for those artists whose works had previously been used to promote the new era’s values, significations, and sensitivities; besides Shirin Neshat and Ardeshir Mohasses, we can here name Ghasem Hajizadeh (b. 1947) and Nicky Nodjoumi (b. 1941) as well).
At the same time, artists whose careers had taken shape during the 1990s, and who had created their own personal style upon entering the 2000s, found themselves facing a new milieu. In response, many drastically changed their practices, turning away from the worn-out modernism of the 1980s and the 1990s toward a postmodern figurative art. In fact, with the dawn of contemporary art and the New Art (honar-e jadid) in Iran, artists born in the 1950s and early 1960s found themselves in a dilemma. They inevitably had to choose between two paths: Either go on with their now ripened, familiar style at the price of losing their spot on the frontlines of art in Iran, including places in its emerging market, in the foreign exhibitions, and — as became evident later on — even in the first-rate galleries of the capital. Or, which was the path mostly chosen by the younger artists of this generation, they could let go of their now old-fashioned techniques and doctrines and dive deep into the appealingly unknown waves and shores of the new opportunity being presented in art; in this way, they could hope to conform with the new milieu and so promote what they had attained in the humble, indigent, and stagnant art scene of the two preceding decades. Among the first group, we can name Ahmad Vakili, Yaqub Ammamepich, Nosratollah Moslemian (b. 1951), Samila Amirebrahimi (b. 1950), Raana Farnoud (b. 1953), and Hossein Maher (b. 1957); among the second are those like Mehrdad Mohebali (b. 1960), Jamshid Haghighatshenas (b. 1962), Morteza Darehbaghi (b. 1969), Farhad Moshiri (b. 1963), and Rozita Sharafjahan (b. 1962). (Please see the second group of images.)
Meanwhile, there were also some artists who, instead of taking either of these polar stands, kept faith in their former techniques and familiar style but tried to introduce into their work some of the sociopolitical or conceptual sensitivities and values explored by contemporary art. These latter artists thus created a kind of “moderate” concept-oriented painting based on the values of the “fine art” painting they had been taught in the 1980s and 1990s by influential figures like Ruyin Pakbaz (b. 1939); artists like Masoumeh Mozaffari (b. 1958) and Amin Noorani (b. 1964), among a few others.
There remains one line of questioning that may cross the reader’s mind: Is it not just natural that an artist’s career undergoes transformations and evolutions? Does a transmutation, even a full-scale one, in an artist’s work always have to be observed with suspicious eyes? If the answer is “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second, then how can the various attitudes an artist may take in different periods of their career be read as signs of external motivation, lack of coherence, instability, or even opportunism?
In answering the question, we have no choice other than to state some seemingly rudimentary or self-evident points. Being affected by the works of other artists from any given time, place, or category and mingling with artistic and non-artistic currents is not only natural but inevitable. Furthermore, those who think of themselves otherwise are, fundamentally, under the delusion that they are the starting point of history. The matter here, though, is not solely the issue of being affected but the way of being affected — and the whole “anxiety of influence,” as the literary critic Harold Bloom depicts in his famous book, is about this.11 Being affected in artistic works mainly happens through an unconscious attraction or repulsion (except where a work or oeuvre is obviously being pointed to, interpreted, ironically played with, and so on). It is slow moving and takes place at a subliminal level with gradual permeation and saturation; through internalization — digestion-absorption-negation-sublation — and then an unconscious synthetic externalization. The influence is always initiated by the partial and the concrete, and not the general, the official, or that which is communicated through concepts or categories. An artist, for example, responds to Francis Bacon’s (1909–1992) way of handling the paint and his brushstrokes, to how he organizes an event as a “stage,” to the contours of the constructs or the stages in his paintings, which sometimes remain unworked — and not to the “sense of man’s loneliness,” “the brutality depicted in his human figures,” or “according to Gilles Deleuze’s reading” of Bacon, as one may hear. Bacon himself was affected by images of gum disease and scenes from the films of Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948).12 Of course, one can respond to concepts and theories too, or to those artists whose works mostly lack concrete sensuous aspects. But even in this case, the effect happens as or through a concrete, singular thing — as a “nutrition source” that shapes the artist’s vision or “world,” the latter case being different from what is meant by “being influenced” in this text. Issues as general and bland as “women’s issues in the Middle East,” “human rights in Iran,” or “the clash of tradition and modernity” cannot be an artist’s source of response or even their “subject matter.”
Regarding these points, it is dubious that an external and contingent incident — like a change in the management of a museum or holding some exhibitions to present and promote a form of artistic production that, according to the organizers, has been neglected in Iran (conceptual art, contemporary art) — can be the source of a vital, “real” cultural influence or production. Is it even possible to revolutionize the themes and concerns, and also the formal, medium-related sensitivities and capacities, of artists of a country by launching two or three exhibitions within a couple of years? Ostensibly, of course, it is “possible” — if the side doing the affecting expresses a great deal of naivety and fascination for “progress” in art, and the affected side operates with a deformed mechanism of creativity, a gelatinous or still-not-solidified identity, and indeed a similar, unmediated attraction to professional progress and “success.”
In addition to being translated from Farsi and edited, this text has been shortened for publication on mohit.art. Specifically, sections II and VII have been abridged, as indicated by the […].
1 Due to the increasing ascendance of fashionable discourses related to postcolonial and subaltern studies in the recent decades, any such divisions between Western/non-Western societies or cultures, especially when talking about “modern” ideas, trends, or historical experiences “entering” non-Western countries or cultures, have become blasphemous. It’s a long and complicated discussion that should be dealt with in the appropriate space. But, for an example of the application of such postcolonial criteria to a similar field of study — that of Persian literature — see Persian Literature and Modernity, Production and Reception, ed. Hamid Rezaei Yazdi and Arshavez Mozafari (London: Routledge, 2019). In particular, see the editors’ introduction and the chapter by Henry M. Bowles, “Linguistic Realism and Modernity: The Ontology of the Poetic from Suhrawardi to Sa’ib,” in which the writers almost entirely substitute convincing argument and historical evidence with polemical brawling and the wholesale negation of previous studies.
2 Throughout the text, whenever I use the adjective “modern” in this sense, I mean Iran’s art from 1890 (when Sani al Mulk was in bloom) to the present time — including contemporary art or the “New Art,” which I will use interchangeably). This movement began to take shape after 2000, a few years after the election of Seyed Mohammad Khatami to president; the directorship of Alireza Sami Azar at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; and the consequent changes in Tehran’s art scene, which constitute the primary focus of the present text. The currents that attempted to continue Iran’s old art forms, such as miniature painting and calligraphy, whether in the strictly traditional way or with slight modifications, are not included in this definition. It is clear, therefore, that the term “modern” is used here as a neutral concept to point at the whole of the art production in this period, and naturally does not have any correlation with modernist, non-modernist, or postmodernist art, or figurative or abstract art. Hence the term “modern art” in this text comprehends the premodern or near-modern art in Iran of the first decades of the 1900s (in the works of artists such as Sani al Mulk and Kamal-ol-Mulk), the modernist art from the 1940s to the 1979 revolution, from the 1980s to the late 1990s, and finally the “contemporary art” of the 2000s to the present. It draws no distinction, in this regard, between them.
3 See Yahya Zoka, «میرزا ابوالحسن خان صنیع الملک غفاری، موسس نخستین هنرستان نقاشی ایران» [Mirza Abolhasan Khan e Sani ol Mulk e Qafari, the Founder of the First Painting School in Iran], هنر و مردم (Honar va Mardom), nos. 10–11 (August–September 1963).
4 A characteristic example of such an approach can be found in the writings of Mehdi Hosseini, the Iranian painter and researcher. As for his ideas on Sani al Mulk, see Mehdi Hosseini, «بنیانهای مدرنیسم در ایران» [The Foundations of Modernism in Iran], هنرنامه (Honarnameh), no. 20 (2004): ensani.ir
5 For an elaboration on the formalist reading of modernism and its consequences for the path taken by postmodern theory and art from the 1960s to our current time, see Majid Akhgar, «چرخش زبانشناختی هنر تلاقی زبان و عکاسی در هنر جدید» [The Linguistic Turn in Art: The Intersection of Language and Photography in the New Art], حرفه: هنرمند (Herfeh: Honarmand), no. 61 (Fall 2016): 49–64, herfeh-honarmand.com
6 Here I particularly mean the visual arts; however, the same model, with modifications due to the specificities of each field, can be applied to other spheres of culture, and even history, in Iran.
7 Walter Benjamin’s concept of “the now of recognizability” exactly emphasizes this present-to-past (or, for that matter, subject-to-object) vector of historical consciousness and historical creation. See Walter Benjamin, “Convolute N: On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,” in The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002).
8 Payam-e No, a magazine published by the Soviet Union–Iran Cultural Council, produced a special issue for this occasion, which contained several descriptive and analytical texts about the exhibition. Some of these texts can be regarded as the first instances of “critique” and visual analysis, in the recent sense of the term, in Iran. See پیام نو (Payam-e No), Second Series, nos. 10–11 (Summer 1946).
9 Dovom-e Khordad (Khordad 2, 1376 / May 23, 1997), the day that Seyed Mohammad Khatami won the presidency of Iran, was the beginning of a period of political, social, and cultural reforms that raised a great deal of hope especially among the youth and women.
10 The data that follows comes from entries being prepared for the new, extended version of دائرهالمعارف هنر [The Encyclopedia of Art] (Tehran: Farhang Moaser, forthcoming) by Ruyin Pakbaz. I am very thankful to Ruyin Pakbaz, and also to his colleagues Moslem Khezri and Rumin Mohtasham, for providing me with this information in advance of the new edition’s publication. Also, my friend and colleague Farnoosh Jandaghian helped me with the difficult task of providing images and their sources and captions. I am grateful to her.
11 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
12 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016).
Majid Akhgar, “What Influences Iranian Artists? The Case of Contemporary Art,” in Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran, ed. Hannah Jacobi (Berlin: mohit.art, 2022); published on www.mohit.art, August 12, 2022.