|Behdjat Sadr at work in her studio. Photograph: Courtesy of Sadr family and the Guardian|
For the exiled and disenchanted figures of Iran’s recent history, Rome has served as a place of refuge. Following the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the troubled sovereign Reza Shah Pahlavi took flight to the Italian capital. Within the same decade, his wife’s favourite artist, the notoriously irreverent painter-sculptor Bahman Mohasses, traded Tehran for Rome, where he lived in self-imposed seclusion for the next 50 years. His legacy presents him as a cigarette-puffing enfant terrible, who had a complex relationship with the authority of his royal Pahlavi patrons: he was once ordered to add underpants to his puckish Flute Player sculpture commissioned by the empress to stand outside the State Theatre in Tehran. The oeuvre from his years as an émigré in Rome forms the introductory sequence of the exhibition Iran: Unedited History, which opens from 11 December at the National Museum of 21st Century Arts in the Italian capital.
What makes Unedited History so truly redolent of its time-span, however, is the inclusion of the peeling and scribbled paper spoils of popular culture and domestic life, from student-crafted agitprop posters to children’s drawings and a family photo album.
|Ardeshir Mohassess (1938-2008) Jeune Afrique Numéro 626, 1973 Collection Groupe Jeune Afrique. Photograph: Collection Groupe Jeune Afrique, courtesy the Guardian|
|Kazem Chalipa, Bassidjiy, 1985. Photograph: Iran: Unedited History, courtesy the Guardian|
Part two shudders into an abrupt gear-change away from such official cultural abundance, reaching through the thickets of the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war that immediately followed in 1980 until 1988. Unedited History ends by presenting contemporary perspectives from artists born during these tumultuous decades of the seventies and eighties.
Following its inaugural summer show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Unedited History is well-matched in Rome at Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, a structure built as a labyrinthine station for contemporary art. The exhibition’s title borrows from the vernacular of filmmakers. The works are presented to us as “rushes”: the un-tampered with, immediate and raw documentations of current events. And so, the white chambers of MAXXI serve as editing suites, replaying the reels of Iran’s last half-century. But this is by no means the final cut. A sensitive line of visual enquiry is presented to the audience. Works are straightforwardly as possible, almost clinically. History is used to contextualise rather than to coerce the works into providing a charged agenda on the events themselves. Curatorial attention is paid instead to how people and pictures were mobilized across public spaces, propelled by the changing stage-set of Iran’s cultural circumstance.
Dubbed “the Persian Picasso”, Bahram Mohasses was an artist often seen to represent the zenith of Iranian artistic modernism whilst still retaining his outsider reputation. His works selected to open Unedited History present a large swathe of his career. At once grotesque and amusing, the characters that populate his canvases range from the beasts of classical mythology – The Minotaur with flaking flesh from 1966 – to his mother (1974) and the ever-present gape-mouthed creation Fifi (1965). A series of untitled assemblages, or collages, produced intermittently between 1970 and 2008 feature off-kilter, woozy juxtapositions of the everyday. Whilst living and working in Rome, he cut and pasted his images from Italian lifestyle magazines with an irreverent touch. Given his sources, the scenes are set within glossy spreads of bourgeois living rooms. But the residents who lean on glass coffee tables and emerge from chintz duvet covers are sinister slices of skin – “the darling beast of our existence” as Mohasses dubbed them – grafted from the flesh and fabric of advertisement models, growling at us through their Tipex-ed teeth.
Behdjat Sadr, one of the first female artists to appear on the Iranian biennale scene in the sixties, eschewed figural symbolism altogether for her own brand of abstract geometry. A fragment of Sadr’s notes on art from 1980 reveals a similar impulse behind her practice to that which drove Mohasses’ assemblages: “one must do everything to convey the meaning of our times. To tear it out of magazines, paste it and use other means too.”
|Behdjat Sadr, Untitled, 1974 © Galerie Frédéric Lacroix. Photograph: Courtesy Galerie Frédéric Lacroix and the Guardian|
|From Kaveh Golestan’s Prostitute series. Courtesy the Guardian|
Film reels from 1 April 1979, the day on which the revolution was announced, spliced together in Bahman Kiarostami’s 2013 video edit Flowers, were the first to be broadcast on national television in Iran. They are replayed here on a small box monitor, in a manner analogous with how they first beamed into Iranian living rooms, changing history forever. A revolutionary painter in both subject and style, Kazem Chalipa presented the drama of protests and conflicts captured by his contemporaries on camera through the gravitas of ninetenth-century oil painting, drawing together traditions from the European salon and the walls of Persian coffeehouses. State organisations translated and graphicised many of his works, including his painting of Ali (the first Shi’a Imam) on his white horse Doldol, into agitprop poster designs. As the graphic arts dealt with increasingly graphic subject matter, they operated in a palette drained only to the tricolor of the national flag. The student-led Group 57 collective fashioned a potent stylistic mix from the spindly grotesque of late eighteenth-century European satirical prints combined with the punchy rectilinear red and black aesthetics of Soviet graphic design. Compared to the Age-of-Aquarius flora and fauna in the promotional material of the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts (1967-77), an event charted extensively in Room 2, the development and severity of reactionary post-‘79 Iranian poster art flash past the eye in a sharp contrast. Raised fists clench guns, faces are distorted in screams and body bags line up. Even the emblematic “bird of freedom” is beheaded.
The closing scene of Unedited History, orchestrated by the latest generation of Iranian artists, is at once tender, nostalgic and brutal. Khosrow Khorshidi’s pen and ink drawings form his Good Old Days series (2009 – 2011) depict long-gone places that once stood on the streets of Iran from 1940 to 1979. Illustrations of bookshops and atmospheric vignettes of café culture are laid onto paper as delicately as black lace. Snapshots taken between 2007 and 2011 by Tahmnieh Monzavi tell small and unusual stories from the outskirts of Tehrani society. A quartet of black-and-white portraits shows Tina, a transvestite and a drug addict, visiting a market in her headscarf. Elsewhere in the capital, the Mokhberodowleh Tailors laugh as they try on white satin bodices for size in an inner-city bridal boutique.
|Narmine Sadeg Man-bird, 2014 Collection of the artist. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and the Guardian|
Unedited History is a marathon, one that is both emotionally and physically taxing. Yet, for the visitor wanting to learn about Iran, Unedited History offers the opportunity for an introduction of unprecedented quality and breadth to the complex and fraught recent history of the country, a topic so ingrained into modern memory but little understood by many. For the critic or passing Persianist, an essay could be written about every single piece in this show, such is its importance as an exhibition in the field of Iranian studies. And for an Iranian audience, as one blogger has described on the widely read youth collective joonies.com, the experience of Unedited History posits “a history lesson to Generation X, but a painful reminiscence to the generation of our parents.”
Parts of this article were originally published in REORIENT Magazine, August 2014.