Published  24/07/2019

Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art by Fereshteh Daftari – book review

Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art by Fereshteh Daftari – book review

This is a valuable guide to the history of the reception of modern and contemporary Iranian art in the west, offering a broad outlook on cultural interactions between Iran and major American cultural institutions in the past three decades


Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art, the most recent book by art historian and curator Fereshteh Daftari, constructs a history of a complex relationship to modernism and modernity in Iranian art. This history is not circumscribed by Iran’s geographical location, but expands into the intellectual and artistic life of the Iranian diaspora that has been actively participating in shaping the art of their native country. The title of the book partially reveals the author’s intention, which she also outlines in the prologue: to tell a story of Iran that is both local and global, reflective of Iran’s rich cultural tradition and looking to the future. Persia, the ancient name for Iran, is still used widely by people who want to emphasise the country’s venerable history. According to the author: “By invoking [Persia], I am nodding to this ancient history, but I proceed to discuss its modernism … reframe[ing] Iran too in the sense that I see the pluralism of artistic expressions as a testament to a democratic space which contradicts public perception.”1

The author has succeeded admirably in this endeavour. The first chapter is more theoretical than the rest of the book, but is convincingly backed up by arguments based on historical facts. Here, Daftari builds a case for specificity of the development of modernism in Iran, determined by centuries-long conventions.2 As many scholars have done before her, Daftari dismantles Alfred H Barr Jr’s infamous teleological schema of the development of modern art, arguing: “As an art historical discourse, modernism was conceived in the west, exclusively about the west, and for the westerner as ultimate reader, spectator and consumer.”3 She notes that Barr’s schema, which presents the development of modernism “as a march towards abstraction”, does not apply to Iran, where abstraction was the expressive language of art from time immemorial. Taking the example of Kamal al-Molk (1848-1940), an Iranian artist, who at one point was a court painter for the Shah, she demonstrates that his practice of depicting the world realistically, using the rules of perspective, was a sign of his moving away from tradition that favoured abstract, “imaginative flights and embellishments with tenuous links to the empirical world”.4

It was enlightening to learn in this chapter about the Soviet Union’s positive influence on the development of art in Iran through its organisation of “the first important exhibition of modern art”, in 1946, a year after the end of the second world war.5 In the context of this exhibition, it was also interesting to learn about the work of Jalil Ziapour (1920-1999), a painter with leftist leanings who employed cubist vocabulary in his work. At one point, Ziapour was questioned by the police, because, like the leading conservatives in the US during the cold war, officials in Iran at that time saw no difference between adherence to modernism and communism. This curious political reaction notwithstanding, the chapter also introduces us to the beginnings of morphological thinking about art, reflected in the thought and practice of Manoucher Yektai (b1921). Yektai’s pronouncement that he did not think “abstraction was not figuration”, and his crusty, heavily textured works, which hover between abstraction and figuration, indicate that he thought critically about the nature of painting and its relationship to representation.6

The following three chapters provide historical backing for the arguments outlined above. Saqqakhaneh Revisited focuses on the first official art movement in Iran that oriented itself toward modernisation. The Persian word Saqqakhaneh refers to a traditional public water dispenser, having both life-sustaining and religious connotations. The name of the movement refers to its adherence to tradition and to the need to develop new ways of dealing with a rapidly changing world. Originating in the 1960s, the timing of the movement reflected its contemporaneity with the flourishing of postwar art in the US. The Saqqakhaneh artists aspired to stay close to popular culture, while modernising their aesthetic language. To this end, they launched a call for “authenticity” to safeguard themselves from blind imitation of western modes of representation. Thematically and formally, artists such as Faramarz Pilaram (1937-82) and Mansour Ghandriz (1936-65) were addressing subjects that were local in inspiration, modernising their appearance either by increasing the traditionally small scale of paintings or by introducing occasional elements vaguely reminiscent of western sources.

Parviz Tanavoli (b1937), to whom Daftari has devoted an entire chapter, was able to synthesise the modernising tendencies that surrounded the emergence of the Saqqakhaneh into a style that was both diverse and open-ended, allowing him to create modern sculpture in a tradition that hardly tolerated graven monuments. Tanavoli’s wish not to lose touch with his roots is evident in both formal and thematic approaches to his creations. Earlier in his career, he could allow himself to be ironic: his humorous Innovation in Art (1964) bravely depicts an altabeh, a toilet ewer commonly used for purposes of private hygiene in Iran, with a nod to both Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. A decade later, double-meaning and humour were replaced by a turn to the region’s history as Tanavoli began making stelae-like sculptures inspired by ancient Persian and Mesopotamic monuments. Daftari’s story about the Saqqakhaneh also includes valuable information on Abby Weed Grey (1902-83), an American collector who travelled extensively in the region in the 60s and 70s, buying the works of the Saqqakhaneh artists, which eventually laid the foundation for the collection of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.

In the chapter Abstraction and Figuration: The Politics of Morphology, the author presents a panoply of artists who explored a range of formal possibilities offered by this contrasting formulation. Historically, the relationship between abstraction and figuration was not even. According to the author, after the 1979 revolution, “only art by those who … reflected in their works the pains, the hopes, the struggles, the courage and the self-sacrifices of the current dispossessed was politically tolerated,” making figurative works the only acceptable mode of expression of revolutionary sentiments.7 In the timeframe covered by the book, then, abstraction was a term that was less politically charged than figuration, and may have allowed artists a greater range of freedom in formal experimentation. This may be the reason this chapter illustrates mostly works by artists who worked in the abstract idiom, including Monir Farmanfarmaian (1922-2019), Behjat Sadr (1924-2009), Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam (b1924) and Mir-Hossein Mousavi (b1942). Figuration appears to have entered into this generally abstract field of thought mostly for reasons of political expediency – after the revolution, it was used to affirm Islamic identity or declare allegiance to the cause of the lower classes of society. Artists such as Farideh Lashai (b1944) introduced figuration into her otherwise abstract works from foreign and B-rated Persian films in order to “challenge fixed meanings”.8 Such political sensitivity to figuration contrasts sharply with Yektai’s statement quoted earlier about the lack of difference between the two modes, making him an exception the rule, who thought about figuration as a formal device rather than a tool for propaganda. Marcos Grigorian (1925-2007) was another artist who, like Yektai, levelled this difference. Grigorian’s earth paintings, in which he applied earth directly to the canvas, do not look abstract to me, as they literally (re)present the material applied to their surface. It seems that, in them, Grigorian was trying to minimise the ideational pull of a four-dimensional canvas and present his subject as literally as he could.

The chapter The Tip of the Iceberg: Contemporary Art In and Out of Iran is subdivided into thematic categories, which the author deems to be neglected in the discourse on contemporary art. Many of these subchapters deal with topics that approach tradition as a flexible and renewable category, describing artists’ interest in working with local/national subjects from new perspectives, or appropriating traditional representational media for new aims. The section on Tehran, for instance, brings in material on artists who use photography, video, billboards and the new media to shape the image of the city that became a barometer of Iran’s engagement with the ideas of modernity. In this respect, artists such as Arash Fayez (b1984); Jinoos Taghizadeh (b1971); Arash Hanaei (b1978); Mitra Tabrizian (b1954) and Newsha Tavakolian (b1981) engage technology to modernise the way the nation’s capital sees itself and is seen by others. Contemporary artists’ reshaping and appropriation of traditional media adds to the sense of their active reworking of Iranian cultural history, adjusting it to contemporary sensibilities. Trained in traditional Persian painting, Farah Ossouli (b1953) began inserting canonic images of western art history into the framework of the style in which she was trained, appropriating these images to convey her message about a need for change. Shiva Ahmadi (b1975), who came to the US at the age of 23, witnessed the Iran-Iraq war as a child. The traumatic memory of carnage inflicted by the war surfaces in her works, which are populated by figures, animals and riders floating in a dream-like, barely defined pictorial space. In some works, the central element of this nebulous space resembles a bloody wound.

When writing about gender – a topic that attracts a lot of attention in the west – the author offers a narrative that does not begin with Shirin Neshat (b1957), who is, perhaps, the best-known contemporary artist from Iran working on gender issues. To add to our knowledge of this subject, Daftari introduces the figure of Sonia Balassanian (b1942), who exhibited work addressing the issue of veiling a full decade before Neshat, but was not recognised for her efforts. Daftari’s narrative also includes a performer, Bita Fayyazi (b1962), and a photographer, Shirin Aliabadi (1973-2018), whose images of modern Iranian women as rebellious, edgy and daring shook the western stereotype of Iranian womanhood. In her chapter on gender, Daftari also includes Shahpour Pouyan (b1979), an artist whose interest in objects and their association with culture led him to create beautifully crafted things with fetishistic flair, mesmerising in their enigmatic appeal.

The concluding chapter, Introducing Iranian Art Abroad: A Curatorial Perspective, is fascinating, as it gives a detailed view of the author’s personal experience of curating large international exhibitions. Having worked at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 90s, Daftari was in a position to introduce contemporary art from Iran to the American public, and she has done everything in her power to direct MoMA’s attention to its neglect of artists outside the west. She talks about exhibitions she curated at MoMA and other cultural institutions in the US and abroad, which played an important role in creating a public platform for a wide range of art from Iran, including performance and installation. They expanded the perception of this art in the west as not necessarily Islamic, that is, connected in some way to precepts of a religious doctrine, but as diverse, discursive and controversial. In this respect, the author’s exhibitions of what she calls “purely contemporary” art – Action Now at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2012 and Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto in 2017 – showcased the performative possibilities of contemporary Iranian art and culminated in Daftari’s efforts to bring the most current and up-to-date developments from Iran and the diaspora to the attention of the western public.

Daftari’s book is a valuable guide to the history of the reception of modern and contemporary Iranian art in the west, and in the United States, in particular. It offers the reader a broad outlook on cultural interactions between Iran and major American cultural institutions in the past three decades, offering a perspective on a gradual change in the cultural landscape of the US, a country that often prides itself more on economic achievement than on cultural gains. The book should be read by artists, curators, historians and anyone interested in the art of the country that has had an antagonistic political relationship with the west throughout its long and turbulent history. It reveals a complexity of its intellectual landscape that defies sweeping generalisations.

1. Personal correspondence.
2. “Contrary to the thirst for novelty and invention that drives western modernism, the Iranian ideal resides in an origin, an ur­-paradigm, whose foundation equals perfection.” In Modernism(s): Contextualizing the Terms of Discussion, in Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art by Fereshteh Daftari, published by IB Taurus, 2019, page 10.
3. Ibid, page 3.
4. Ibid, page 5.
5. Ibid, page 12.
6. Ibid, page 18.
7. Ibid, page 63.
8. Ibid, page 101.

• Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art by Fereshteh Daftari is out now, published by IB Taurus.

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