In the west, “modern” almost always means “good”. Who would reject the healthy, youthful optimism that the word implies? In other parts of the world, it’s a more volatile term, pitting liberalism against custom, commerce against religion, globalisation against local pride. Iran Modern at the Asia Society in New York presses a finger to this tender spot of ambivalence. In the 1960s and 70s, during the reign of a west-besotted Shah, Iran tasted modernity and then violently spat it out. A sense of discovery and doom gives the exhibition its poignant energy: Persian Pop, late-blooming cubism and various exalted and kitschy hybrids had their glorious moments. The period’s artistic richness stokes an appetite for an epilogue, but the show breaks off in 1979, when the country changed and artists scattered.
From the beginning, modernism meant something quite different in Iran. In the early 20th century, the European avant-garde rejected the burden of beaux-arts propriety and went off to explore Egyptian painting, African masks, medieval sculpture, folk traditions and the ecstasies of the insane. Adventurous Iranian artists, on the other hand, took up the realism that their European counterparts scorned.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that cubism caught on in Tehran, and then only briefly. Picasso-style abstraction inflamed a global revolution in art, and a generation of painters hoped it could burn through mouldering provincialism. Jalil Ziapour, a painter and theorist, founded the society Khorous Jangi (Fighting Cock) and started a magazine to proselytise his transnational vision. The cover of the first issue featured a strutting fowl, an obvious homage to the Gallic rooster that Picasso had made an icon of modernism.
The cubist experiment roused vehement hostility. Critics denounced it as “Westoxication”, and the public remained unmoved. Ziapour was baffled: cubism wasn’t new in Europe and it shouldn’t have seemed foreign in Iran. “Our artists for centuries have been involved in creating geometrically abstract designs,” he mused in 1989.
The search was on for an idiom that could tap into a national tradition and at the same time transcend it. The Saqqakhaneh movement was named after a kind of votive fountain that could slake both bodily and spiritual thirst. Its members evoked Iran’s glorious past in a language of potent semi-abstraction. Hossein Zenderoudi combined numerology, calligraphy, folk motifs and Persian dynastic emblems in “The Sun and the Lion” (1960), a complex canvas of intricate designs and shimmering colours. Faramarz Pilaram pumped up the delicate art of decorating manuscripts to a monumental scale, festooning jewel-like paintings with flat areas of gold and silver. The group practised a sort of spiritual Pop art, with stars and stylised hands instead of soup cans and pictures of Marilyn. Theirs was a dense, un-European, yet thoroughly modern modernism.
Of all the Saqqakhaneh adherents, Parviz Tanavoli was most comfortable with the language of international Pop, but he, too, developed a local dialect. He studied in Milan and taught in Minneapolis before returning to Iran, where he scoured bazaars and junkyards for the locks, keys and taps he painted gaudily and assembled into exuberant sculptures. He drew on Persian epics for phallic, robotic forms that mimed the rituals of romance, and on Duchamp for his flamboyant irreverence. In “Innovation in Art” (1964), Tanavoli gave pride of place to a metal pitcher of the kind that is used to accompany a tankless toilet. He painted this humble article in rainbow stripes, placed it in the open gash of a torn carpet, and surrounded the whole arrangement with a border of brightly hued, interlocking pitchers, abstracted to resemble an ancient decorative motif. It’s not clear whether Tanavoli was mocking antiquity or contemporary poseurs, but he expressed the ambiguity boldly, with a confident twist on the urinal that Duchamp called “Fountain”.
Tehran in the 1960s was a cosmopolitan, connected city. Marcos Grigorian arrived via Russia, Europe and America and literally embraced his adopted land. He scooped up dried earth and moulded it into cracked reliefs – furrowed moonscapes or aerial views of fields that have parched into desert. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose work was as shiny and playful as Grigorian’s was dour, spent her youth in New York, studying design at Parsons, working as a fashion illustrator and hanging out with the likes of Pollock, Nevelson, Stella and Warhol. She moved back to Iran in 1957; a visit to the Shah Cheragh, a shrine in Shiraz coated in thousands of tiny mirrors, furnished her patriotic epiphany. And yet her spangled, shiny, patterned style also dovetails with the disco aesthetic of the 1970s. Warhol visited Tehran in 1976, and she presented him with a faceted reflective orb called “Mirror Ball” which looks as though it could have been spinning on the ceiling at Studio 54.
This was government-sponsored ferment. Tanavoli served as advisor to Queen Farah Pahlavi, who supported festivals, opened art institutes and founded museums. In 1977, she inaugurated the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art with a cornucopia of Picassos, Monets, Pollocks, Warhols and Lichtensteins. That vibrant collection, now worth billions but out of favour and out of sight, lies entombed somewhere in the Islamic Republic’s vaults.
The show is frustratingly vague on the politics of Iranian modernism. A wall text coyly mentions that “allusions or political interpretations of seemingly apolitical works may be sought and found”, but the curators studiously neglect to allude, seek or find. Perhaps it’s too demanding a trick to unearth a forgotten flowering of Iranian art and then immediately point out that it depended on a repressive regime.
Only at the end of the show do we get a glimpse of the ideological waves that washed over artists – and everybody else – in 1979. The great photojournalist Abbas was visiting his native country from Paris when the revolution exploded. He took to the streets with the demonstrators, and his indelible images register both the thrill of a new beginning and his speedy disillusionment with the revolution’s violence and fanaticism. In one wrenching photo, a group of young men in bell-bottomed pants surround a woman in a headscarf, snapping and grabbing like wolves. We are told almost nothing about her crime, her identity or her fate, but in this show she seems like the figure of Iran’s troubled enlightenment about to get crushed by those who consider “modern” a filthy epithet and “art” an invasive pest.
‘Iran Modern’ runs until January 5, www.asiasociety.org