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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Years Leading to the Iranian Revolution, 1960–79

The artistic flowering in Iran that began in the 1950s continued through the 1960s and early ’70s, as artists from the Saqqakhana School gained international prominence. These decades saw the opening of Iran to the international art scene, as local artists participated in art fairs, including five Tehran Biennials (1958–66), founded galleries (the Apadana, the Seyhoun, and the Borghese), courted local supporters (the Pahlavi Foundation and the Ministry of Art and Culture), and eventually foreign collectors (Abby Weed Grey and the Iran American Society). The Shiraz Arts Festival at Persepolis, largely backed by the government, was inaugurated in 1967. The festival hosted a roster of international musicians, artists, dancers, and otherwise cutting-edge performers, and for the next eleven years represented Iran’s vibrant art scene to the world. All of this paved the way in 1977 for the opening of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which would come to hold an important collection of works by both Western and Iranian artists.

In these years, Faramarz Pilaram (1937-1982) and Hossein Zenderoudi (born 1937) continued their experiments with calligraphy, abstracting letters and introducing techniques of modern painting. Master of the tradition Seyed Mohammad Ehsaey (born 1939), for instance, pioneered the use of media not traditionally used in calligraphy (oil paint and canvas) to produce works that focus on the composition and forms of the letters rather than content. His contemporary Nasrollah Afjei (born 1933) further abstracted the words through repetition, creating wavelike compositions. Some artists used text less as a visual component than a springboard of inspiration. Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980) was both a poet and painter, studying first in Tehran and then traveling to Japan and India, where he developed a strong understanding of Eastern aesthetics and thought. His abstract paintings feature simple brushstrokes and colors that embody his appreciation of nature and of Zen philosophy.

This surge of artistic activity was largely a result of Iran’s economic prosperity and the policies of the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Empress Farah Diba. The White Revolution attempted to expand women’s rights, improve education in outlying provinces, and privatize business. This, coupled with the oil boom, catapulted Iran into a period of unprecedented financial prosperity. However, the distribution of wealth was uneven, leaving the vast majority of Iranian citizens marginalized and alienated by the country’s Western-leaning regime. As much as the court supported artistic exploration, many artists resented the shah’s economic and social program and the surveillance and repression of those who opposed the regime. Ardeshir Mohassess (1938–2008), for instance, made scathing political cartoons during the 1960s and ’70s that deftly illustrated the corruption and extravagance of monarchical leadership, both in Iran and more generally. In 1976, after his work was banned by the Shah, Mohassess left Iran for Paris and then the United States, where he continued to produce biting caricatures and political cartoons.

Nahid Hagigat (born 1943) was one of the few artists to express the concerns of women during the years leading to the Revolution. In her prints, she captured the feeling of tension and fear in a male-dominated society under government scrutiny. Beyond the unique perspective she offered, printmaking was a rare medium in Iran at this time, yet an appropriate one for her subject. The paintings of Nicky Nodjoumi (born 1942) also conveyed this climate of secrecy, often depicting figures under pressure or restraint.

The 1979 Revolution changed the dynamics of the arts scene. After the Islamic takeover, museums and galleries enjoyed less latitude. The Revolution itself was documented by the photographer Abbas (born 1944), who had just returned to Iran for a project to examine changes in society brought about by the oil boom. Caught in the moment, he recorded both the fervent demonstrations of the masses and the dealings of the higher-level politicians. Other notable photographers who captured footage of the Revolution were Kaveh Golestan (1950-2003) and the couple Bahman Jalali (1944-2010) and Rana Javadi (born 1953).

Although officially censored, photography and film became some of the most effective mediums used during this period, overshadowing painting and sculpture. Most paintings of the early 1980s were idealized portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and other religiously inspired themes. Stylistically, the work became literal and narrative, showing a linear progression of ideas and clear ideological themes. Both the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) and the Revolution prompted development in the graphic arts, as powerful posters were created to galvanize national support and to commemorate the lives lost. This combination of broad religious appeal and more directed nationalism made posters a particularly effective medium in the late 1970s and ’80s.

The art coming out of Iran from the 1960s to the 1980s is one of transition. Its heterogeneity reflects the range of societal conditions at the time: political discontent coupled with patriotism; secularism contrasted to religious fervor; the increasing disparity between rich and poor. As the country moved into another mode, artists struggled to defend, discover, and re-create their own identities both at home and abroad. In their work, we see a diversity of concerns that continue to preoccupy contemporary artists today.