Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture
For too long, non-Western modern art has been relegated to the margins, viewed as imitative and derivative. Between Word and Image provides an opportunity to view modern Iranian art and to consider urgent social issues, such as the politicization of Islam. Cultural histories of the post-1945 Middle East usually describe an uneasy tension between the traditional (often labeled as native, primitive, Islamic) and the modern (seen as imported, mimetic, secular). Examining visual culture in Iran during the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibition features three discrete but interrelated aspects: fine art, black-and-white photography, and revolutionary posters. All serve as testaments to creativity as well as records of upheaval and crisis, providing unique insights into the radical transformations that took place in Iran during the two decades leading up to the 1979 Revolution.
The exhibition opens with paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, drawn almost entirely from New York University’s Abby Weed Grey Collection of Asian and Middle Eastern Art. During this period, modern Iranian artists increasingly assumed the time-honored role of the poet: acting as social conscience. Appropriating traditional Persian motifs and exploiting the graphic potential of calligraphy—which functions simultaneously as both word and image—they linked ancient and modern, sacred and profane. Also on view is a selection of black-and-white photographs by Abbas, an Iranian photojournalist living in Paris. During the 1970s he made a series of trips to his native country to record the social changes brought on by the rapid expansion of the oil industry. One visit coincided with the outbreak of the Revolution, and the photographs he shot chronicle how a popular uprising evolved into an Islamic movement. The exhibition concludes with a group of revolutionary posters produced between 1978 and 1988. Covering the walls throughout Iran’s cities during the uprising and serving as props in street demonstrations, they are composed of bold forms and intense colors—and sometimes feature up-to-the-minute newspaper images by photojournalists such as Abbas—in a potent blend of calligraphy, rhetoric, and politics.
Between Word and Image highlights the many ways in which visual culture both reflected and affected the 1960s and ’70s in Iran. Observing artists grappling with how to reconcile contemporary sensibilities with a rich Persian heritage, we encounter a plethora of visual solutions that transcend the gaps between mimicry and rejection. Their artistic expressions take on greater meaning as our understanding of modernity deepens, and as we gain new insights into the role art can play during times of political crises.
Iranian Painting and Sculpture of the 1960s and ’70s
Many of the artists featured in Between Word and Image were first introduced to American audiences by Abby Weed Grey, the founder of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. Mrs. Grey, a Minnesota resident, was a passionate supporter of contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian art. As part of a trip around the world in 1960, she visited Iran. Over the next thirteen years, Mrs. Grey became the single most important foreign collector of Iranian modern art and her collection, which she donated to NYU in 1975, features works by many of the leading artists.
The 1960s and ’70s were a time of a great artistic ferment in Iran, as elsewhere in the world. Many artists were actively exploring abstract modes of expression. Interestingly, centuries before modern artists in Europe and America turned to non-objective art, artistic traditions outside the West had eschewed realism. Beginning with Impressionism in the 1860s, avant-garde artists in Europe and America increasingly abandoned customary Western methods of representing visible reality, such as one-point perspective and the use of light and shade to create the illusion of volume. Many European and American artists turned eastward, looking to Japanese prints and Persian miniatures, as well as African sculpture, for inspiration.
In the 1960s, Iranian artists were engaged in forging an aesthetic that was at once Iranian and modern. Drawing on materials and symbols in Persian culture, they infused them with new meanings. As Shiva Balaghi notes, modernity in the Iranian context was a complex field of negotiation and accommodation. Iranian modern artists were also working in an expanding institutional context. The Fine Arts Academy, which focused on architecture and painting, was established at the University of Tehran in 1940. The following year, as Allied forces occupied Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi abdicated the throne to his young son. The period between 1941 and the 1953 coup that ousted Mohammad Mossadeq, the elected Prime Minister who nationalized the oil industry, was an era of unprecedented democracy. It was also a critical period in the development of Iranian modernism. Journals promoting modernist art and literature were published, and galleries dedicated to modern Iranian art were opened. As Fereshteh Daftari explains, during this period, some Iranian artists traveled to “Paris, Munich, or Istanbul, where they encountered a range of debates specific to the postwar era, then returned home with fragments of foreign vocabularies with which they attempted to describe local themes.”
In 1954, Marcos Grigorian returned to Iran from Rome, where he had studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Grigorian, who is included in the Grey Collection, was a key figure in the modern Iranian art scene. He opened the Galerie Esthétique, an important commercial gallery in Tehran. In 1958, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, he organized the first Tehran Biennial. Grigorian was also an influential teacher at the Fine Arts Academy, where he disseminated his enthusiasm for local popular culture, including coffee-house paintings, a type of folk art named after the locations in which they were often displayed.
Hossein Zenderoudi, a student of Grigorian, likewise found great inspiration in coffee-house paintings. His imagination was fueled as well by other forms of Iranian popular culture—such as talismans that he encountered in the bazaars, and textiles he saw in the Iran Bastan Museum. As Daftari notes, he “established a fully developed syntax brewing a private mythology out of religion, superstition, augury, numerology, divination, and coded signs.” Seeing some of Zenderoudi’s paintings at the 1962 Tehran Biennial, Iranian art critic Karim Emami used the word saqqakhaneh, which denotes a ceremonial public fountain most often found in bazaars, to describe Zenderoudi’s integration of populist themes from Iranian Shiite folk art with modern art forms. A former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Kamran Diba, evocatively referred to this trend as Spiritual Pop Art: “There is a parallel between Saqqak-khaneh and Pop Art, if we simplify Pop Art as an art movement which looks at the symbols and tools of a mass consumer society as a relevant and influencing cultural force. Saqqak-khaneh artists looked at the inner beliefs and popular symbols that were part of the religion and culture of Iran, and perhaps, consumed in the same way as industrial products in the West.” Zenderoudi’s The Hand features calligraphy prominently and also references Shiite folklore.
Parviz Tanavoli is another of the most prominent saqqakhaneh artists and, like Zenderoudi, draws inspiration from both calligraphy and classical Persian poetry. In 1972 he made Heech, a bronze sculpture in the arching shapes of the Persian letters that spell out the word “nothing.” With Heech, Tanavoli restated the importance of the written word as a form that is open to multiple interpretations. The following year, he produced Heech Tablet; its surface markings parody cuneiform inscriptions and recall the grillwork protecting Islamic religious structures. As Daftari explains, “Here ancient pre-Islamic inscriptions and the aura of Islamic religion are locked together in the expression of a continuous, undivided past.” Through the years, Tanavoli developed a friendship with Abby Grey, who avidly collected his sculptures and lithographs. In addition to helping him establish a bronze foundry at the University of Tehran, she invited him to visit the United States, where he taught sculpture at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for a few years. Mrs. Grey also initiated a meeting between Tanavoli and another Iranian artist living in Minnesota, Siah Armajani.
Armajani had moved to Minnesota to attend Macalester College, where his uncle was a professor. He settled there permanently and became an American citizen. Best known today for his architectural constructions and public sculptures, Armajani draws inspiration from writings, including those of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and reworks commonplace elements—such as walls, benches, windows, and doors—into complex structures that blur the boundaries between art and architecture.
The Grey Collection lacks examples of Armajani’s large-scale installations, but it does include a selection of early calligraphic works that reveal his long-term interest in probing the links between word and image. In Calligraphy, 1964, for example, Persian inscriptions cover a white pictorial field. The diacritical marks that serve to differentiate Persian letters are omitted, rendering the text illegible. Its lively calligraphic characters fashioned in contrasting styles and oriented in several different directions, Calligraphy inhabits the gap between words’ forms and their meanings.
Armajani’s early aesthetic experiences—steeped in modern Iranian debates concerning the proper balance of old and new, picture and text, idea and place—helped shape his 1986 project for the World Financial Center Plaza in Battery Park City. Situated a little over a mile from the Grey Art Gallery, the installation consists of a metal railing overlooking the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty. In this work, which incorporates quotations from verses by Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara celebrating the spirit of New York City, Armajani offers a nuanced vision of public space, where architecture, sculpture, and poetry merge into a seamless whole.
Abbas’s Photographs of Iran
A member of the world-renowned Magnum Photos collective, Abbas (who uses only his first name professionally) was born in Iran and spent his childhood in Algeria. As a young man he witnessed the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence, an experience he credits with inspiring him to become a documentary photographer. After studying mass communications in England, he eventually moved to Paris, where he still lives today. By the early 1970s, Abbas had become an experienced photojournalist, documenting conflicts in Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, and South Vietnam.
In the late 1970s, he returned to Iran with the idea of producing a photo-essay examining the social and economic changes brought on by the country’s rapidly expanding oil industry. Between Word and Image includes selections from the photographs Abbas took in preparation for this project. In 1977, for example, he photographed women exchanging greetings in a Tehran hairdressing salon. By 1978, however, the Iranian Revolution was well underway, and Abbas turned his attention to documenting what was happening in Tehran’s streets. In an interview with Shiva Balaghi, Abbas explained, “The revolution started with small streams and suddenly the small streams came together and it became like a huge river. I went to the streets of Tehran and started photographing.”
Abbas’s photographs were published in leading magazines. They provided information on the day-to-day unfolding of the revolution to Iranians shuttered in their homes and to those living abroad. Religious holidays, such as Ashura, which commemorates the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, provided occasions for massive street demonstrations. Abbas describes how he shot Young Woman at an Anti-Shah Demonstration on one such occasion: “There were millions of people in the street for the first time, and they were all happy to be together… I saw this woman, standing alone behind a row of men, and I thought her position said something about the role of women in this revolution. In a way, in this picture, I anticipated what would become of women after the revolution.” Revealing subtle changes and nuances, his photographs provide a pictorial history of the Revolution.
As we look at Abbas’s photographs, we begin to see the transition of the Iranian Revolution from a popular uprising against the Shah’s regime to an increasingly Islamic movement. In a 1978 photograph, a group of seemingly unlinked men stoke a bonfire in which a photograph of the Shah burns. Another shows a sea of veiled women, arms raised to the sky as they await Khomeini’s return. By the fall of 1979, the marchers wear army fatigues and carry weapons as they stage a demonstration outside the
U. S. Embassy where American diplomats have been taken hostage.
As Balaghi argues, Abbas’s photographs serve as a historical archive of the Revolution. In a sense, they have become the memory of the event. “Some of these pictures have become icons of the revolution,” Abbas explained, “People don’t remember the event; they remember the photograph of the event. Your own memory tends to fade, but the picture is still alive, it’s still there, you can still go back to it. The picture becomes the event itself.”
Abbas left Iran in 1980 and published the photographs he took in the book, La Révolution Confisquée. In 1981 he was elected a member of Magnum Photos, the prestigious photojournalists’ collective founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and other war correspondents; he served as Mangum’s President from 1998 to 2001. Inspired by his experience as a participant/observer in the Iranian Revolution, he undertook a major project to document political Islam. The results were published in 1984 in the book Allah O Akbar. In 1997, Abbas began returning to Iran on a regular basis, recording life in the Islamic Republic. He recently published Iran Diary, which presents his photographs taken between 1971 and 2000.
Iranian Revolutionary Posters
During the 20th century, ideological conflicts were often accompanied by vast outpourings of mass-produced images created with the specific intent to mobilize. Indeed, social upheavals and revolutionary struggles often give rise to innovative forms of political artistic expression. Posters produced and disseminated during the Islamic Revolution in Iran were no exception. Engaged artists created posters whose iconography opposed and inverted ideas and images that supported the status quo. Not just a secondary reflection of the revolutionary movement, these posters played a vital role in the struggles for change and in the articulation of collective ideologies.
Although the Iranian Revolution culminated in an Islamic state, as Haggai Ram notes, its impetus, motivations, iconographies, and messages were multifarious. This diversity is reflected in the revolutionary posters on display in Between Word and Image. While the posters were produced by a wide range of political groups, most make direct appeals to action by defying power, subverting authority, and inverting icons as a means to authorize oppositional ways of thinking and behavior. In one poster, the Shah’s oil regime becomes a weapon of its own destruction. An oil derrick stands in for the hilt of a dagger plunging through the United States–supported Pahlavi crown. In another poster, the Revolution is visualized as a red arrow that is aimed at a blissful future, exemplified by a red sun. First, however, the revolutionaries must overcome three forces, represented by columns. The revolutionary arrow has already broken through the first column, on which the Pahlavi crown teeters precariously. The second column is marked “internal reaction” and upholds a silhouette of the Shah’s profile. Uncle Sam’s top hat sits atop the third column, which is labeled “imperialism.”
As social discontent increased throughout the 1970s, some of Iran’s leading contemporary artists assumed an active role in the production of political posters. Inspired by the French student movement of 1968, a group of Iranian artists opened a workshop at the University of Tehran in 1978. The workshop provided the materials and equipment for printing posters to members of various political groups. Professional artists worked alongside amateurs. Their results were displayed throughout Tehran—in schools, in factories, and on the walls of other buildings, often defacing public monuments built by the Pahlavi regime as symbols of its authority and grandeur. As government agents tore them down or covered them with paint, protesters would replace them with replenished supplies.
One active member of the poster workshop was Morteza Momayez, whose works are also represented in the Grey Collection. His posters clearly display the fusion of symbolism that marked Iranian modern art in this period. In one, three red tulips in the shape of clenched fists are topped with an excerpt from a poem that reads, “Tulips have blossomed from the blood of the nation’s youth.” The poster reveals the multifarious influences propelling Momayez’s revolutionary message: the symbol of the American civil rights movement (the raised fist) merges with an icon from classical Persian literature (the tulip). Persian poetry, which is cited frequently in the posters, provides the defiant slogan.
As Ram suggests, Iranian revolutionary posters became a site of an “insurgent consciousness.” The posters displayed in Between Word and Image provide visual testimony to the heterogeneity of the Revolution’s cultural, social, and political concerns. Referencing Shiism, they also incorporate messages from a variety of other sources, including Marxism, to create subversive and, at times, contradictory political messages.