The main evolution of contemporary Iranian painting starts from the second half of the twentieth century at a time when several important factors influence and accelerate the formation of this process: among them is the travel of a group of young artists to Europe for continuing their art education. Some of these artists started to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University which was established ten years before. They introduced, together with some older teachers and one or two foreigners, modern Western painting to young Iranian artists. Another factor was the solidification of the relation between Iran and contemporary world which had released itself from the previous restrictions under the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. With the start of a short period of democracy, a more comprehensive and thorough connection with the international art scene became possible. This is the same period when intellectual movements developed with the support of leftist Iranian activists searching in different fields such as literature, philosophy, art and politics new spaces inaccessible before. The establishment of ‘Khoroos Jangi’ (=fighting cock) magazine was a sign of such quest and challenge. An increase in the influence of international politics in cultural domains resulted in promotion of contemporary cultural events of the twentieth century (regardless of the interests of Western and Eastern world in this) and in a better acquaintance with modernism. Among these, one has to refer to the continuous activity of the Mass Party and Iran and Russia Cultural Society which played a special role. This activeness was considerably clear in the case of literature and visual arts. The development of Iranian society in different aspects, opened a small window to international modernity after 1940 while political development made possible a relative freedom of thought and expression and similar to other democracies who welcomed modernism, this short-lived democracy succeeded in preparing the grounds for later expansion of modernism in Iran. As a consequence, a new wave of art students travelling to Europe created upon their return the second generation of artists who, through teaching at universities and establishing personal classes and studios, promoted modernism in Iran more than before. Particularly from the beginning of the 60s, this generation succeeded in changing the struggle between tradition and modernity in favor of the latter terminating the official sovereignty of academic paintings of Kamal-al-Mulk and his students on Iranian art scene which had lasted for five decades and was considered the only official face of visual arts in Iran. It is obvious that parallel to the expansion of Iranian modernist movement (whose engine was tens of active persistent educated artists) and parallel to Kamal-al-Mulk’s school of painting, the current of academic art and of well-known masters, other groups were also active among which one must name a group of traditional artists who, following the revival of old Iranian painting promoting once again, from the beginning of the twentieth century, miniature painting and lacquers, had started to mass produce their artworks and succeeded in finding a large number of enthusiast clients. Another group consisted of artists who, through a belief in the political and social commitment of art, were working in the field of realist socialist art and although mostly active in the field of literature, their influence on visual arts cannot be ignored. The establishment of the first Iranian gallery in 1949, created the opportunity for exhibiting and selling the artworks of Iranian artists while up to that time artists presented their works in their own studios and houses and had not yet stepped in the field of marketing their works and professionally selling them. In its international form, this would happen through gallery owners, collectors and dealers. Art criticism and the presence of art critics needed more time to become widespread and theoretical discussion in the field of visual arts happened orally limited to circles of artists and as such had not yet found its place in the press. Unfortunately between 1940s and 1960 no reliable reference book was published (either in the form of art history or analytical essays) that could have been accessible to art enthusiasts. Painting and sculpture classes were active during this period yet were mostly established and directed by academic artists and apart from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University (and a little later in one or two other newly established art universities) there was nowhere to learn and become familiar with modern art. Following the political developments after 19 Aug. 1953 and despite existing limitations and the decline of the democracy of the previous decade, the modernist movement continued and succeeded in passing several initial and unnecessary challenges for justifying its raison d’être and its comprehensive international situation. With the beginning of the 40s, the initial grounds required for the formation of modernism in Iran were prepared and stabilized. From the late 40s and parallel to the currents of committed painting, new miniatures and academic painting, two other main currents become traceable: that of modernism following prominent European and American art events mainly operative in the field of Cubism, Fauvism and Abstract Painting which tried to locate itself within the dynamic and developing current of international art, presenting examples of every new international achievement. Another current which appeared in the final years of the 40s was that of Saqqakhaneh School of Painting which developed in response to the dependence of Iranian modernism on international modernism and in response to traditional art and traditional elements used by craftsmen and anonymous artists of popular art. Young artists of this school expressed with their works their approval of a search for new potentials through benefiting from traditional art and making use of calligraphy, metal windows of Saqqakhanehs, stamps, textiles and other decorative elements. They rose against the international modern art, which, according to them, had no identity. During two decades, Saqqakhaneh School introduced some of the most prominent Iranian contemporary artists to the Iranian art society and through finding symbols and samples which an audience with common traditional roots could easily relate to, created examples which at the same time were both modern and traditional yet probably becoming the most successful movement in the life of modernism in Iran. This movement was continued in the years after revolution and this national/traditional/local substitute succeeded in promoting other currents such as calligraphy painting. Saqqakhaneh school was actually a reaction against the dominance of international modernism in a land which had the most exquisite and sublime achievements in painting and miniatures for centuries and was the main claimant for that credit in the Middle East and as such, could not tolerate the flattening, unifying and anti-traditional attitude of international modernism. The main point is the continuation of this school whose prominent artists still represent the contemporary art of the Middle East in international auctions and their entrance to these actions have had a direct influence on the art of the Middle East. With the rise of Islamic Revolution of 1979 and its victory, the newly found market of Iranian visual arts was no longer spoken of and it took several years for the older artists to restart their work, for galleries to reopen and little by little a new generation of buyers belonging to cultural and wealthy post-revolution groups started buying artworks. With the immigration of a great number of supporters and buyers of artworks who had expanded art economy before the revolution, the trading and production of artworks run into problems and time was needed for new art-lovers to emerge and start choosing their favorite works and find them. This new taste, however, was greatly different from that of pre-revolution supporters and the international taste of the time. On the other hand, with the establishment of institutions such as Domain of Islamic Art and Thought (Howze-ye-Andisheh va Honar-e-Eslami) a new definition of the duty of art and artist become the dominant theory of the post-revolution regime and most young artists of the revolution gathered in that institution. This group of artists who had graduated from pre-revolution art faculties created their artworks around the theme of revolutionary and religious art as well as the art of war. Gradually through time, they occupied cultural positions and while their works were exhibited in different museums established after the revolution. Apart from few exceptions, they failed to play an influential role or find a place in the expanding market of Iranian contemporary art. With the new expansion of modernism and its revival in years following 1986 a new wave emerged which was not opposed to governmental cultural programming but had come to connect as much as it can with the international culture. Although post-revolution governments tried to de-westernize culture, in practice they were unsuccessful and institutions such as Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art only served as supervisors and censors and could not distribute in large scale products that could penetrate the depth of cultural society as well as the mind of youth who designed future. Thus, the clear-cut line drawn by governments between revolutionary-religious art and modernism did not end up in a desirable result resulting in confrontation of governmental and non-governmental art. In this period, the taste of the nouveau riche could not bring art under its control and influence and it was the original and serious art that influenced tastes and gathered its audience. Many artists of the Calligraphy Painting School enjoyed great recognition and the works of artists of Saqqakhaneh School was properly received and bought. Galleries became active and increased in number and a new generation of enthusiast collectors emerged which played an influential role in elevating the situation of visual arts. The reactivation of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 80s was fresh blood in the veins of Iranian visual arts. The importance of Iranian contemporary art was recognized abroad through exchange of important exhibitions between Iran and the world. It was in the same period that the support of the museum for new movements in twentieth century art such as video art, installation and conceptual art targeted the new generation and resulted in exhibiting several experiences in this field which opened its place in the art and cultural society of those years. Different biennials and competitions organized by different national and governmental institutions and organizations helped the recognition of Iranian living contemporary art. With the start of large international auctions in the southern countries of Persian Gulf, the price of Iranian artists’ artworks rocketed in an unbelievable way and it should be pointed out that the best-selling artworks of Iranian artists in these auctions belonged to those members of Saqqakhaneh School or Calligraphy-Painting School who had continued their work for years. Iranian buyers or collectors’ taste spanned a wide range from the works of old established masters to the works of young artists who had reached high levels of success in a short time and this vast range included nearly all sorts of works and styles, from traditional to modern, to postmodern, avant-garde and new art. Another issue is that, parallel to all styles and schools introduced in the past fifty years finding their own audience, still many of the most important artists were the independent artists, artists who, indifferent to the framework of recognized styles, created their personal and internal world and produced considerable number of excellent artworks. Artists such as Sohrab Sepehri, Bahman Mohasses and many others are among the examples. Iranian contemporary artists have remained diligent and hardworking and if in the beginning of the expansion of modernism they were divided into specific subgroups and tried to remain faithful to their styles, they no longer tolerate such limitations. Especially among young artists a great interest and enthusiasm for creativity can be clearly seen. This is why photography, sculpture, video art and eclectic arts have become popular and their movement is a movement towards the world and future. Leftist art and official governmental art have a reduced influence and the new generation of Iranian artists are examining unconventional styles such as ‘grotesque art’ and ‘kitsch art’ and although many of these experiences do not enjoy a good market yet the experience is continued and their sarcastic and ironic critical social approaches can reflect the problems of current society like several mirrors and one should not forget that there are not few young and middle-aged artists who are creating lasting artworks out of their personal visions, autobiographies and quests and are experimenting outside the recognized dimensions and frameworks. In their works, old concerns such as national identity or traditional or western art does not have a priority and instead of such positions, they prefer to follow any challenge of this kind in their subjective individuality and instead of giving advices or writing manifestos, reconstruct their personal world and illustrate the particular situation of a contemporary Iranian citizen and his accidental location on the crossroad of cultures and ideals. A situation which is special and particular and devoid of any must or don’t, can be defined and transmitted in a personal, sensational and creative way.

Aidin Aghdashloo

Aidin Aghdashlou Persian Painter.

Aidin Aghdashlou.