Projects Radio TablEpisode 2 •Visual Arts during the Cold War

Conversation between Mohammad Tolouei1 and Shahrooz Nazari2Writer, Narrator, Sound Recorder and Editor: Farzan Asadian
Composer: Mani Jafarzadeh

The second episode of Tabl Radio is on visual arts, which in two chapters presents discussions on the value conflicts of the eastern and the western forces in Iran during the cold war and how these conflicts influenced Iranian culture and arts. Besides, the controversial arguments around arts were discussed in the episode, namely how and under what consequences the avant-guard artistic movements, especially in painting, emerged, and how form and content were corelated, before and after the 1978 Islamic Revolution. These two chapters were recorded continuously.

Part 1 • 16 December 2020 — 28 mins.

Iran’s visual arts flourished in the struggle between socialism and liberalism, with the activities of the Iran-America Society and the Soviet-Iranian Society for Cultural Relations. For instance, the exhibition of visual arts in 1946, by presenting modernist arts, insisted on putting aside traditionalist paintings and painters. Although Russians had been pioneers of modernism in the early years of the century, after 1945 they failed to maintain their position in the visual arts and culture. Therefore, most modern artists followed Western arts. This of course contradicts the fact that the first generation of Iranian modernists, such as Habib Mohammadi, had studied in the Caucasus, Baku, and Moscow. This contradiction deepened even more in the socio-political atmosphere of Iran, after the 1953 coup d’état when the society turned away from the United States. As it was expected, however, turning away from the United States did not lead to a tendency towards the Eastern Front, but on the contrary, it resulted in a move towards Europe. This situation intensified with the Shah’s marriage to Farah, who seemed more inclined to the American arts and culture. The contrast between the visual arts of the East and West blocs appeared between 1946 and 1960. Before 1946, Iranian painters, who found Russian paintings more attractive because of representing landscapes that were more proximate to Iran’s, failed to represent the world using Western perspectival principles. This problem was somehow alleviated by Kamal ol-Molk and his students, who recognized the problem and took steps to solve it. As a result, a type of realism that was close to socialist painting became widespread.
Another trend that flourished due to the attention of Western Orientalists was the watercolor style of the school of Isfahan, which focused more on landscapes and architecture. Nevertheless, Iranian painters hardly succeeded in reflecting their spirituality in a realistic way. Therefore, with the Saqqakhana Movement, Iranian painting turned its back on representation and turned to abstraction by looking at modern Western art. Realism, however, was revived to some extent in the 1960s with Hannibal Alkhas and his students.
The Saqqakhana Movement can also be interpreted from another perspective, which is the flourishing of the reinterpretation of traditional thought, or a kind of attention to Eastern philosophy, in combination with Westernization. This was close to government-approved nationalist tendencies and was also taken up in other forms of artistic expression.

Part 2 • 3 January 2021 — 27 mins.

The traditional and mystical view, which was briefly described in the previous part, led to abstraction and the avoidance of every day and narrative themes. On the other hand, parallel to the American pop movement, attention to folk art was present in Iranian paintings of the late 50s until the Islamic Revolution. Rather than Saqqakhana art, all these different approaches, are also present in other forms of art, namely calligraphy-painting of the late 1960s. In contrary to the former’s tendency toward becoming internationally recognized, the latter’s interest was in the meaning and religion, especially in the works of the first generation of artists, such as Ehsaei and Afjei. Meanwhile, Ghandriz Hall was established with an emphasis on a “search for identity.”
The Islamic Revolution, with an emphasis on the importance of content, diminished the idea of ​​formalist painting. Nevertheless, the dominant movement was still Leftism, that, for instance, they reproduced Mexican realist murals that aimed at depicting people’s suffering on the walls of the city. But the main problem of this viewpoint was its incapability to find a model in search of the meaning. Ghandriz Hall turned to history to find the meaning inject it into art. The end of the Cold War provoked the question of identity and led the artists to contemplate who they are and what their place is in the world. The trend that linked the art of the inferior to a stylish market-oriented art in the works of Zenderoudi and Tanavoli continued after the Revolution, leading to the tendency of traditionalism versus cosmopolitanism in the works of Sadegh Tirafkan and Shadi Ghadirian, or to the manifestation of references to glorious roots, such as the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, in the works of Reza Derakhshani.
The Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War came to an end, and the Berlin Wall was brought down, but ideological disputes were still present in contemporary Iranian art. We are constantly in an Alice-like struggle between the driving forces of tradition versus globalism. The tendency toward history can be easily traced in the works of Bahman Mohasses, Ali Hatami, Lotfi, Sia Armajani, Ali Banisadr, and even Monir Farmanfarmaian.

1 - Mohammad Tolouei - born in 1979, Rasht, is an author, playwriter, and poet.

2 - Shahrooz Nazari - born in 1977, Tehran, is an author, critic, and the manager of Homa art gallery.