Behjat Sadr: Iran's 'pioneer of visual arts' gets first exhibition in London

Behjat Sadr: Iran's 'pioneer of visual arts' gets first exhibition in London

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A retrospective on the life and works of the Iranian artist shows a woman ahead of her time

Behjat Sadr rejected traditional forms and treaded brave new ground – not only aesthetically but also politically (Courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate)
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Tuesday 23 October 2018 16:17 UTC

LONDON - When Iranian artist Behjat Sadr first debuted her abstract paintings inspired by Venetian blinds in 1967 Tehran, it was radical work for the time.

The kinetic works, flanked by black blinds covered with mirror tape on one side and individually superimposed at right angles to the canvas, created a unique visual experience. Shape-shifting with the viewer’s movement, they offer glimmering reflected colours that quickly fade to black.

But her body of work was dismissed at the time by prominent Iranian critic Karim Emami, as mere “gadgetry” in the realm of “housewife art,” says art historian Morad Montazami, who has curated a new Sadr retrospective, Behjat Sadr: Dusted Waters, which runs through 8 December at Kensington's Mosaic Rooms.



Behjat Sadr working on canvases placed on the floor, her exploration of abstract forms made her a pioneer of Iranian modern art (Courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate)

The exhibition offers an intimate look at the life and work of Sadr, a woman who was ahead of her time in many ways.

Montazami, who was 28 years old at the time of Sadr’s death in 2009, is a dedicated chronicler of her work. In 2016, he produced a Sadr retrospective at the Ab-Anbar and Aria galleries in Tehran.

As a woman, I had the vigour of men

- Behjat Sadr's diary 

Much of the biographic detail comes from Montazami’s research for his 2014 monograph, Traces. It hails the abstract painter as a “pioneer of the visual arts in Iran” and one of the first women artists and professors to “emerge on the international biennale scene in the early 1960s.”

Montazami has named this first UK solo exhibition of Sadr’s work, Dusted Waters, after a line from one of her poems that evokes the artist’s nature-inspired “cosmologies,” specifically earth and water. The exhibition juxtaposes the artist’s writings and personal photographs gleaned from her archive with her paintings.



Morad Montazami is the curator of Dusted Waters, a retrospective on the Iranian artist (MEE/Hadani Ditmars)

Dusted Waters is composed of three parts to reflect the three cities that had a formative influence on her life: Rome in the 1950s where Sadr trained as an artist and was mentored by renowned Italian painter and sculptor Roberto Melli; 60s and 70s Tehran, and post-Iranian Revolution Paris. The artist was based in the French capital for the rest of her life until her death at the age of 85 in Corsica.  

A man's world

The first exhibition room of Dusted Waters – one of three - focuses on Sadr’s early years when she was carving a unique place for herself out of the confines of Iranian society.



Behjat Sadr living in the apartment she independently rented, circa 1953 (MEE/Hadani Ditmars)

Through archival photos and correspondence, her 1948 marriage of convenience to a cousin that ended in divorce in 1952  - a necessary step to her emancipation - is documented. A 1953 self-portrait of the artist alone in her own Tehran apartment reveals a woman unto herself. Next to it, the curator has placed a diary entry from the 1990s, encapsulating her essence.

As a woman, I had the vigour of men

I passed through stones, and every so often, the pebbles made me sore

I made my way towards precipices, but I did not fall.

Her subsequent 1958 marriage to Iranian composer Morteza Hananeh – although a love match that ended after six years – still posed issues for Sadr. And their correspondence – some of which is featured - speaks to her struggles in balancing her life as an artist, wife and mother of one daughter at a time when women were still expected to fulfill traditional roles.



Dusted Waters is Behjat Sadr’s first solo exhibition in the UK (Photograph by Joyce Nichols, courtesy The Mosaic Rooms)

Next to the correspondence with her husband lies a vibrant abstract of the era that reveals her inner turmoil in bright red hues and sober blacks. 

As a woman from a religious family who freed herself from the confines of tradition, Montazami sees Sadr as someone who was “emancipated from the decorative arts syndrome” and rejected arts and crafts modalities for the realm of modernity.

I did not use my calligraphy or Iranian motifs in my canvas to stimulate national pride among my compatriots or the curiosity of strangers. This was the cause of my downfall, but I don’t mind. I did not seek the protection of a man to advance and achieve success

- Behjat Sadr's diary 

According to Montazami, in contrast to her contemporaries – Iranian artists like Hossein Zenderoudi and Parviz Tanavoli - who were part of neo-traditional Saqqakhaneh movement, Sadr had a “fresh approach”.

The Saqqakhaneh school of art was influenced by folk, religious motifs, as well as pre-Islamic art and it included numerology and calligraphic forms. The Iranian monarchs were known to support modern artists through state-sponsored festivals and events.



Untitled painting by Behjat Sadr from 1977 (Courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate)

In a note from Sadr's personal diary in the 1990s, exhibited in Dusted Waters, she refers to her departure from the more neo-traditionalist Saqqakhaneh movement:

"I did not use my calligraphy or Iranian motifs in my canvas to stimulate national pride among my compatriots or the curiosity of strangers. This was the cause of my downfall, but I don’t mind. I did not seek the protection of a man to advance and achieve success." 

Although Sadr became the Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Tehran University where she continued teaching until 1979, she had to struggle for much of her career in a male-dominated art world. 



Dusted Waters has three exhibition rooms and spans her early years to her later years (Photograph by Andy Stagg, courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms.)

Her signature style, working with a palette knife on canvases placed on the floor, made her a pioneer of Iranian modern art. Sadr experimented with different forms and surfaces, often painting on aluminium.

She rejected traditional forms and treaded brave new ground – not only aesthetically but also politically. Both ostracised and lionised by the Iranian establishment, she would participate in exhibitions patronised by the Shah and his wife Empress Farah and then write critically in her diary about the government's use of art as “soft power”, according to Montazami. Sadr’s existence was almost “schizophrenic”, he notes.



Behjat Sadrs's untitled and abstract oil on canvas painting from the 1970s, image courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate (MEE/Hadani Ditmars)

Art about the oil industry 

Sadr’s work in the 1970’s focussed on images of the petroleum industry. One of her paintings is of petroleum silos that stand like industrial tree trunks or even ancient sites – like the ruins of Persepolis in Iran that she often visited.

A full moon illuminates one of her works that almost recalls the ancient Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire, southwest England. Here geographies transcend time and space in gorgeous evocations of the primordial.



Behjat Sadr dressed up as a tree trunk for a party in the 1960s, image courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate (MEE/Hadani Ditmars)

According to Monrazami, Sadr was one of the only artists of her time to paint art work inspired by the petroleum industry in Iran, which is the third-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. 

Masjid e Suleiman, a small town in south west Iran, was home to the first oil well discovered in the Middle East more than 100 years ago. Iran's oil industry was dominated by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company for almost 50 years after that. 

Italian influence

The exhibition also includes some fascinating archival details from press clippings and photographs, including a faded, mid-60s image of the since-demolished Carleton Hotel in Tehran, where a mural of her work was once displayed on an exterior wall.



Behjat Sadr's work was called 'gadgetry' and 'housewife art' (Courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate)

Montazami notes that “Sadr just loved black. To her, it was more than a mere colour, but rather a physical and experimental space where she felt she could play, create breaches and vortexes… even drowning /disappearing into it.”

Also documented are her extensive travels to Italy in the 1950s and 60s, where she and many other contemporaries – including her close friend Forough Farrokhzad, one of Iran’s most celebrated and controversial poets - were part of the 1962 Venice Biennale.  

Sadr just loved black. To her, it was more than a mere colour, but rather a physical and experimental space where she felt she could play, create breaches and vortexes… even drowning /disappearing into it

-Morad Montazami,  art historian 

Sadr and her peers were very influenced by French existentialism, as the major works of French philosopher John-Paul Sartre and French Nobel prize-winning author Albert Camus were translated extensively at the time into Farsi. Italian neo-realism was also a big influence in both cinema and visual arts.  

“Many intellectuals at the time earned their living by doing voice-over dubbing of Italian films sent to Iran, ” relates Montazami.

The cinematic influence of the era is well represented in the exhibition by a black and white film by Farrokhzad about an Iranian leper colony.

The film, called The House Is Black, is displayed as part of an entire wall dedicated to Sadr’s close friendship with Farrokhzad. Included is a poignant 1967 ink on paperwork called Forough’s Corpse – created on the occasion of the poet’s untimely death at the age of 32 – that expresses Sadr’s unique fusion of abstract and figurative styles. Additionally, an English translation of a poem originally written in Farsi by Sadr and edited by Farrokhzad lies against the wall.

Post-Iranian revolution

A downstairs gallery juxtaposes her collage-oriented work from her Parisian existence after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, with the artist’s own snapshots mounted casually on the walls. The photos reveal the textural weaves of sidewalks and architectural and natural landscapes that inspired her. 



The exhibition includes some fascinating archival details from press clippings and photographs of Behjat Sadr (Courtesy of Behjat Sadr Estate)

 Sadr’s presence is also vividly evoked in a loop from a 2006 film by Iranian filmmaker Mitra Farahani. Behjat Sadr: Suspended Time looks at her life and work. In one memorable sequence, an ageing Sadr dressed in black and poised in front of a red-hued abstract painting, speaks about her work. 

“You can freeze time in a painting,” she observes.

*Dusted Waters will run through 8 December at the Mosaic Rooms, Kensington.