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Modern art and revolutionary imagery

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Iranian soldiers chant anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans on the first day of celebrations marking the 33th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return from exile on February 1, 2012. Photo: ATTA KENARE / AFP

Travelling through Iranian cities, one cannot miss the immense murals depicting martyrs, anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, and venerations of former Supreme Leader Khomeini and his successor, Khamenei, that adorn the tall buildings that form the cityscape. During the revolutionary period, graffiti were a widespread form of rebellion. Anti-Shah slogans were written on walls, demonstrators stencilled simply fabricated posters with the image of Ayatollah Khomeini on the walls, and street names were occasionally painted over with red paint symbolizing the blood of the fallen. After the Revolution, painting on the walls evolved from a guerrilla-style act of resistance into a government-controlled and state-sponsored form of propaganda.

Hussein Khosrojerdi
Hussein Khosrojerdi

Although painters were encouraged to create their own unique works of art, many posters, murals, war-propaganda billboards, and postage stamps were and still are reproductions of paintings by the great revolutionary painters. The most important propaganda artists include Kazem Chalipa, Hussain Khosrojerdi, Nasser Palangui, Iraj Eskandari, Hamid Ghadirian, Habibullah Sadeghi, and Mustafa Goodarzi, most of whom studied at the College of Fine Arts of Tehran University.

The ideologues of propaganda art were overtly opposed to the concepts of modern Western art. According to many Islamist art critics, Western art has been degenerating since the rise of humanism. In the foreword to A Decade of Painters of the Revolution, the editor describes the differences between Islamic and Western art: ‘whereas the Western artist has lost all his ability to create a true work of art because of his lack of religiosity, the Islamic (and Revolutionary) artist can create a true work of art, because he is not only inspired but led by his religion’. Nevertheless, in Iranian revolutionary and propaganda paintings, especially from the 1980s, the influence of Mexican revolutionary posters and the Soviet-style socialist realism of the inter-war period can be seen.

Despite the Islamist ideology concerning art, many Iranian artists have chosen their own path. Their art does not comply with the ideologues’ wish for a homogenous kind of art but is individual, critical, or completely non-political. The Iranian contemporary art scene has flourished since the end of the 1990s, with galleries opening in major cities and huge numbers of students flocking to art schools. Artists such as Reza Abedini, Shadi Ghadirian, and Khosrow Hassanzadeh, and the diaspora artists Shirin Neshat and Marjane Satrapi are gaining worldwide attention.

Western art in Iran

Before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Queen Farah Diba was a great admirer of modern Western art. She supported the Tehran Museum for Modern Art, which opened its doors in 1977. The museum is said to have one of the largest collections of Western art outside the Western world, including masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso. The Western artworks have been locked up in the museum’s vaults for over two decades, except for a few weeks in 2005, when the progressive museum director Alireza Samiazar put most of them on display. The exhibition drew enormous crowds but was criticized by hard-line elements. In recent years, the museum has nevertheless hosted a revolving programme of exhibitions and occasionally organizes exhibitions by local artists.

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