• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 1244

    Modern & Contemporary Art

    18 October 2016, Dubai

  • Lot 1

    Parviz Tanavoli (Iranian, b. 1937)

    Untitled (Persepolis)

    Price Realised  


    Parviz Tanavoli (Iranian, b. 1937)
    Untitled (Persepolis)
    signed in Farsi (upper right)
    oil, gouache and pencil on card
    34 5/8 x 24in. (88 x 61cm.)
    Executed circa early 1960s

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    Undeniably one of the most influential figures of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art, Parviz Tanavoli is simultaneously an acclaimed sculptor, painter, collector, scholar, author and carpet weaver. A founding pioneer of the infamous Saqqakhaneh movement, Tanavoli aims to reconcile the contemporary sensibilities of today’s works with his Persian heritage, using classical Persian poetry, calligraphy, mythology and miniature painting as a source of inspiration for his oeuvre. Having trained in Europe under the Italian master Marino Marini, his return to Iran and artistic practice signalled a new development and change in appreciation of sculpture. Challenging himself to create an identity for sculpture in Iran, Tanavoli forged a new direction by incorporating pre-Islamic art such as locks, keys and faucets, amongst many other things he found in small towns and local bazaars, as surrogates for his figures. He later established Atelier Kaboud with the help of Abby Weed Grey which was to become a meeting point for many artists and students.

    Central to Tanavoli’s development was his dedicated engagement with a plethora of arts and handicrafts in Iran, as well as drawing inspiration from his homeland's history and folkloric culture, namely Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 B.C), the cuneiform inscriptions on the distinguished Darius Cylinder, as well as the carved figures of the Immortals, discovered on the staircases of the great Apadana Palace. Although these traditions form the basis of Tanavoli’s works, in the notions of identity Tanavoli’s works remains essentially rooted in poetry, particularly the legend of the only sculptor to be referred to in classical Persian Poetry; Farhad the Mountain Carver.

    The three works in this seminal collection offer insight into the development of the artist’s oeuvre. Works on paper by the artist from this period are particularly rare, and in these the viewer can come to recognise the delicacy and originality that has later characterised his works in three dimensions.

    The simple bold-coloured figures and use of paper within each composition are a result of Tanavoli’s fascination, back in the 1950s, with printed posters depicting religious scenes and pictorial forms in the South of Tehran. Through these different figures, the artist makes formalistic references to Iranian traditions rather than to hidden philosophical connotations, shifting the focus away from specific subject-matter, towards expression through modest shapes and tones. Executed during the period of his Poet sculpture series, just like Persian poetry, these works are mostly concerned with subjective interpretations of reality. Even though these figures look like representations of humans, they do not completely resemble them.

    As such, individual traits are not given much importance, as the artist concentrates on types of people, ranging from kings to lovers, rather than individual characteristics. For instance, in Persepolis, the figure seated on a chariot is a reference to the third king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Darius the Great, who ruled the empire at its peak. In this composition, he is portrayed receiving a messenger, an illustration typically carved in relief on several Persepolis monuments. In addition to these cuneiform allusions, Tanavoli integrates his own inimitable brand of humour through the insertion of different comical figures, such as that of an attenuated ram pulling the king’s chariot, a man, upside-down, standing on his head and a dark-haired character confronting the winged bull, a symbol of power in ancient Persia.

    In The Vanishing Image, Tanavoli illustrates the power relationship between Farhad and Shirin, a persistent subject of concern for the artist within his oeuvre. While Farhad, with his arms wide open, is firmly portrayed, projecting resilience and determination, Shirin’s golden figure is faded as if she will remain an unattainable dream of his.

    In the last work in the collection, Shirin and Farhad appear to be united, however, the presence of a third figure between them, construed as Khosrow highlights the latter’s well-planned intrusion that aims at separating them; leading to Farhad’s infamous demise off of the mountain.

    In these early paintings, magnificently reconciling a modern sensitivity with traditional Iranian motifs, it becomes clearer than ever that Tanavoli’s ability to embody a poetic sensitivity rooted in folk and culture within his early works laid the foundation for his sculptural practice for which he is most well-known today.

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    Acquired directly from the artist.

    Pre-Lot Text

    In 1963, following the Third Tehran Biennial of art in 1962, the art critic and journalist Karim Emami coined the term Saqqakhaneh which in turn came to define one of the most important art movements that shaped the future of Iranian Modern and Contemporary art. Illustrating a crucial time when Iranian art was at a crossroads between traditional folk art and Western abstraction and influences, the Saqqakhaneh movement aimed to find and establish a national or Iranian school of painting that was revolutionary in its ability to modernistically approach tradition whilst instilling a sense of freedom from the rigid boundaries of visual clichés. These neo-traditionalists, as they came to be known, attempted to create a synthesis between a pictorial heritage of the past and a new language of contemporary art. In this sense, the term Saqqakhaneh was not meant to be understood as a voluntary association of artists with a manifesto, but rather a more spontaneous movement with works that shared certain themes, especially an interest in local visual art and culture. Drawing on cults, rituals and visual elements of folk and local vernacular for inspiration, the name was initially applied to those who used existing elements of Shiite votive culture in their modern work. It later came to embrace all forms of modern Iranian painting and sculpture that touched on traditional decorative elements to encompass a broad school of thinking and to strike a balance between both Iranian identity and character with a synthesis of movements and trends in Iranian art.

    Saqqakhaneh literally translated as ‘house of the water bearer’ is a votive fountain installed for public drinking and congregating, usually located on many cul-de-sacs in Iranian towns and cities, mainly in the older quarters. Consisting of small and inconspicuous niches often elaborately decorated with a succession of domes perforated with calligraphic designs, these fountains were symbolically intended to allude to the Battle of Karbala and Abbas’ attempt to bring water for the thirsty women and children by crossing enemy lines but was later detected and his right hand cut off. As a result, the saqqakhaneh itself thus bears both historic and religious connotations but above all propagates the life-giving properties of water itself. Simultaneously a fountain, altar and symbolic tomb, inside one would find objects of varying religious significance whilst visitors would attach talismans, small locks and pieces of rags to the outside grills that would illuminate their prayers and wishes. Reminded of Shiite shrines within an atmosphere of religious paintings, Emami’s choice to reference the movement with the use of the word Saqqakhaneh was a result of seeing a recurring theme amongst the works within the Biennial; feeling that the impression these compositions emanated was more familiar and intimate like that of traditional saqqakhaneh as opposed to the grandeur of mosques, it was also the amalgamation in a sort of patchwork of various visual symbols that fit perfectly within the combination of various artistic styles within the group. Characteristic motifs of the Saqqkhaneh school comprise more than those found at the drinking fountains, including elements as diverse as the numerical codes of talismanic shirts and seals, religious posters found commonly in the South of Iran, amulets, astrolabes, Persian calligraphy and painting, Qajar art, ancient pottery motifs, the severed hand of Hazrat Abbas or the Hand of Fatima and outlines recalling suns, haloes and ‘alams – the iron or bronze ceremonial standards carried during the Shiite festival of Ashoura amongst a plethora of traditional Persian arts and crafts.

    Christie’s is honoured to be offering a group of 19 works by the key pioneering artists that demonstrate the development of the Saqqakhaneh movement within Iranian art of the 1960s, showing an experimental analysis of various iconography of traditional and historical elements to combine forms, colours and texture in an innovative manner that transcends beyond the fountain so to speak to create a modern idiom.

    The history of the movement can be classified into two periods; the first (from around 1962 to 1964) was devoted to the employment of religious Shiite folk elements in the works of artists such as Parviz Tanavoli (lots 1-3) and Faramarz Pilaram (lots 4-8). The second (from 1964 onwards) involved all artists who adapted all forms and themes from the past even if unrelated to Shiite iconography such as in the works of Massoud Arabshahi (lots 9-11) who looked to Zoroastrian texts, Achaemenid motifs and Assyrian rock carvings, Sadegh Tabrizi (lots 17-19) who looked to classical Persian paintings of the coffeehouse tradition and Nasser Ovissi (lots 15 and 16) who looked to Qajar royal paintings and ceramics. Included within this grouping is the work of Sohrab Sepehri (lots 12-14) who can to some extent be encompassed within the Saqqakhaneh movement however nature inspired works simultaneously show the wide scope of artistic style and inspiration that fell within this group. As different as they are individually, the Saqqakhaneh artists of the 1960s shared several important traits. They were fascinated by the poetics and iconography of Iranian historical culture and recognised the social role of the artist to create works which were accessible and understandable to the contemporary Iranian audience. Their deconstruction of the typical formalism of traditional Iranian art and mass religious iconography and replacing it with an aesthetic at once quasi-mechanistic and futuristic, has prompted some commentators to remark on parallels between it and contemporaneous American Pop Art. Because of their use of popular symbols to create works of art relevant to the people at large, Saqqakhaneh art is sometimes referred to as a kind of ‘Spiritual Pop Art.’ As explained in passage by Kamran Diba, the first director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, ‘there is a parallel between Saqqakhaneh 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. Saqqakhaneh 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 ways as industrial products in the West’ (Kamran Diba, “Iran” in W. Ali (ed.), Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, W. Ali (ed.), London 1989, p. 153).

    An important retrospective exhibition of the group entitled Saqqakhaneh was held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary
    Art in 1977 by its first director, Kamran Diba and chief curator, David Galloway which allowed visitors to trace the key developments that had then recently transformed Iranian contemporary art and canonise the term in the lexicon of Iranian art history. Seeing the Saqqakhaneh works exhibited together revealed the striking similarities of theme and composition these artists shared during this brief period. Later their styles would diverge, and the Saqqakhaneh movement would dissipate so to speak, but what initially instigated this new change in visual representation was to change the face of Iranian art forever.

    Outstanding in its depth of focus within the narrow time frame of this seminal period, the present collection thus forms an almost virtual museum of Iranian art of the early 1960s, the instant when a truly Iranian modern art was born.