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Acquired directly from the artist.
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.
BEYOND THE FOUNTAIN: PIONEERS OF THE SAQQAKHANEH