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.