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Like any other professional painter, I started painting in my youth. Those were years of hardship and perseverance, years of ambitious hopes, which seemed far out of reach but which, having enriched my understanding, had already fulfilled their prom ise Anything more than that would have been beyond my just desserts.
I learned to paint on my own, but when I detected a trace of skill and expertise somewhere or in someone, I would humbly take leave to learn more: I studied oil painting with Tigran Basil, and watercolor and gouache with Biuk Ahmary – to whom, in recognition of this debt, I dedicated my exhibition years later.
Gradually, over the years, I learned the tricks and the fundamentals of gilding calligraphy, miniature and painting flowers-and-birds. Through mending old, damaged calligraphies that I would buy inexpensively, restoring them through hours of precise work to their days of intact glory, I became a gilder and a miniaturist.
In those youthful days, I would study the reproductions of European masters’ work in wonder, and try to paint as well as them. The further the quality of my work seemed from theirs, the greater became my desire to rank alongside them. And so I became a skillful copyist, and at the age of fourteen sold my first commissioned work :
– a copy of a Velasquez canvas – for forty Tomans.
I was excited and busy, until one day, while I was working on my next commission – Delacroix’s portrait of Chopin – Darius Shayegan came by. Looking at my work, he declared it a futile exercise and said that a true work of art seeks a goal dictated by the artist’s own actions and experiences, and I came to. I owe my next revelation to Djalal Moghaddam, who was our teacher for only one day at Djamm high school in Gholhak and on that day clarified for me the difference between Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec’s works. on that day a door was opened for me, and I realized that grasping the meaning of painting required a key which I did not have in my hand, that I was nothing more than a draughtsman. So I began to look for the meaning of painting- which was probably hidden somewhere in the landscape, as in one of those puzzles in magazines. Gradually I became acquainted with the works of the great masters, and realizing that would not be enough, I began to read and read, to read any loose page that came my way; and, still not satisfied, I learned English to read more. But knowledge was a vast sea, obscured by the thick dark of the night, and I was an anxious enthusiast, abandoned in a corner, lost.
Aimlessness, however, was not a trait peculiar to me; fate had sentenced my generation to this. From the beginning, we learned the importance of learning and then, finally, that liberating moment was upon us: a magical gesture was made, to a locked door here, a key elsewhere. But the unlocking was not easy.
We were all more or less like Amiroo in Amir Naderi’s film and the kindness of a world which would take our hands in charity and mercy and help us to our feet was not bestowed upon us. But through perseverance, we learned to remain upright and, like Diogenes, request that others pass by and not stand there blocking the sun. A request that is still being made. Still, having recounted the tale of this generation elsewhere, I Will refrain from repeating it here.
I was nineteen years old when I enrolled in the College of fine Arts . The years in that college were wasted years in my life, and I am indebted to none of the instructors there. The only image left now is one of a herd fighting loudly and furiously for the better seats on a train which has stood still for years and rusted, the engine having departed with a loud roar long ago, leaving everyone behind. Realizing this, I threw myself off the train. I quit the college in 1964.
I spent the next ten years peeking into the corners of every style and genre. I acquired skills drawn from different sources: from surrealist paintings to Renaissance sketches, from head studies a La de Chirico, to phantasmal hands which emerged from darkness, expectant and impatient, from high fruitful trees whose mercurial shadows were trapped by crosshatched geometrical squares, to portraits of people, to the landscape of tiny rooftops that doffed my surroundings.
I had to tread this winding and often dead-ended road in order to arrive some where, in order that the pleasant paintings of the past masters – who I once loved so -could, at a critical juncturd, replace the real portraits and landscapes. And so it was that Botticelli’s Venus was bomout of the sea shell and stood upon our neighbor Mr. Noon’s rooftop in Noubahar street , Gholhak. With all of its glory and beauty and charm.
It was at this point that I chose European paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as models for my work, arid rather than being content with witnessing the annihilation of the values of my age, I painted the Memoirs of Annihilation, which recounted the story of the displacement of fundamental values, values which were deprived of the opportunity for fruition in our time and could not sustain themselves and last; and I pointed to an epoch that knew no limits of ruthlessness and destruction, and in whose putrid air any angel would wither in a blink aid turn to ash. Like the scene in Fellini’s Roma of the discovery of ancient frescoes, in which, upon exposure to the 1970s’ polluted air -which has penetrated through steel – drill holes into a sacred temple that had Lain in secret for centuries – the paintings discolor and dissolve.
The period of Memoirs of Annihilation began in 1974 and continued on. injuring and disfiguring Renaissance paintings, culminating in The Years of Fire and Snow in 1977, with a gesture toward the final days of carelessness and merriment for some boastful, pompous creatures, unaware of the cold winter behind their backs. Or perhaps their wish to preserve the passing merriment of that moment made them desire to remain unaware.
The paintings of this period were done no relatively large, seventy-by-one-hundred centimeter canvases in gouache, and as a result of making these tens of very precise paintings I could now use gouache with skill, and it became my favorite medium. And so has it remained.
In the mid-seventies I learned that using the masters’ works as models and destroying and refiguring them was also a customary technique in the West, when in 1978 Lipman and Marshall ‘s “Art About Art” was published and legitimated this practice as a school.
The following years were taken up with hard work, searching for and finding newer and more intimate models: in the burnished, marble profile of the noble and glorious Persian, shattered under the invading Greek’s pickaxe or the tribal leader’s ann; in the eight-hundred-year-old illustrated turquoise bowl / broken into pieces in the aft as a dust storm joined and intertwined the horizon with the sky; in the bejeweled kings and entertainers of the Qajar dynasty, covered from head to toe by stamps of cancellation.
And when the war began, I paid my humble due, with a half-burnt miniature by Reza Abbasi suspended in the air as pillars of the conflagration’s black smoke extended the darkness in the background. and the world itself told the tale of my memoirs of annihilation.
One had to be blind, or would have had to shut one’s door to the world and crawl into a hole, not to notice death’s incursion, and the young men who took it for nothing, who welcomed it without fear. Just like that miniature, flying in thick smoke, which is not dead even if it is crumpled. And I discovered many killed ones around me who were not dead, who do not die, who, for me, do not die.
And from this point on, all that was left was the tale of the disfigurement of youth and freshness, and there it was, the victorious Death, roaming; and I, unable to paint the faces of all the dead, was forced to fall back on metaphor, replacing the dead with miniatures and calligraphies and gildings, so that in acts of lamentation, seeking justice. I could become the narrator of the injuries conquering the land.
It was here that the crumpled miniatures, of which I made many, found their source, and ill were to point to a period of my work in which all my technical skills and my fundamental sensations came together to fruition, this would be it. In these works the technique and treatment of the seventeenth-century Isfahan School style were to be applied to the complex structure of a wrinkled and crumpled piece of paper, a process which called for a dual craftsmanship: on the one hand the pen would have to move strongly and freely, as if moving upon smooth paper; and on the other hand, the shades, curves, texture and color of the crumpled paper had to communicate a tangible and concrete reality. The harmony and coordination of these two distinct styles was, in fact, the meeting point of Eastern and Western arts and world views, the meeting point of two structures seeking and portraying the world, one on the plane of imagination and the other in an objective dimension.
The crumpled miniatures also spoke of my crumpling and that of my generation, and formalized a deep bitterness, a bitterness which was the outcome of a misunderstanding between my generation and a newly arrived, younger generation which, rather than learning and choosing with patience, had become used to quickly crumpling and throwing away.
Later, when I realized that ferocity had replaced bitterness and that true annihilation had replaced memoirs of annihilation in my miniatures – which by now I was cutting up with knives and burning to the half – I abandoned the project.
The watercolors of the next few years also became excuses for regret, whether in the Malek Garden Memos or in the Insignificant Landscapes series, which still represent for me the abandonment of vulnerable values in theft exposure to the passage of time. They are also a gesture to old age and death, a gesture close to home, to my mother, Ms. Nahid Nakhjavan, who refused to accept and acknowledge death and who based the peacefulness of her remaining days on supposed and imagined fancies to come, fancies which we knew were not to come, and sickness was to come, and frailness and death.
In the Malek Garden Memos, too, there were buildings and empty rooms and pools and stairways and tiles and fences, decaying and dying away, and I was so helpless in blocking the onset of death and history, having been forced merely to record and inscribe the final moments. Being faithful in this act of recording and inscription, I expected of myself a precise and skillful execution, so that not a single detail would be left out or forgotten. And so it was that I made much use of the dry-brush technique, with a subtle nod to Andrew’ Wyeth. But here I used the dry brush only in order to neutralize the watery charm and sweetness of common watercolor techniques, and to let a dry and serious weave emerge from the paper’s coarseness.
I used the Insignificant Landscape series to exhibit the affection and pity I felt for remote places and forgotten objects: for the brown sea and littered shores and rocks and water-hoses and for any ready-at-hand, insignificant object which, if observed closely, seems to carry a humbly obscured and deep meaning within itself. Without complaint or presumption.
And then came the Self-Portraits of the painter, which were images of decayed doors, long remained shut, a sign of my self-willed absence in those years. When I speak of a sign, I realize that all of my work signifies a particular meaning, and that I am constantly balancing myself on a tightrope between literary meaning and pure painting. And that if I err or fall, I will either crash down into the precipice of a soiled symbolism – which is often the tool and strategy of any marginalizde or excluded claimant – or into the infinite abyss of an escapist formalism which blinds the open heart and vision of one, like me, who always tried to be the visual conscience of his age and to become the to one hundred paintings done before 1974, I have managed to find only three. Of the works done after 1978, also, there are not very many which remain, since they are scattered mostly around the U.S.A. , Germany and England ; most of these were made between 1979 and 1981, when I was working in absolute despair and poverty. As I added beside the signature on one of these, it “was painted in a state of sheer sorrow.”
Of my miniatures I own almost none. An enthusiast used to buy these by tens and sell them again in far-away places, and so be it. I consider the Hamd Sura, which I wrote and gilded based on Mir-Emad’s calligraphy, to be one of my highest achievements in this field – an achievement which, with my eyes having become weaker, my patience more fragile and my hands more trembling, I could not even hope to repeat.
The assemblage of these reproductions here in this book would not have been possible were it not for the encouragement, enthusiasm and patience of my wife, and the cooperation of the collectors, as well as of my students, to whom I extend my thanks, as I do to Ms. Manijeh Miremadi, who merits a separate expression of gratitude.
Rereading this foreword, I notice how, along the lines of my other writings these years, sorrow still dominates its joy. And as I remember the Fellini’s “Intervista”, I once saw, I become embarrassed of my worthless sorrows and my cheap regrets, and humbly bow my head in front of him who, with such shimmering joy, sums up his fruitful life and accepts, with such glorious calm, that which has been his fate.
But my infinite remorse must be due to not reaching the vast and unbounded landscape I searched for, perhaps my futile goals and hopes, which aspired to a place too far away, carried my view away from the small, pleasant sights, so close to hand and delightful – away to a distance I still look for and cannot find.
Whether I have found anything or not, there was such a tremendous joy at the heart of this thirty-year-long search. And since I have lived with joy, I have no regrets.