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He was a thirteen-year-old boy who was drawing. In those days, I too used to draw. I tried to peek at his drawing from behind when he gave me an angry look, one that stayed with me the entire academic year. That year he was afflicted with poliomyelitis, which confined him to bed for one year, leaving the seat in front of me empty. That year, perhaps because I could not bear to see his empty seat, I made sure I would flunk so that I could once again be classmates with my angry friend. In the second year of high school, Aydin was not the Aydin of the previous year. Staying at home for a whole year had impelled him to study, and the following year this classmate was superior to us all. I remember I asked him to give me a list of the books he had read. On a small piece of paper that I must still have among my scrap papers, I remember him write the names of Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Hemingway. I still have the books that he lent me: “The Ministry of Fear” by Graham Greene, and books by Jack London, which I suppose caused the first sparks of nomadism and fondness/love of nature to bloom in me. At the age of fifteen, it was indeed none other than Aydin who aroused my desire for acquiring knowledge – a memory that I cannot attribute to any of my teachers.
School years ended and we were both accepted to the faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University. Aydin left college halfway through and became a painter. Meanwhile I endured the difficulties of Art school, completed the curriculum with hardship, and did not become an artist! Our friendship is now half a century old, and I observe a safe distance in this friendship. His critical reviews of my films show no consideration for our friendship.
My oldest friend Aydin Aghdashlou is in one word unique. He is both an intellectual who is an artist and an artistic who is an intellectual. A critique of his work is indeed beyond my capacity. However, what is clearly visible in his work is the effort to portray an accurate and clear depiction of the present time and place by a committed artist; with a world-inclusive vision, he is an artist who has deep roots in his own Iranian culture. While he has accumulated tremendous knowledge from all that he has seen and learned in the past – which he uses as a cultural support system – by no means does he consider himself restrained by the past traditions.
For his non-Iranian fans, familiarity with the traditions of authentic Iranian culture – one that is on the threshold of modernity while having a modernity-contesting style – is undoubtedly the prerequisite to understanding the value of his work. It is this polarity that makes his work extraordinarily fascinating.
His unparalleled knowledge about traditional, Islamic, and Ancient Iranian art sets his work apart from the modern contemporary work that lack identity. His work cautions the viewers that the artist speaks of something serious for which he seeks their sympathy.
His language is that of the contemporary human being, and he speaks of an old pain that forms the essence of art. He has as much knowledge about the modern art history of the West as he has about the history and traditions of the East. This trait has made him a great teacher.
He is not just a great painter; He is a literary man familiar with ancient texts, a fan of classical poetry, an analyst of modern literature, a contemporary cinema expert, an antique specialist, and a social thinker.
Today Aydin Aghdashlou, this multifaceted personality, has turned into a cultural heritage himself. On his own, he is a unique heritage, whom unfortunately no one has the strength and power to effectively safeguard and protect. He is a mortal heritage.
Abbas Kia Rostami
Film Director / Photographer
… post-modern use of pre-existing forms can also be found in the work of Iranian male artists, notably in that of Aydin Aghdashloo (b.1940), who is also a distinguished commentator on art .
Aghdasloo’s ironic subversion of a revered western original finds parallels in contemporary Chinese art, for example in work by the sculptor Sui Jianguo (b. 1956), who teaches at the Central Academy in Beijing. Sui’s series “Creases in Clothes” features iconic Greek and Renaissance classical statues, such as the “Discobolus of Myron”, clad in flapping Mao suits . In both cases the artists concerned adopt a critical, distancing, deliberately ironic attitude when confronted with revered western traditions. Or, at least, when confronted with the idea that non-western cultures must inevitably follow in the footsteps of the West.
Author of “Art Today” (1995)
Embodying Lost Glory
Shading into the debate on lost heritage has been a growing interest in Iran ever since the country embarked on modernization. It always leads to the question of identity, which is widely reflected on the contemporary artistic practices.
The hybrid works of Aghdashloo passionately replicate the artistic achievement of the past and thus maintain an explicit political edge. They evidently have an element of polemic, which points to an increasing skepticism about the rhetoric of modernism, as opposed to the age of classicism and its fundamental values. Irritated by the dogmatism of the alleged traditionalism, adherent by the Islamic government, he also began to doubt altogether the sense of any artistic practice oriented purely towards the old style of painting.
Art could hardly have been more charged with political purposes than it was during the years before and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Aghdashloo’s most famous works of this period, which present veritable icons of Italian as well as Persian classical paintings, appeared the artist having destroyed much of his images through tearing, crumpling, burning and sometimes scratching. Looking at his series of so-called Memories of Destruction, in which a copied work of an old master is taken as the subject for a contemporary painting, one sees his response to the discontents brewing in the campaign of Iranian artists and intellectuals suspicion of socio-political situation of the country. In the latter works of this period, he further intensifies his sarcastic language by supplying his images with silhouetted faceless body which evidently lacks any sense of identity and orientation.
Much of Aghdashloo’s works embody his profound fascination in the glamorous tradition of Persian art crystallized in miniature paintings, and sometimes calligraphy too. In this sense, he always appears as an admirer, rather than a follower, of the old masters, whom he loved so much, though in his fine details and subtle brushes he has proved to deserve the credit of a real master. Quite apart from inheriting Persian traditional painting, his vast knowledge of modern culture and traditional art forms has served him well.
In his important period of Memories of Destruction, Aghdashloo showed interest in making reference to Renaissance masters, which was mostly singled out by the great Italian painter Sandro Botticelli. Here, charm and sophistication of classical works are distracted by his annoying attempt to partially ruin them. With injuring and disfiguring these masterpieces, he discloses his discontent with the annihilation of the values in our era. To achieve this, he somehow emulates all the subtle touches, fine hues and nuance of the form, down to the last details, and leaves us with a deep feeling of frustration and bitterness arisen out of witnessing our heritage being damaged. The images are usually set against an ambiguous background, mostly a bitterly cold winter which seems dreadfully endless, in order to make a strong and touching statement that can be interpreted both culturally and politically. In this way, Aghdashloo somehow becomes the narrator of our historical injuries, as he enthusiastically devotes his life to enhancing our cultural awareness.
In the following period, Botticelli and other European old masters are replaced by Reza Abbasi, the prominent court painter of early Safavid dynasty back in early sixteenth century, as well as other Persian artists of the same caliber. Half-burnt or crumpled miniatures, copied from the original works by the masters and suspended in the air, are now ironically set against a smoky backdrop which is basically abstract, but resembles the realm of dream and the province of surrealism. Embellished with fine illuminations and calligraphy, the stunning works of this period are considerably more explicit in their political connotations and social readings. The artist’s preoccupation with the lost glory of the past is not merely intended to pay homage to his mentors, but to express a sense of devastation derived from the cultural decline and dissolution of values.
Aghdashloo has rarely presented his works in a solo exhibition and in Iran just Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art once had a chance to display his illustrations in 2003. Of course several paintings by him, mostly from the Museum’s permanent collection, were repeatedly exhibited in different group shows. As director of the Tehran MoCA, it was one of my ambitions to present Aghdashloo’s retrospective in order to provide a chance for all Iranian art lovers to view his brilliant works of different periods and various series. However, having had a strong market, his works have broadly been distributed all over the world, so that collecting them for such a big show seemed difficult. Hence, the current exhibition is indeed one of the rare opportunities to see some remarkable works by one of the Iran’s most prominent contemporary artists. He is indeed a luminary in various fields and is deeply respected by the Iranian the nation, not only as a celebrated artist but also as a great writer and distinguished art teacher.
A. R. Sami-Azar
Former the Director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (1998-2005)