The Local–Global Binarism and the Saqqa-khaneh Movement

At the inauguration of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in October 1977, two decades after the organization of the first Tehran biennial in 1958, Karim Emami, who had coined the term “Saqqa-khaneh school,” declared that “Iranian modernism” had finally developed, thanks to the combination of Persian motifs with universal modernist forms. In the catalogue for the exhibition of the Saqqa-khaneh art at the newly opened museum, Emami, specifically refers to the seminal role of Houshang Kazemi, who “lectured under the broad term of ‘Decoration,’ [and acquainted] the students with the rich treasure house of Iranian ornamental ware.” Then he continues that the reason for the quick development and acceptance of “the Saqqa-khaneh School” was

“the success of its members in utilizing Iranian materials and in approaching, if not exactly creating, an Iranian school of modern art.”24

The formation of the Saqqa-khaneh movement under the second Pahlavi was related to the establishment of the Faculty of Decorative Arts in 1960, directed by Houshang Kazemi and supported with funding from the Ministry of Culture and Art.25 As Emami mentioned above, Kazemi’s, instructions for the use of Iranian decorative art were influential in the formation of the movement. Practically speaking, it was Arthur Pope’s seminal book on Persian masterpieces and the objects held in archaeological museums that proved pivotal for Saqqa-khaneh artists, who extracted their traditional motifs and emblems from it.26 The narrative of Persian art formulated by Pope in the 1930s was applied to contemporary art, linking the country’s glorious historical past to the futuristic modern world.27

As mentioned above, the first generation of modernists in the late 1940s, including Ziapour, had endeavored to align their practices to modernist aesthetics, while also delving into traditional Iranian art. From the late 1950s onward, the State’s cultural policies began to favor the modernist current, by establishing dedicated institutions and organizing events and festivals.28 The Saqqa-khaneh movement benefitted from this shift and unlike its predecessors it was acknowledged and supported by the State, since the artists’ effort was aligned with the cultural policies of the Pahlavi government and its ambition to shape a modern national identity. The two Tehran Biennials and the Faculty of Decorative Arts were established by the Ministry of Culture and Art, headed by Mehrdad Pahlbod. The students of the Faculty of Decorative Arts were invited to exhibit in the two Tehran Biennials having learnt by this stage how to apply local, historical motifs to their modernist works.29 Fulfilling the expectation of Marco Grigorian, the director of the first Biennial, it seemed that contemporary Iranian art could finally catch up with the progressive Western art world; and this was the claim optimistically made by critic Karim Emami two decades later in 1977, just a year before the revolution. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, today many scholars, following Emami’s argument on the triumphant development of “Saqqa-khaneh school,” consider the period between the early 1960s and late 1970s the period of Iranian modernism, or its heyday.

Similar to Ziapour and his generation, the Saqqa-khaneh artists searched for traditional popular culture as well as ornamental forms, with almost no indication of their own modern urban life. Perhaps the monolithic and continuous art history of Iran, formulated by art historians like Pope, gave them the right to appropriate any motif from any period in the long course of Iranian art history. The amalgamation of calligraphy and painting was one of their major innovations, though their meaning is usually ignored in favor of the modernist forms (see Figure 9.2). As Siamak Delzendeh notes,

in the works of the Saqqakhaneh school, the juxtaposition [of text and image, with reference to Persian painting] significantly indicates the longstanding Iranian identity. But, since the eligibility and meaning-based agency of the writings are challenged in their work, the references to Iranian art history is deliberately disturbed.30

Hamid Keshmirshekan also describes the Saqqa-khaneh artists as “making a formalistic reference to tradition rather than to subliminal associations or philosophical

Hossein Zendehroudi, Untitled, 1967, oil on cardboard, 120 x 120 cm. Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA)

Figure 9.2 Hossein Zendehroudi, Untitled, 1967, oil on cardboard, 120 x 120 cm. Courtesy of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA).

concepts.”31 For these artists, the pseudo-morphic similarities between the ornamental stylization found in local Iranian visual culture, on the one hand, and globalized modernist abstraction, on the other, sufficed to construct modern Iranian art. Yet, it seems as if neither modernist visual language, nor indigenous art belonged to them as such, given their distance as Iranian artists who lived in large modern cities.

Therefore, it can be inferred that the ad-hoc redeployment of traditional Iranian motifs is the result of a lack of intellectual and historical consciousness. Focusing on the attitude of the Saqqa-khaneh artists toward tradition, Aryasp Dadbeh challenges their practice of appropriation in a more critical way, asserting that this movement cannot be called a “school.” Unlike many scholars who locate the Saqqa-khaneh within the rubric of Iranian modernism, Dadbeh believes that the atmosphere among intellectuals of the 1960s, most of whom subscribed to leftist ideologies, could not have led to a coherent and fruitful current in art. Starting with the term “school,” he attempts to prove that the Saqqakhaneh fails to meet the requirements of its definition. Since “school” is a historical concept in which the temporality of an age is reflected, the cultural context would be a precondition for its formation. Therefore, not all historical societies in any condition can develop a school, a style or an artistic method. Dadbeh argues that it is the consciousness of one’s current historical status that shapes a school and guarantees its transmission and continuity through its educational methods. It is also necessary for a school to respond to certain initial arguments of the time in an intellectually contradictory condition and develop its forms and motifs reflexively to determine its new relation with its existence. Therefore, the Saqqa-khaneh movement responds to the ideologically-charged environment of the 1960s, without any new motif to offer and is incapable to be in a meaningful dialog with the past and transmit its experience to the future?2 The Saqqa-khaneh artist, according to Dadbeh, “is like a blind person who randomly picks up some jewelry from a sack and throws it somewhere, wasting the treasure of Iranian culture.”33

Considering the socio-political context within which nativist trends such as Saqqa-khaneh developed in the 1960s, Dadbeh’s analytical argument sounds reasonable and significant.34 The dominance of nativist ideologies among intellectuals, together with Marxist internationalism - both among anti-state figures such as Jalal-Ale Ahmad and Ali Shariati and pro-state or neutral academics like Seyed-Hossein Nasr, Ahmad Fardid, Daryush Shayegan and Ehsan Naraghi - left no space for the development of thoughts on the basis of historical particularity.35

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