Renowned Iranian artist Behjat Sadr gets first major UK exhibition

Renowned Iranian artist Behjat Sadr gets first major UK exhibition
Dusted Waters is the UK's first exhibition dedicated to Behjat Sadr who died in 2009. It follows the development of her career as she travelled from Iran to Europe.
6 min read
27 September, 2018
Behjat Sadr in her studio, Tehran 1967. Collection Mitra Hananeh-Goberville, Paris
Dusted Waters, a major retrospective of one of Iran's most influential artists, Behjat Sadr, opens on September 28 at the Mosaic Rooms in London.  

A forerunner of Iran's modern art movement, the exhibition follows the development of Sadr's career as she travelled from Iran to Europe, incorporating influence from every place, while never conforming to one particular movement.  

Against the backdrop of the rising oil economy, Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War, Sadr's expressive and abstract paintings reflect the politics of her time and her personal determination to make it as a woman artist in a male-dominated world.  

The show celebrates above all else Sadr's appreciation of motion, nature and the unpredictability of reality.  

The exhibition is divided, chronologically, into the three cities which played a formative role in Sadr's evolution as an artist; Rome, Tehran and Paris.  

"We are trying to work with something that gives you a bit more of a narrative than simply juxtaposing works," the exhibition's curator, Morad Montazami, told The New Arab.

"[Including] both her amateur and experimental processes in between the paintings." 

Dusted Waters is the UK's first exhibition dedicated to Sadr who died in 2009. Montazami explained that although she was considered an accomplished artist with an international presence, Sadr was often side-lined. 

"She was a marginal artist during her own time," he stressed.  

She used her experiences of Rome to go back to Iran and act with more confidence in a very male dominated art scene

The first room looks at Sadr's earliest works during her time in Italy from 1955 to the beginning of the sixties.

Studying first in Rome and then Naples, these years were hugely formative to Sadr's practice as it marks her introduction to the Western aesthetic which prompted her move towards abstraction.

Untitled, Behjat Sadr (1987) Oil on paper and photograph, 50 × 65 cm. Collection Mitra Hananeh-Goberville, Paris

Sadr soon became integrated into the Italian art scene, taking Roberto Melli as her mentor and being chosen to exhibit in the 1956 Venice Bienniale.

It is in her works from this time that we catch a first glimpse of features that will come to define her later style; the dominance of black paint, her experimentation with different materials and tools, and her dynamic forms which create a sense of motion in her paintings. 

The main room of the exhibition centres around Sadr's return to Tehran in the sixties. This was perhaps the peak of her artistic production where Sadr began experimenting with different surfaces, even moving into kinetic works for a brief spell.  

"She used her experiences of Rome to go back to Iran and act with more confidence in a very male dominated art scene," Montazami explained.

"When she returns to Tehran at the beginning of the 60s, she becomes the first woman art professor at the Tehran Faculty of Fine Art." 

Sadr's paintings from this period place emphasis on industry, the oil economy, and motion in line with the development of Iran at the time. Black paint is either the sole or dominant colour in her paintings which are often applied to industrial materials.

Untitled was completed during Sadr's most accomplished years in the early seventies.

Great black pipe-like structures rise out of a background of bright red, blue and yellow. The textured lines of the black paint echo the viscosity of oil and demonstrate the artist's perfected use of a scraper to manipulate the paint.

"Her major body of works [are] of black paintings on aluminium surfaces… oil landscapes where she mixes the figure of a brushstroke with the figure of a pipe line or oil seeping," Montazami explained.  

"This metaphor of the oil economy is very singular, I don't know another Iranian artist who attempted [such] a visual metaphor," he continued.  

Also included in the exhibition are Sadr's remarkable kinetic works. These structures indicate the point in her career when nature, colour and motion combine to create what has been described as a "third dimension" in her practice.  

Untitled, Behjat Sadr (c. 1975) Oil on canvas, 80 x 128 cm. Private collection

Untitled is one of the few kinetic works remaining today. The piece is made of a combination of natural and industrial materials; wood and aluminium foil on Venetian blinds. Motion is again, the key element although this time she takes it one step further, allowing the blinds to physically open and close.

"[It's a] comment on a certain economy that allows for new material but also for a more ephemeral texture of the artwork," Montazami said.

In the wake of the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in the early-eighties, Sadr and her daughter travelled to Paris frequently, settling there permanently when the artist was diagnosed with cancer.

It signals a particularly difficult time in Sadr's life in which she found herself increasingly marginalised by the Parisian art scene

The final room is dedicated to this period where Sadr made a striking change in her practice and returned to figuration in the form of collage.

"The collage works are very significant of the rupture with her dedication to pure abstraction," explained Montazami.

"[Here she] juxtaposes paint with photography, abstract structures with doors and landscapes."   

It signals a particularly difficult time in Sadr's life in which she found herself increasingly marginalised by the Parisian art scene.

Untitled, Behjat Sadr, oil on aluminium, 100 x 200cm. Collection Mitra Hananeh-Goberville Paris

In Untitled, black shapes, similar to her abstract works of the seventies, rise up against a golden background. Above them hovers a photographic collage reminiscent of a relentless sun in a sweltering desert.

"The collages are pretty much a visual diary; recording the places, the moments, the style of different places that she identified with," Montazami said. 

Archival materials will also be shown alongside the paintings. The title of the exhibition itself is taken from Sadr's writing.  

"Dusted Waters is a phrase taken from her poems," Montazami explained. "The phrase comes in a numerous series of metaphors that she has for describing the elements, the landscape and the textures that obsess her."  

The final part of the exhibition shows the remarkable documentary, Behjat Sadr: Time Suspended, made by Iranian filmmaker, Mitra Farahani in 2006.  

"Farahani… was very close to [Sadr] so the film is even more than a filmmaker doing a documentary about a painter, it is more like a relationship between a mother or daughter or two very close friends," Montazami explained.  

The film is a powerful dialogue between the two. The most captivating part is seeing Sadr work. Just as Jackson Pollock was filmed dripping paint onto the canvas, here we see Sadr pour black paint straight from the tin and methodically spread it across the surface. 

Sadr was an artist who absorbed influence from the various places she lived, without ever adhering to one particular movement or style.

Unapologetically pushing the boundaries of abstraction, Sadr was one of the few artists who was able to use her art to comment on the politics that dominated her world.

Despite being marginalised for much of her life, in 2004 the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art held a major retrospective of her work, placing Sadr among the ranks as one of the major pioneers of modern art in Iran.

Dusted Waters is on at The Mosaic Rooms, London until December 8. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11am-6pm.

Georgia Beeston is a freelance journalist based in London with a focus on arts and culture from the Middle-East.

Follow her on Twitter: @g_beeston