Parviz Tanavoli and Atelier Niavaran

A Life in Art

Parviz Tanavoli’s Legacy

In more than half a century of his artistic career, Parviz Tanavoli has managed to associate two intermingled ideas with a poetic language to put forward a personal interpretation of modern sculpture. The first idea is the adoption of a fairly abstract vocabulary, comprising meaningful Persian motifs, in creating a monumental sculpture. The second idea is to apply writing elements and verbal signs to present volumes suggesting a kind of conceptual sculpture. In his numerous bronze works, Tanavoli often makes use of a varying combination of these ideas to relate a dramatic story of love and frustration in four episodes epitomized by his four series of sculptures entitled the WallPoetLovers and Heech. They all embody in different ways the recurring story of love and freedom in mystic terms. Celebrating the remarkable legacy of this prominent Iranian artist, the current exhibition is intended to present a number of significant works from these four series to art lovers.

These ideas are well crystallized in the Wall series, which includes formally the purest and stylistically the most modern works of Tanavoli. Recalling classical monuments, the Walls are basically free-standing monolithic sculptures that evidently reincarnate great ancient walls and relics of the Achaemenid or Sassanid dynasties. Inscribed by textual manuscripts and figurative reliefs, they are memorials to the ancient Persian civilization to which the artist pays tribute in his oeuvre.

Unlike modernist sculptures, the works of the Wall series are not essentially about the volume, but actually point to the surface of the sculpture which, being decorated by dense inscriptions, evokes historic inscriptions beyond its apparent shape. In fact, the visual power of modern geometric sculptures here lies in the surface of the Wall seemingly to recall the remains of the typical walls of ancient Persian palaces such as Bisotun Wall. The inscriptions engraved on the Wall series are occasionally pictorial calligraphy reminiscent of Egyptian and Sumerian reliefs, but at times, Arabic writings or simply a uniform textual patterns, rarely in Farsi, but always obscure and illegible.

Works in the Poet series tangibly present human figures, though still remaining faithful to modern abstraction. The main feature resembling the body in these works is the division of the work into three distinct parts, corresponding to the head, torso and legs in the human figure. Rather than representing body parts, each of these distinct parts presents a geometric form referring to a romantic connotation. A torso, for example, that sometimes connotes a cage alluding to an aching heart poetically implies a prison for the secrets a lover keeps. The poet, from this perspective, carries a mystical concept rather than presenting a human being; a serene representation of solitude and separation. Local elements in these works comprise applied objects such as padlocks, keys, and windows all representing emblematic concepts prevalent in Persian classical poetry, for instance; cage, cypress tree and bird that are tantamount to body parts in the sculpture. Similar to the human figure, the Poet sculptures are meant to be viewed significantly from the front with no complete views from the sides and the back.

The Lovers series includes paired sculptures to conceptualize love in a mutual human relationship. In this series, too, figures imaginatively embody the human shape with a distinct head, torso and legs. More than the earthly meaning of love, these works signify its philosophical and mystical nature and far from iconic positions of romantic expressions, such as hugging and kissing, they understandably avoid taboos in presenting a romantic relationship. The Lovers and Poet sculptures are magnificently symmetric and except for a hand in a few cases, they possess a regular structure similar to that of classical decorative objects. Figures are utterly free from tactile delusion and no effort has been made to replicate a real human body with skin, flesh and bones. Every single part of the figure carries meanings, alluding to metaphors borrowed from Persian poetry, such as cypress, flower and cage. Any perception of the work, in the whole or as a part, is actually shaped in the mind of the viewer, rather than being evident in the work itself.

Formally, both the Poet and Lovers present figurative and abstract qualities, while conceptually, they can be two sides of a coin, alluding to the same sublime philosophical notion. In effect, they are two symbols that signify a single concept. The first symbolic instance of this concept is the mythical character of Farhad the Mountain Carver, who has been repeatedly referred to in Persian classical poetry as a romantic artist with a passionate and epic love for Shirin, the Queen of Armenia, who was at the same time the beloved of the Sassanid King, Khosrow Parviz. Farhad is the sole celebrated sculptor in ancient history of Persia, who is considered a legendary artist and a symbol of true and devoted love and Tanavoli identifies himself as his descendant. Other examples of poets and lovers, as attested by their original character and classical touch, include celebrated figures in Persian poetry and great promoters of mysticism who have expressed their spiritual contemplation and passionate demeanor in poems.

The most significant idea in Tanavoli’s artistic career is crystalized in the Heech (meaning Nothing) series that following the great reputation it gained, has gradually turned into a major and internationally recognized icon of Iranian contemporary art. To the artist,Heech is a word as well as a figure and a meaning. He masterfully combined these three aspects to create sculptures out of a ‘verbal symbol’. Tanavoli then personified the sculptures and placed them in different positions, including behind a desk, on a chair, or inside a cage as if they are experiencing a life. This was followed by his further treatment to combine them with other works he produced to achieve combinations such as the Wall and Heech, and Heech and Lovers and Heech. Tanavoli never used any other words to create similar works to let Heech remain unique in every aspect forever. For more than four decades, Heech sculptures have been mass produced in diverse shapes, sizes, editions and with different materials and various colors to become the most popular product of Iranian contemporary art. Although they may induce despair filled with a sense of futility and isolation, Heech sculptures often look vibrant and whimsical. The internal twist of the word and elastic feature of the letters enhance the dynamic and play like quality of the works.

In the deeper layers, however, they seem to involve a personal absurd narrative that, using their challenging overtones, bespeaks personal grievances. Tanavoli considers the word a reaction out of desperation to socio-cultural conditions of his time; a voice of objection frozen and captured in his sculptures. Heech, from a philosophical point of view, is deeply inspired by Rumi’s thoughts as well as the essence of Islamic philosophy and Persian mysticism that relinquishes all mundane attachments. It is a declaration of total submission to the Lord Almighty, an admission of human frailty vis-à-vis His eternal will. The semantic fluidity of the word ‘Heech’ that can be interpreted at different layers, is greatly presented in the volatile curves of the Persian letters in cursive writing, known as Nastalik calligraphy, to make the form and content equally dynamic.

Tanavoli’s most significant artistic legacy is undoubtedly his idea of sculpture as he has truly remained faithful to modernist approaches in terms of using primary structures, refined cubes, geometric surfaces, straight lines and right angles, while subtly using indigenous elements with Iranian identity more than the other modernist artists of his generation. With his astonishing skill, Tanavoli combines traditional, folkloric motifs and elements of Shiite culture and Persian mystical literature with a western modernist aesthetics to offer a fluid experience that is a crossover between a local Modernism and a kind of Iranian Post-modernism. He is widely considered as the champion of an influential neo-traditionalist movement of the 1960s, which was loosely labeled as the Saqqakhaneh School. No matter what direction Iranian sculpture takes in the future, Parviz Tanavoli will unquestionably be singled out as a leading figure and a major force behind it.

Tanavoli has accomplished other great achievements during his prolific life. As a passionate collector, he has collected numerous old objects, including padlocks, tools, vessels, kilims and rugs, to facilitate the observation of the amazing intricacies of Iranian material culture. Having a superb aesthetic quality, these applied objects can now be exemplified as tangible examples of sculpture in Iranian historic tradition. Furthermore, Tanavoli has conducted quite a few notable researches in a variety of fields, including Iranian folklore, handicrafts and sculpture, shedding light on dark corners of Iran’s art and culture. His numerous books provide a basis for further researches and publications and will definitely be a major source for future analytical studies.

Beside exhibiting his works, another important legacy of Parviz Tanavoli is being presented in this exhibition. The founder of the Sculpture Department at the University of Tehran, Tanavoli has trained what can be called a generation of eminent artists many of whom promise a bright future for Iranian sculpture. He has taught them techniques and methods to embark on a new perception of contemporary art which they combine with their ideas to experiment novel approaches in art. Four talented artists, who have long been assisting Tanavoli in his studio and represent a larger group of emerging artists taught by the master, are exhibiting their works in the exhibition too. Their works reveal the lasting impact of Tanavoli’s art on Iranian contemporary sculpture as well as other paths that his students will tread in the future.

Alireza Samiazar

Date of Exhibition
Starts: November 3, 2017
Ends: February 26, 2017

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