Iranian exterior painters seek to capture and preserve old Tehran

Tehran residents used to boiling in slow-moving traffic, sweltering in summer heat and suffocating in smog might be surprised to find a growing number of plein-air painters reveling in the historic charm of Iran’s capital.

The crowded metropolis may be dusty and in need of sprucing up, but the honeycomb of alleyways that make up old Tehran draw throngs of artists out of their cramped studios and onto the open streets – a trend that is growing. is accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

These devotees not only aim to capture Tehran’s vanishing old quarters, but also to preserve them. Many areas have been razed. Cranes dot the skyline as historic 19th-century neighborhoods give way to modern skyscrapers.

“Paintings connect us to past conceptions and fading feelings,” said Morteza Rahimi, a 32-year-old carpenter, art enthusiast and resident of downtown Tehran. “They help us remember. … See how many old beautiful buildings have turned into rubble.”

Alongside him, painter Hassan Naderali used loose brushstrokes and bold colors to capture the play of light and shimmer of movement in an impressionistic style. Passionate about outdoor painting, French for “en plein air”, Naderali seeks to portray the beauty of his ramshackle surroundings.

Population growth transforms the city

Tehran has transformed into a bustling city of more than 10 million people compared to just 4.5 million at the time of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The demographic surge of the young theocracy coincided with a massive migration to Tehran after the invasion of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. As job and educational opportunities drew even more people to the capital, the government responded to an emerging housing crisis with massive property developments.

Some of the city’s 19th-century gems, built by the Qajar kings shortly after moving Iran’s capital to Tehran in 1796, have been lost to new apartment towers in recent decades.

Through social media, however, artists and historians have sought to counter cultural amnesia amid mounting demolitions.

“Social media has made people aware of the risks that compromise old and historic buildings,” said art expert Mostafa Mirzaeian, referring to the decadent palaces of the Qajars, best known for their elaborate mirror mosaics. “People are discovering the value of old places and paying attention to their cultural and artistic dimensions.”

“Our roots, our heritage”

For Somayyeh Abedini, an outdoor painting fan, government worker and resident of Tehran’s historic Oudlajan district, the environmental push is personal. The arched skylines, leafy lanes and fortified villas of Oudlajan serve as her muse, she said, evoking the spirit of her father who spent his whole life in the neighborhood.

“The old places in the neighborhood are our roots, our heritage,” Abedini said. “It’s a shame that a lot of them were destroyed.”

Painter Hassan Naderali shows some of his artworks at his home in Tehran, Iran, June 20, 2022. The city’s venerable buildings serve as his inspiration.

The practice of outdoor painting in Tehran has flourished during the pandemic, artists say, as many have found solace and inspiration in the open air when galleries and museums closed for months and construction projects came to a halt . The health crisis has wreaked havoc in Iran, infecting more than 7.2 million people and killing more than 141,000 – the worst toll in the Middle East.

As the chaos faded from the streets of Tehran, Naderali, 58, set up his studio outdoors. Venturing with brushes, pencils, paints, a portable easel and papers, he painted where he felt most alive – under the sun, feeling the breeze.

“I was going out every day. The outdoor places weren’t that crowded and I found more access to places I liked to paint,” he said of his experience of the pandemic.

Naderali sells dozens of his paintings, many of which depict ancient Persian palaces and traditional houses in Tehran, to domestic and foreign clients.

A yearning for bygone eras drives high demand among Iranian buyers abroad, he said – the excitement back when Achaemenids carved bas-reliefs into the walls of Persepolis in 500BC and Isfahan flourished as a jewel of Islamic culture in the 17th century. .

That nostalgia has deepened as Iran, devastated by sanctions and cut off from the global economy, seethes with public anger over rising prices and falling living standards.

Talks to revive Tehran’s nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump abandoned four years ago, have made no progress over the past year. The country’s poverty has worsened. But in many ways, Iran’s contemporary art scene has flourished despite the challenges.

For years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the Western-backed monarchy and brought Shia clerics to power, hardliners banned modern art and even sought to ban painting. The extensive collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, worth billions of dollars, rested in its vaults.

But the clerical establishment came to appreciate the art form during the gruesome Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980. Paintings that honored the war dead and extolled the leaders of the Islamic Revolution sprung up on the streets. dull city walls.

Western art on display again

Many of the contemporary art museum’s works – including Monets, Picassos and Jackson Pollocks purchased during Iran’s oil boom under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign – have come to prominence in recent decades as cultural restrictions have eased. relaxed.

Last summer, days before the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, an intransigent cleric hostile to Western cultural influence, the museum reopened with a retrospective of American pop artist Andy Warhol.

Today, successful Iranian artists – including stars exhibiting abroad – have helped transform Tehran’s once sedentary art market into a vibrant scene. Auction houses across the city fetch high prices for local painters. An auction last Friday recorded sales of more than $2.2 million for 120 works.

Iranian state television regularly broadcasts painting lessons, including late American painter Bob Ross’ beloved PBS show “The Joy of Painting”, inspiring enthusiasts to create their own masterpieces.

Iranian art schools are flourishing, with a majority of female students. Although exhibits require government licenses, Tehran’s swanky galleries showcasing new works by Iranian painters are teeming with young crowds.

“A passer-by once told me, ‘Art is born in poverty and dies in wealth,'” Naderali remarked.

James C. Tibbs