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“A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia: New Art From Iran”

At the Meridian International Center to July 15

For decades now, ever since that 444-day unpleasantness over the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran’s image among the American people has been less than positive. Angry Iranian students burning American flags in the streets, women forced to cover themselves head to toe in black robes and veils, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie haven’t helped things, either.

But now the Ayatollah—though still revered—is long dead. The Afghan Taliban is making Iran’s fundamentalist Muslim clerics look mild by comparison. And though the still-powerful mullahs have opposed the most progressive changes, a new regime is attempting to open the world’s eyes to a more moderate and culturally dynamic Iran.

Now “A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia”—an exhibition of 89 new works of art from both established and up-and-coming Iranian artists—has arrived in Washington to advance that agenda and to supplant the visions of women in stifling black veils with ethereal, finely rendered paintings of ancient Persian lovers, the “Death to America” slogans with dazzling golden-grounded calligraphic interpretations of the verses of Omar Khayyám.

“A Breeze”—organized jointly by Meridian International Center curator Nancy Matthews and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and supported by a variety of foundations and corporations—succeeds in introducing viewers to a thriving and diverse Iranian art scene, whose influences can clearly be traced both to the mysticism and sensuality of ancient Persian civilization and to Western schools of modern art.

The exhibit overwhelms with a jumble of styles, media, and subject matter. Examples of traditional Persian miniature, surrealism, and abstract expressionism; oils, batiks, and collages; and portraits, landscapes, and still lifes hang in every room and cover nearly every inch of wall space in the Meridian International Center’s White Meyer Galleries—including halfway up and down staircases leading to private offices. Some of the artists—such as Massoud Arabshahi and Mohammad Ali Taraghijah—have exhibited their paintings worldwide; others are young art students whose works caught Matthews’ eye during trips to Tehran. Nearly all of the pieces were created within the last five years—a good number of them in 2000.

As befits an exhibit designed to promote international goodwill, politics are mostly absent from these works. The exception is Saeed Gholami’s far from subtle Dialogue Among Civilizations, whose title alludes to the Iranian government’s own openness initiative. It’s not a coincidence: Matthews says that the painting was commissioned by the Iranian government to celebrate its new program.

What Gholami has delivered is a large canvas full of primary colors divided evenly between representations of West and East. On the left side of the painting are a blond angel playing a cello, women singing and playing lutelike instruments, Christ on the cross, and a naked cherub. Miniature references to Munch’s The Scream and Picasso’s Guernica occupy the upper left corner. On the right are a darker-haired angel strumming a harp, dark-haired women playing tambourines and flutes, and a fully clothed cherub. A scene of a Persian prince slaying a mythological beast is in the top right corner, along with the turquoise dome of a mosque, and a peacock—the traditional symbol of the Persian throne. Two faceless women bathed in a golden light meet in the middle of the composition, the one on the right extending a dove, the one on the left, an olive branch. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to get the message: East and West coming together in peace.

That dialogue between civilizations is just as easily detected in the vast majority of pieces in the show. Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s oil painting Still Life With Landscape, with its precisely painted, hyperrealistic subjects arranged in absurd tableaux, is clearly inspired by European surrealism. A porcelain bowl of fruit hangs in the air in front of a gold-framed landscape painting, whose obscured section reappears in the form of a bowl of fruit sitting on a table elsewhere in the composition. Habibollah Sadeghi’s Musician, which depicts a turbaned musician tuning a traditional Persian stringed instrument, echoes the postimpressionists (van Gogh in particular), and both Farideh Lashaie’s frenzied untitled oil and Arabshahi’s Heavenly Compositions recall the New York School.

These artists may have embraced Western styles, but their subjects are unmistakably Iranian. Yaghoub Emdadian’s complementary acrylics A Village in the North and A Desert Village convey the extremes of the artist’s homeland—a country that is both green and fertile and colorless and barren. Iran’s nomadic tradition is suggested in numerous depictions of horses, ranging from Taraghijah’s free-floating steeds to Rahman Maleki’s Girls on Horseback. And Mojtaba Mir Mahdi’s Shepherd’s Tea-Time, an oil painting of two old men brewing tea by an open fire while their livestock graze in the distance, and Parviz Kalantari’s Village Near Kashan, a view of a desert community painted with acrylics on rough straw board, also evoke a rustic lifestyle that has not changed for centuries.

Other painters draw from the deep well of Persian heritage. Iraj Eskandari offers an abstract depiction of the ancient Persian capital, Persepolis. Mohamad Aghamiri populates his miniature-style paintings with mythical creatures and characters drawn from the Persian epics. And Mohamad Eh’Saie renders the word “Allah” and the “Alphabet of Creation” in calligraphy. Still other artists explore decidedly contemporary subject matter: Simin Keramati portrays a muscular young man in a blue T-shirt dozing peacefully in Kevah Sleeping, and Minoo Asaadi creates a moonlit still life of a metal storm door, a goldfish bowl, a curvy black chair, houseplants, and plastic cleaning buckets.

But most interesting are the depictions of Iranian women, which reveal signs of a vibrant and unexpectedly Westernized private life. The veilless subject of Aria Eghbal’s Portrait of a Woman stares directly at the viewer, a serene yet vaguely sad expression in her eyes. The bride in Hossein Maher’s acrylic Wedding is depicted beside her groom in a low-cut, Western-style white gown. And the two veilless women in Morteza Darebeghi’s Friendship have Western haircuts and bright-red lips; at least one of them wears a sleeveless dress, as does the white-gowned woman seen in Ganji Pariyoush’s Seated Woman.

Ironically, one of the few paintings of women in chador offers the strongest message of liberation in the exhibit. In Rezvan Sadeghzadeh’s Dancing Women, we see a line of women holding hands as they kick up their heels—some of them rather vigorously. The woman at the head of the line has even cast off her veil; her face is exposed and her hair flows wildly. And though Sadeghzadeh has rendered each of the other figures precisely, she conveys the lead woman’s hair with rougher, looser, more exuberant strokes. The perspective-free light-blue-and-gold background may signal that the picture is more dream than reality, but to my Western eyes, it’s still a joyful image.

“Isn’t this a pretty exhibition? Aren’t these pictures just lovely?” a Meridian docent asked as I lingered before a painting. I agreed. It is pretty. And they are lovely. But while a visit to “A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia” is an agreeable enough experience, one leaves the exhibition strangely unmoved. It’s obvious from the works on view that the ateliers and art schools of Iran are full of impressive talents. But few of the pieces here offer truly indelible impressions. One wonders what might have been held back, either from the canvases or the exhibition organizers. The docent’s comment underscored that this particular dialogue between civilizations is still in its earliest stages, not too far beyond an initial exchange of pleasantries. CP