By Angelica Villa
April 2, 2021
Bahman Mohassess is considered Iran’s most important modernist, and has been dubbed the “Persian Picasso.” But for nearly five decades of his career, he lived outside the public eye in Italy, and his countrymen even thought he was dead. Now, however, there is no missing the many contributions of Mohassess, who is best known for his paintings of anthropomorphic figures that allude to international political conflict.
It only took a few years for curators to take note of Mohassess after he died at 79 in 2010. In 2014, he was included in “Unedited History,” an important survey of Iranian contemporary art at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and that same year, London’s Tate Modern acquired a group of five 1966 gouache paintings depicting his signature sculpture-like faceless heads. In 2017, long-unseen works Mohassess from the permanent collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art were showcased in Iran’s capital, where they appeared alongside paintings by Francis Bacon, whose fleshy forms Mohassess is said to have taken as inspiration. Just weeks ago, Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977), a painting depicting a naked crouching muscular man with the head of a mythic creature, sold for a record price of $1.4 million at Sotheby’s in London.
Mohassess, who was based in Italy for much of his career, likely never would have expected such recognition, since he didn’t believe in promoting his work and made no attempts to solidify his legacy. “I never felt I belonged to any place, any country, any people, even less Iranian. I consciously destroyed the works that remained for they had become useless and I would never leave anything for the necrophilic,” Mohassess said in his 2007 autobiography. “After all, what is the point of painting a world where a sky is without birds, a sea without fishes and a wood without wild beasts?”
Living in Exile
Born in 1931 in Rasht, a city on the coast of the Caspian Sea, Mohassess took up art from a young age, going on to attend Tehran University Faculty of Fine Arts. It was during this period that Mohassess was introduced to the city’s avant-garde art scene. In 1954, at the age of 23, he moved to Italy to study at the Rome Arts Academy. The groundwork for his career may have been laid in Iran, but his self-exile in Italy, where he studied European modernism, would become formative in developing his signature style.
When Mohassess he left Iran for the first time to study in Italy, it was a time of political change in the Middle East. He fled after the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, moved to nationalize the oil industry, subverting Britain’s control over it. Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 during a military coup backed by the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies. The regime change spurred mass protests and prompted some artists and intellectuals to leave.
Ashkan Baghestani, Sotheby’s head of sales and director for Middle Eastern and contemporary art, said that Iran’s political priorities and cultural attitudes had caused Mohassess to want out. “Even though it was opening up quite fast to the West, it was still closed in terms of morals, in terms of cultural, societal and artistic references, and in terms of eroticism and nudity,” he said. “Things were changing, but not as fast as one might think.”
Iran to Italy and Back Again
When Mohassess permanently moved to Italy in the late ’60s, he began developing his artistic style, taking cues from Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The figures depicted in his paintings would come to be compared to those of Francis Bacon, who, like Mohassess, was openly gay. In 1963, he participated in the 3rd Paris Biennial and the 7th São Paulo Biennial. By the late 1960s, he returned to Iran and completed Persian translations of works by Italian authors Italo Calvino and Curzio Malaparte, and French authors Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet.
Even though Mohassess was now based in Italy, his work was still seen in his home country. He was commissioned by the Shah and the Empress Farah Diba to make works for Tehran public squares, some of which were later taken down during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In Mitra Farahani’s 2014 documentary Fifi Howls from Happiness, which chronicles the last two months of the artist’s life, spent in his residence in a hotel in Rome, Mohassess recalls one such work, The Flutist, a large-scale sculpture featuring a nude male figure playing the flute that was installed in a public square. The royal office tried to censor the work because of its nudity, and in a memoriam post about Mohassess on her website, Farah Pahlavi, a prominent Iranian arts patron and the wife of the Shah, wrote that the work “is supposed to be currently stored at a warehouse belonging to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.”
Pahlavi was hardly the only major player to have become interested in Mohassess’s work at the time, however. Former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who forged close ties with the Shah of Iran in the early 1970s, acquired Mohassess’ 1968 painting Personaggio I, which features what appears to be a faceless stone-like bust set against a black and red ground. (It is unknown if Nelson acquired it as a gift, or through direct purchase.) Because this seems to be a portrait of an absent sitter with no facial features, the work has a macabre air about it.
Some of Mohassess’s most famous works no longer exist, and as he only produced works for special commissions later in his life, a great deal of mystery surrounds his oeuvre. What is known about Mohassess’s output, however, is that it took him in new and strange directions, and saw him shifting further towards sculpture. In the 1960s, he began working with the Bruni foundry in Italy making brass sculptures, while it was under the charge of Arturo Bruni. Later, Bruni’s son Francesco took over the foundry and became a close friend of the artist. He was eventually tasked with keeping a small handful of Mohassess’s remaining works, including some of the largest ones he ever made. “Their relationship was one of deep friendship and respect, as well as collaboration,” said one of Bruni’s grandchildren, who asked to remain anonymous, citing a desire to maintain their privacy.
No room for sentimentality or pity
Although they may not immediately appear to focus on current events, Mohassess’s works often referred to political strife. His painting Requiem Omnibus (1968), for example, was made in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and civil unrest in France under president Charles de Gaulle. But rather than directly portraying these figures, Mohassess offers greyish people who appear to be wrestling, their bodies painted out in such a way that their skin appears like stone. These figures are reminiscent of the ones seen in Francis Bacon’s 1968 painting Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, which is held by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
In other works, Mohassess focused on animals that conveyed dark symbolism. He frequently returned to the image of a fish out of water—which could be seen as a way of visualizing his own alienation. “There is no room for sentimentality or pity,” Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, one of the few people ever to get a glimpse into the artist’s late life, said of the recurring fish in an interview conducted for the Sharjah Biennial in 2011. “They do not need water, as they are eternal in the paraphysical world. They live death.”
By the 1970s, disillusioned with his roots in Iran, Mohassess left behind Persian influences still present in his 1960s works, and instead embraced erotic imagery and inspiration from European modernists. Mohassess did so “without any remorse, any complex, any taboos,” Baghestani said, and he would come to adopt the minotaur as a central figure in many of his works. Many Surrealists artists—from Picasso and Dalí to Magritte and Man Ray—had been drawn to that mythical creature, viewing it as a symbol of man’s primal nature. For Mohassess, the minotaur’s tortured psychology was an effective way of portraying his own personal and political strife. “I am a human rights prisoner,” he explains in Farahani’s film.
Various critics and historians have connected the minotaur’s overt masculinity to Mohassess’s sexuality. In Fifi Howls from Happiness, he recalls his romantic relationships, which he had to conduct covertly. He looks back on one led with an Italian partner named Marco, who appears as a young man in a drawing by Mohassess. “All its beauty was in the prohibition,” he says of his past relationships.
In Farahani’s film, Mohassess references some of the pieces he claims to have destroyed, leaving “nothing for scavengers.” These “dead” works include Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977) and Fiorella (1977), the latter of which depicts a young blonde girl licking a dripping ice cream cone, which some scholars have said contains sexual overtones. In March 2021, these works were, revealed to be very much alive—they survived, and remained for years in the care of the Bruni family before being sold at auction. Mohassess had left them with the family around 2006, when he made his last trip to Iran to care for his dying brother.
Based on the documentary, it’s unclear whether Mohassess made false claims about his remaining works in order to subvert Farahani’s project, or if those details were intentionally left ambiguous, but this much is clear: Mohassess didn’t want to be rescued from obscurity. In one scene, the chain-smoking septuagenarian, whose health was rapidly declining, says, “My era has ended.”
The artist’s estate, established in 2011 and based in California, is run by his two nieces, Leyla Mohassessy-Azmoun and Rooja Mohassessy, who now must navigate this complicated legacy. Mohassessy said in an interview that another reason for the artist’s mysterious absence in the institutional realm is how he planned his estate—Mohassess stipulated in his will that none of his remaining works be gifted to Italian or Iranian state-backed institutions.
“This kind of vicious play between the need and the desire for being a part of history and this obsessive destructive character who doesn’t want to be saved or who doesn’t want to be recorded or heard—maybe this contradiction will never be resolved somehow,” Farahani said in a 2013 interview with Deutsche Welle.
At one point in her film, when Farahani asks the artist what he thinks will come of his remaining pieces, he replies frankly: “I don’t think about it. “If they’re destroyed, shattered, stolen or whatever, it’s a victory of the ignorance of these times.”
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