Bookmark and Share

Conversation With Iranian Artist Shahrzad Salehipour


Source: Gallery Mamak, Tahran


Shahrzad Salehipour was born in Tehran in 1961. She did her artistic training at the Tehran Niavaran Art Centre. Over the past twenty years Salehipour has been teaching Persian miniature painting at various universities and institutions in Iran and carrying out extensive research on modern and traditional paintings. During her career Salehipour has participated in numerous group and individual exhibitions in countries ranging from Iran to Japan, Romania, Turkey, Pakistan, Kuwait, India France, and England. She has won several prizes including the Artist of the Year Prize from the Iranian President's Foundation which recognized her as one of Iran's leading women artists. This painter has been highly influenced by Persian mythology and by the ancient Iranian prophet Mani who depicts the world through light and dark, which to Salehipour is an aesthetic reflection and a wish for the salvation of the soul. To her the aim of Man is to reach the height of light and beauty by freeing himself from a world of ugliness. To portray this belief Salehipour uses gold as absolute light and purity, in contrast to silver and flat textured surfaces of paint which she uses to point to the soft and delicate beauty hidden in existence. She believes that without a deep knowledge of our past there can be neither innovation nor modernity. She is interested in the achievements of modernism and postmodernism in art and has been studying them both in Iran and abroad. However, she has come to believe that countries with different traditions should think about western modernism and that it is only by studying their own roots that they can achieve an indigenous form of modernism. Only then can they hope to produce their contemporary artistic identity. Salehipour is presently living and working in Tehran.

Q: First tell me how you became interested in painting.

A: I believe the ability to paint lies in all of us. The important thing is for us to be able to help it develop at the right time. I was lucky to have had a number of very good painting instructors before I finished high school.

Q: What made you become a miniature painter?

A: I think one of the reasons was that I met Mr. Moti, an expert miniaturist and I went to work with him. He was one of the best teachers of his day and I was lucky to have him. As you know many of the contemporary painters in this country started out painting miniatures. Later they chose different schools of painting. Today, unfortunately, miniature painting instruction in Iran has many shortcomings.


Q: Can you explain some of them to us?

A: One of the problems miniature painting is facing in this country is a lack of good teachers. Most of our teachers today don't know the various styles or the importance and function of these styles. Today Iranian modernism is only one of the genres of the various forms that exist in art and not the only one. Modernism itself is presently becoming aware of its own shortcomings which is why postmodernism has become such an important issue. Modern man is still testing new ways to express his needs and experiences.

Unfortunately for us, in Iran, at a critical historical juncture we came across Modernism and we embraced it as the only contemporary form. This has been an important factor that has influenced the way we teach art in this country: we embraced the new form at the expense or our own history, culture and social environment.

The Tehran School of Fine Arts was set up based on the Parisian model at a time when even that model had not been perfected. We forgot that if the Beaux Arts of Paris was teaching Modernism to its students those students were already familiar with such schools as Classicism, Romanticism, Hellenism... and so on and so forth. We also forgot that because the modern Frenchman's needs, conditions and environment had changed then his art too had undergone a change. What we did in fact was that we forgot all the socio historical bases of our form of modernism. Instead we simply took a certain style and taught it to our students who had either come right out of our rural and small town areas or were from Tehran but had not as yet glimpsed the needs or conditions of modern life.

We need to ask why our form of modernism has not managed to achieve its own individual identity.

We ran into similar problems in the instruction of our traditional art. When instructors teach the techniques and perspectives of traditional art without knowing anything about its historical past then we run into problems because at best they can only render a very formalistic treatment of the subject matter. This form of instruction later brought about schools with the same kind of superficial formalistic touch as we saw in Iranian Modernism. One important example of this form of art was the Saghakhaneh School. The artists of this school simply took various forms and designs and came up with new paintings many of which were even successful pieces but these works have no bearing on our history or culture, neither do they have anything to do with the essence of Modernism. In order to be successful a piece needs both form and subject matter to work together.

I see all these problems as stemming from our method of instruction.

Today we're seeing a new movement take shape in Iran; one in which they are bringing back Qajar forms. Once again without a deep understanding of the socio historical issues of the time we will only be left with pieces that are at best formalistic. Our artists need to be able to grasp a deeper understanding of their 'selves' and by this I mean their historical, cultural, and social backgrounds. Unless they do this,both our modern and traditional artists will be left with serious problems.

Mythical Battle

Q: Today we're witnessing a dramatic decrease in the number of miniature painters in Iran and what is more we are seeing fewer and fewer students turning to miniature painting. Do you see this form of painting as dying out?

A: The reason for the decrease in the number of both miniature teachers and students is basically an economic one. Today the markets are demanding a different form of art and the masters and students are making the necessary changes to respond to that call. But there is another problem too. The problem is that those few miniature painters we see in Iran are simply artists copying forms. They have little to do with the mystic thinkers of our past who used miniatures as a means of expressing their thoughts. These artists have simply learnt a technique which they are using to respond to what's left of the market. They are also trying to make a living by taking on a couple of students at best.

The only hope that is left is in those very students who are trying to join their past to the contemporary artwork they see around them. These students need technique which is taught them. Where they fall short is in subject matter and thought. One can teach technique but one can not teach subject matter. This is true of all art forms and schools. This is also why art can not be taught. What can be taught is simply technique and a series of experiences can be passed on to the student. The rest needs individual development and thought. The teacher might be able to spark the development and even lead it but no teacher can actually teach it.

Not everything that is different or new is art. Art is an expression of Man's needs, understanding and psychological development. It is something that when the viewer understands the message of the artist he too grows and develops. This is why the greatest masters have not been understood in their own time. They have their eyes on the future and are much more advanced than their times.

Q: Tell me a little about the various schools of Miniature painting in Iran and more specifically tell me which schools you have followed in those paintings of yours that we have put on our site.

A: Many western scholars divide miniature paintings into various schools but this form of division is based on the western form that strives to classify everything in order to understand it. This is why the classifications that have been made vis a vis miniature paintings are geographical. For example, we have the School of Shiraz, the School of Isfahan or the School of Baghdad. The very fact that these divisions are geographically based shows that the difference is not in style or subject matter.

To me the history of Iranian art is must be seen in its totality that extends over several thousand years. This is why if you're interested in Seljuk art, for example, you need to understand the Sialk civilization, the Persepolis... In fact you need to have a rounded perspective of its entirety and not a linear understanding of the history of Iranian art.

However, this history has had its peak moments too. For example, if we see the perfection of form and color in Safavid art we have to understand the Herat School which helped it attains this bloom. By the end of the Safavid era we see the division of the schools of art in Iran under the names of their various dynasties which in fact has a socio political reason behind it. If we don't understand the total overview we won't, for example, understand how Safavid art, one of the peaks of perfection in Iranian art, suddenly makes a swift turn around. All of these have a strict historical, political and social reason behind them which can be discussed if needs be.

Q: Can you open up one of these examples for us?

A: The economics of art was directly tied to the support of its patrons much like it was under the Medicis. When a dynasty fell it took that support with it. With this change we see change in culture. In other words, the culture of the country would change depending on the culture of its ruling dynasty. This is where the term 'cultural invasion' which we use so much in this country becomes important. These abrupt changes would also bring cultural weakening with them and the results of these influences were easily seen in other cultures. For example, in the textiles of Rembrandt's works we see the Iranian influence as we see it in the carpets he used in some of his paintings. However, suddenly we see the disappearance of these forms and influences from western paintings brought about precisely because of the disappearance of those very elements within Iran due to political, social and even historical changes.

This is just an example of how things worked in this country for centuries.

Q: You use a lot of gold and silver in your work and you also draw a lot of scenes from Persian mythology. Can you explain why?

A: I told you I studied with a very traditional master. He was an expert not only in the techniques he used but also in his knowledge of Iranian history, culture, symbolism... This master worked at the time of the advent of Iranian modernism. He taught me his techniques well but remember that I study and teach art. Therefore I am in constant contact with other professors and new ways. Hence, I have developed my own modern methods. I have always been obsessed with the role of the artist and with new possibilities that he can introduce into his art. I don't claim to have been unique in this but these have always been real issues with me.

I was much more traditional in my earlier works but I gradually learnt to use different techniques. Later I developed different periods in my work. There was a time when I could feel the weight of color. It almost became a burden too heavy to carry and I turned to the use of gold because at that time to me it was a lighter color due to its brightness. The use of various metals is very important in Iranian painting and this is particularly true of both silver and gold. So I learned to use not only these two colors but also transparent colors as well.

Q: Why do you draw horses?

A: Again this is because of the history of the horse in our culture. The Epic of the Kings is a good example. When I read it Rakhsh, the horse of one of the major heroes of the Epic, is not an animal for me. It actually develops into a personality. All the objects and creatures in Iranian mythology have personalities and I enjoy using them. At one level all these personalities become one. This unity is a very Iranian perspective on Existence.

When you read Persian mythology you realize that all the animals that were close to any of our major heroes in fact were their friends: friends with very specific personalities. This friendship is like having a soul mate living with you. These animals are friends, soul mates, and partners in our culture.

To me these horses have a very specific function. For example, in the miniature called Silence the horse is standing stoically against invasion from within-an invasion where indigenous elements rise to destroy the essence of 'what IS'. Likewise, in the Mythical Battle the dragon is a negative symbol. Unlike Chinese culture, in Iranian culture the dragon is the symbol of evil. In that specific painting the horse is fighting evil. You could say that to me the horse is the symbol of humanity.

© Copyright 2008 (All Rights Reserved)