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Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition reveals how B.C.-based Parviz Tanavoli singlehandedly modernized sculpture in Iran

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Parviz Tanavoli, Fallen Poet, 1967, ceramic, The Manijeh Collection.

Revered Iranian-born artist Parviz Tanavoli likes telling stories through his sculptures and paintings. In a major survey of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, curator Pantea Haghighi vividly demonstrates this in discussing the first piece, Fallen Poet.

The shimmering ceramic sculpture represents the legend of Farhad the Mountain Carver. He fell in love with an Armenian princess, Shirin, in the Sasanian court of King Khosrow II.

Coincidentally, Khosrow, who ruled during the late sixth and early seventh centuries, also loved Shirin. So in a fit of jealous rage, the king sends Farhad into exile to Behistun to carve through a mountain.

“If he does so, he can have the hand of the princess,” Haghighi tells Pancouver on a tour of the exhibition. “Farhad does, in fact, carve through the mountain. But he’s tricked into thinking that the princess has died. So he jumps off the mountain and kills himself.”

In Tanavoli’s 1967 sculpture, the fallen Farhad’s heart is protected inside a locked cage on his chest. According to Haghighi, Tanavoli often mentions that Farhad was his predecessor.

“He says he wanted to be a poet but he could not be a poet,” the curator adds. “So he became a sculptor and that his sculptures are a type of poetry.”

There are more than 130 works in Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks, Cages, which is the Metro Vancouver resident’s first major Canadian exhibition. Haghighi reveals that it took three years to assemble and present to the public. It includes not only works from his collection but also pieces on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Photo by Scott Little
Parviz Tanavoli’s locks and cages are on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Scott Little.

Tanavoli takes an Italian detour

Haghighi insists that the exhibition is not a retrospective of the artist’s career. Rather, these bronze, iron, clay, and ceramic sculptures and oil-on-canvas paintings revolve around the themes of poetry, locks, and cages.

“What is very important about Parviz Tanavoli is that he singlehandedly modernized the medium of sculpture in Iran,” Haghighi emphasizes. “Pre-Parviz, sculpture either did not exist as in the round or it was very, very traditional.”

It is forbidden under Islam to create idols. In that country, sculptures were almost always two-dimensional, often on the sides of buildings. Tanavoli pioneered the modern sculpting of three-dimensional objects in Iran that communicate stories.

Haghighi says that the VAG exhibition originated from its interest in exploring modernism outside of the West. “It was nice to have this collection—six decades of his work from the 1950s to the 2000s—available to explore and learn,” she states.

To understand Tanavoli, it’s important to place him in the context of modern Iranian history. Born in 1937 in Tehran, he was about to enter young adulthood when an elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was overthrown in a U.S.- and U.K.-instigated coup in 1953. That set the stage for the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to consolidate control with heavy support from the Americans.

Two years later, Tanavoli graduated from the University of Tehran in the School of Fine Arts. He then obtained a scholarship to investigate sculpture in Milan under Marino Marini. In addition, Tanavoli studied in Rome.

“Post-coup, there was some liberation,” Haghighi points out. “There was more freedom in the press and artists were encouraged to define their Iranian nationalism, whether they were poets, visual artists, and theatre artists.”

Parviz Tanavoli by Scott Little
Parviz Tanavoli attended the opening of the exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Scott Little.

A deep dive into Persian culture

In this milieu, the young Tanavoli returned to Iran after two years abroad. The curator notes that he had worked with marble in Rome. However, back in Tehran, he was more interested in exploring poetry, mythology, and Persian history, both pre- and post-Islam. So, he delved deeply into Iranian culture. This entailed researching Shiite iconography and studying the cuneiform text and animal motifs on the Achaemenids’ Apadana Palace in Susa.

Tanavoli was a member of the modernist Saqqakhaneh school of artists, who incorporated local symbols—including calligraphy—into their paintings. According to Haghighi, they took inspiration from such things as water fountains installed in bazaars of Tehran’s less affluent neighbourhoods. The grills were often decorated with Shiite iconography referencing the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, who died at the Battle of Karbala in 680. This would be incorporated into the artists’ works.

“The collective was short-lived but it had a huge impact,” Haghighi says. “Parviz was the only sculptor.”

Back then, Tanavoli scoured the neighbourhoods and junkyards of Tehran for water faucets, door knobs, and locks. According to Haghighi, some of these objects date back 4,000 years.

Many of his sculptures in the VAG exhibition feature a hand, which comes in different forms. On his website, Tanavoli explains that in those days, virtually every alley or bazaar had brass barrels with drinking water for people passing through the area.

“Attached to the top of these barrels, was a cast, brass hand with holy names engraved on its palm,” the artist writes. “This script gave the barrels a religious appearance, and people who drank water from them saluted the Imams and sent blessings to the donor of the barrel.”

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Parviz Tanavoli, Poet and the Beloved of the King II, 1963, bronze, The Manijeh Collection.

An art movement for the masses

He adds that the hands reminded him of Abu-al Fazi, the half-brother of Imam Husayn, who lost his arms in the Battle of Karbala while carrying water.

“From 1959 to 1963, the use of the hand in my sculptures was not much different from its use on the barrels,” Tanavoli reveals. “Later, however, this motif went through major changes in my work.”

He also searched the bazaars for antique paper, some of which he brought with him when he moved to Canada in 1989. He then used this for his lyrical paintings, which can be seen in the exhibition. Moreover, other Saqqakhaneh painters would create art on found paper instead of on a canvas.

“This was an art movement for the masses,” Haghighi says. “It was a type of modernism that everyone could look at and understand. That’s how nationalism was approached by this collective.”

There’s also a silkscreen in the exhibition, Disciples of Sheikh San’an, which revolves around another compelling story from Persian folklore. The 12th-century poet Attar of Nishapur described the sheikh as a very pious teacher of Islam. He lived by the rules, but one day, he travelled to Rome, where he fell in love with a Christian woman.

“Practising his religion becomes very difficult,” Haghighi says. “He was moving away from it.”

The sheikh’s disciples come to rescue him. And the artwork includes a motif from one of Tanavoli’s ancient locks.

Pantea Haghighi. Photo by Scott Little.
Curator Pantea Haghighi points to Parviz Tanavoli’s Disciples of Sheikh San’an. Photo by Scott Little.

Heech Tablet blackened by smoke

One of the most arresting works in the exhibition is Tanavoli’s large bronze Heech Tablet, which features three locks surrounded by cuneiform script. There’s also a story attached to this work, which was created in 1974.

“It was sitting in a warehouse in New York and the warehouse caught fire,” Haghighi says. “Everything in that warehouse was destroyed except this piece.”

She says that the artist’s wife received a call in the middle of the night, telling her that it had been blackened by smoke. The caller asked if Tanavoli could repair it.

“Parviz said, ‘Send it over and I will fix it.’ So, there it is,” Haghighi declares with a smile.

This and other Tanavoli works were collected by U.S. art lover and philanthropist Abby Grey. She also collected works by artists from India and Turkey, later endowing many pieces to New York University. In addition, Grey enabled Tanavoli to teach in Minnesota for a few years.

“He’s a phenomenal teacher,” Haghighi says. “One amazing aspect of him is he has [had] thousands and thousands of students in Iran. And some do live here, actually.”

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Parviz Tanavoli, Heech and Hands, 1965, mixed media, The Manijeh Collection.

Heech infuses other pieces

Tanavoli was never a political artist, according to the curator. Rather, he sees himself as a poet whose medium is sculpture and painting. And this is why he represents himself in paintings as a red symbol in paintings that feature all the other Persian poets in symbols of different colours.

But because his work was admired by the shah’s wife, he still suffered in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution before immigrating to Canada. Nowadays, however, Tanavoli is widely admired in his homeland. In fact, he recently donated a collection of his artistic carpets to a museum that will open in Shiraz.

Another piece in the VAG exhibition, Heech and Hands, is a mixed-media piece showing a pair of white hands clutching a grill. In Farsi, heech means nothingness, according to Haghighi.

It’s one of many works that Tanavoli has created around this theme. They include the final piece in the exhibition, The Poet Turning Into Heech.

It’s inspired by the Persian poet Rumi, who advised “…Become Nothing, and He’ll turn you into Everything!”

“When you reach into nothingness, you’ve reached your goal, right?” Haghighi says mischievously.

As the tour draws to a close, the curator talks about the significance of a cypress tree, which also appears in Tanavoli’s art. In Persian mythology, she states that it symbolizes love and integrity.

“So when it’s combined with the hand of the poet outside of a cage, it represents that a lover has reached his or her beloved,” Haghighi explains. “That’s how he tells us the story.”

Parviz Tanavoli speaks about his work and his move to Canada.

Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks, Cages is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until November 19. For more information and tickets, visit the VAG website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.