Reviews of paintings by Hassan Vahedi and embroidered textiles by Seyed Mojtaba vahedi
Double show at Galleria Horti Lamiani, Rome 5 April -30 April 2019
The art of life on the point of a needle. The painted embroideries of Seyed Mojtaba Vahedi – by Elisabetta Cremaschi
In life, as in art, one could actually say even more in the art of life, we will never understand where everything began and will end. We will never know, with certitude, where and when and how the first seed was planted from which one day we will pick the flower and the fruit, which “horizon of meaning” was prepared for us. But in this artistic tale, in the brotherhood of Hassan and Seyed Mojtab Vahedi something happened over time which now reveals its substance in front of our eyes. A mother who wove carpets, a child, Hassan, who was a precocious painter, and to whom any object of everyday life – first of all his mother’s woven textiles– demanded to be painted, transformed, decorated with his colored drawings. Little hands that made the family come alive in a big fresco, the painted house. And then even for Seyed Mojtaba, who seemed to have escaped the spell that had befallen Hassan, after working all those years as an airplane technician and maintenance engineer for Iran Air, things changed. It seemed, that when he finally reached retirement age, a time of much deserved rest, something caused those “signs of the future” to remerge, signs that had been drawn in his childhood. Today Seyed Mojtaba devotes himself to embroidering, that’s the word he uses for his textiles works.
And while I read his words, my mind went to the etymology of the word ‘to embroider’, the first echo of its Arabic origins raquama, and later on the Hebrew rakam, which bespeaks of the meeting between a needle and a thread which, going through the cloth, lends life to unexpected narrations, whose intention whether artistic or merely decorative, reawakens in us an anthropological, intimate beauty one we feel we know. And his art does that independently of our land of origin. He captures us, fascinates us, brings back to life remote memories, he attracts us and at the same time moves us. This is what you feel looking at the tapestries made by Seyed Mojtaba. Suddenly, even before viewers can conceive how to understand them, they catch themselves entering his work through his eyes. A child’s eyes which saw the old pictures of Persian tradition hanging in the cafes or in other places of his childhood city, pictures that reproduced religious scenes or scenes taken from epic poems such as Shahnameh, The Book of the Kings. There around 1000 AD, Ferdowsi had put on the page, between history and mythology, the construction of Persian civilization, from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. But the pictures that formed Seyed Mojtaba, his child’s glance, were also those of Qajar popular painting that imitated ancient high painting or those he might have seen in popular and religious representations used by the storytellers that he would meet on the streets of his town. The small sizes of his tapestries, lead the observer to the threshold of the most ancient Persian pictorial tradition, that of the miniatures, sublime examples of gracefulness that recall the great school of Herat. Miniatures were the first pictorial works intended to illustrate manuscripts and books and are full of symbolic elements: from the representation or transfiguration of religious figures to the apparition of animals, to the introduction of objects and flowers, powerful expressive elements which seem to migrate, with infinite grace, from life to the works of Seyed Mojtaba by crossing an oneiric passageway. What is lacking in these tapestries is the dimension of depth of perspective, no vanishing point is granted to those who venture inside. Everything is represented in the present, together in an evocative consonance, in a game of important allusions to inextricable appearance.
Those who are in front of these tapestries must weave for themselves an exuberant and specific narration. The colors are no less determining than the drawing as far as interpretation is concerned. They perfectly reproduce real colors, they’re stratified, to the point of reproducing the metaphysical colors of a vast land where radical changes in landscape and seasons can be experienced in the space of a single day. A land which, even in this sense, can be called unique, where the East and the West have met at the beginning. Thus the path the observer finds himself traveling on grant him a double possibility of interpretation and knowledge. While the viewer watches, examines, looks for clues and reference points, he ends up running into his own self because, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise, the truth is that eternal elements of dream, placed on the stage in these works, are the same for all human beings. And then let’s talk about light: the works of Seyed Mojtaba radiate intense light, it almost seems like you could feel its vibration. Light which is the principal, vital and spiritual element in the Persian culture, brushing against that cosmic circularity reproduced by the author in each work. Nevertheless, it is light that puts each tapestry in relation with the others. Surveying the selection of works presented in this exhibition, you will find yourselves wishing, once you’ve finished your itinerary, to go back to the first one, a ritual which is necessary to the full and best understanding of the whole. You’ll go back and forth in a timeless order punctuated by the apparition of calligraphic signs, and other artistic tributes to tradition. Signs that find their apex in the work in which the name “Ali” is placed over the free flight of doves, honors that connection between earth and sky which has always marked Iranian culture: from architecture to decoration of artisanal products, from art to literature, with poetry being its highest expression. There, also on the four sides, you see the words “Ya ali” written out, a cry for help, almost like a prayer. Other works instead honor the heroic deeds of the Imam Reza, depicted in one of them as he reproaches a hunter for wounding a doe until the latter cuts off the guilty hand. In others he’s depicted while protecting animals near a river. The animals depicted are deer, lions, horses, rabbits, doves and other birds, the symbolic creatures which populate the scenes of Seyed Mojtaba’s tapestries. These are animals who live in contiguity with the lives of men, they enliven, determine and save them. Specifically, they’re contiguous with the lives of women. Even love could not but make an appearance in this frail, embroidered existence.
There is actually a tribute to one of the most important tales of Persian literature, the story of Leyla and Majnun, a tale about the sorrows of love hindered by men, who dared separate what Ali (appearing in the tapestry with his face covered) had planned for these two young people. Love as a supreme form of the expression of being in the world. Consistent with this revelation, another work encompasses the sense of journey of the experience of love and of every other experience of beauty, and therefore of being, the same way as art and, connected to what I said at the beginning of these remarks, more as the art of life. Drawn with thread and needle, this work depicts the nocturnal voyage (Israh) made by Mohamed, riding the mysterious winged horse, the Buraq, sent by the Archangel Gabriel, the ferryman of the Prophets, from the Mecca to the mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem in the seventh century. In that nocturnal voyage, he saw the suffering of hell and heavenly delights reserved to the damned and the saved, before starting his ascension towards the seven heavens (Mi’rij) to reach the “beatific vision”, of Allah, which is impossible for any earthly man. Here the calligraphic signs become wordless, don’t say anything, they’re pure decoration replacing what or who cannot be named. And it is in these two works more than in any other that I see the perfect continuity with the paintings of Hassan Vahedi: that ascension inside and outside of ourselves, that poetic sense of nature which determines and contains us. That “splendor of truth” which belongs only to wholesome beauty and full disquiet, of feeling it stirs in us when we encounter it, expressed in a peerless manner in Hassan’s ethereal yet concrete flowers, the highest form of the authenticity of our live. And if so, even in these times, I renew all my confidence in the transformational power that art offers us. And I say thank you for this renewed possibility of transcendence.
April 2019, Elisabetta Cremaschi, translated from Italian by Pina Piccolo.
Of Flowers, Stems, Contiguities and the Arts – by Pina Piccolo
It is with great pleasure that today, March 21, a date that marks the spring equinox and when both Nowruz- the Iranian new year and World Poetry Day are celebrated- I start writing these brief considerations about Hassan Vahedi’s paintings and some embroidered textile works of art by his brother Seyed Mojtaba Vahedi, to be jointly exhibited in Rome at the Horti Lamiani Contemporary Art Gallery in April .
With their infinite variety of forms and colors and their symbolic charge as vehicles of transformation that anticipate new life, flowers are a privileged subject both for spring and poetry. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that both the pictorial and textile arts have appropriated them in the course of the centuries and in different continents. Nevertheless what strikes me of the works exhibited here is how full of personality these flowers are, they are almost anthropomorphic -they are not at all passive subjects that merely let themselves be painted. Rather, in their representation they are constantly interacting and in dialogue with the tools that enable them to exist on the canvas, i.e., with the brush and the paint (and behind them the artist), as well as with the support on which they are placed. Resorting to a reference point in forms of art from antiquity they are a sort of botanical objective correlative of animals in fables. In Phaedrus’ fables, for example, the innate quality of cunning is attributed to foxes, lions are characterized by strength and pride, wolves are definitely mean, but in Hassan Vahedi’s case, the implicit qualities as pertaining to flowers seem to go beyond temperament to wink at art history and painting as an art form, starting from floral representation. This expansion of the concept may be connected to the fact that Hassan Vahedi comes from an artistic tradition with aniconist restrictions that forced artists to interact, skim, go beyond and sometimes playfully transgress the boundaries set on the representation of creation by choosing floral motifs to accomplish precisely that.
Starting from the humblest of subjects, i.e., the poppies in their white and red version, Hassan Vahedi seems to attribute to those flowers strong traits of dynamism and vitality- they are wild flowers and as such popular in nature rather than aristocratic, they are appropriately depicted in a series of close ups emphasizing their exuberance of form and color. They even seem desirous to transgress the boundaries of the canvas, arrogantly demanding to break through the flatness of their support and get out of the limits provided for by the surface on which they are painted. In a canvas from a few decades ago, the vertical landscape of flowers is dominated by the color red (generously used even for the stems), the poppies seem arranged in a slightly more orderly fashion, almost wanting to imitate the painting with the birch forest, where skinny brush strokes alternate the color white to bluish shadowing.
The depiction of the slender trunks extending in individualized vertical sinewy brush strokes is seemingly under the command of the straightest trunk, located at the center and in the foreground, standing out for its whiteness. The bluish shadowing returns in another portrait of poppies which this time are unashamedly blue, with their roundish shape, busily breaking the vertical thrust of the stems.
In another painting series painted on canvas, the painter seems to play on the flatness of floral wallpaper, with brush strokes suggesting either stems or trunks, and definitions ranging from Realism to Impressionism, ending up in Abstraction.
The same flatness is then suggested in 2 triptychs painted on wood- in one of them the floral form appears to be the stylized petals of a chrysanthemum, in the other the stereotypical black and red floral forms are produced by stencil. In a canvass triptych, the brushstrokes thicken on the surface and those that may appear to be aristocratic, black orchids on a dramatic red background seem to announce dark atmospheres, that remind viewers of Edgar Allan Poe. Even in this case the bluish shadowing seems intent on interfering with a realistic representation and indicate the presence of the artist. The same disquieting result is achieved in the diptych that suggest dark orchids, this time on a bluish background with red shadowing.
Another triptych seems intent on cheering us up by offering flowers with rosy and reddish tones on a blue background with green brushstrokes suggesting leaves and stems. It could be geraniums, a ‘domesticated’ flower, but ambiguity is called forth by the central panel with dark flowers in the lower area – they could be pansies with rose colored edges, depicted not so much in their natural habitat but as a bouquet, thus mediated by an additional human intervention of domestication. The flowers with loud red and yellow tones and roundish shapes present in another diptych could, at first sight, seem more reassuring, but even there their verticality is filled up with electric blue brushstrokes i.e. with a color that is not very present in nature, thus altering the serene naturalistic illusion. A similar effect is obtained in a canvas that would seem to represent the foliage of a tree caught in its full autumnal redness, but again the electric blue background, this time equipped with shadowing, betrays its belonging to the category of the works of human art.
Upon observing another canvas, the viewer notices that its set off from the previous series not only as far as the color is concerned (it depicts a composite yellow flower on a green background with black stems), but also because, aside from the more robust brushstrokes, the vertical development seems intentionally and abruptly interrupted, as though the artist had decided to gift the viewers’ gaze only with that part of the floral situation. The same hint to the hand behind the painting can be seen elsewhere as well – in another canvas, the floral element on the left side seems to be governed by Impressionism, both as far as colors, shapes and brushstrokes are concerned, while on the right side it takes on less defined edges that approach Abstraction. The same happens at the upper portion of the painting, on both sides.
Two of Hassan Vahedi’s canvasses are closer to embroideries and to textile art and could constitute the link between the works of the two brothers. In the first one, inside the frame of the picture a single blue brushstroke defines a second oblong frame suggesting the shape of an embroidery hoop. But even there the painting tends to overflow and what could be stylized floral wallpaper or embroidered flowers leak out from the hoop in a symmetrical manner, both on the right and left side. Under these pieces of ‘wallpaper’ scattered residue from textile arts or nature seem to roam about. Inside the embroidery hoop there’s a series of images that seem to realistically portray red roses with stems and leaves, then a tangle of threads that maybe either of botanical or textile nature, recalling how permeable the boundary between nature and craftsmanship can be. In a more recent canvas there’s still a hint to a double frame, this time delineated in the upper part of the painting with green brush strokes that recall the leaves of a wallpaper or those from a natural context. Exactly at the center of this painting there’s a stylized leaf belonging exclusively to that type of craftsmanship, and the same occurs for the two leaves next to to the legs of the woman that seems to be the negative of the central leaf. The blue couple. (on which the artist added additional modernist brush strokes in order to suggest asymmetry) recalls Picasso and early 20th century art but also has ties with scenes evoked by his textile artist brother, in which the scenic space is filled up, to the point of overflow, with human figures, animals, angels, natural or man-made structures miscellaneous objects, in a sort of contiguity that suggest the sublime. And perhaps herein lies the fundamental difference between the works of the two brothers: Hassan Vahedi’s contiguity seems to stir viewers towards a sense of disquiet- the grotesque in the meaning suggested by Wolfgang Kaiser, with his load of modernity.
March 21, 2019, Pina Piccolo, translated from the Italian original by the author herself.