One can begin the assessment of modern and contemporary Iranian art by comparing this art with the general social and cultural conditions of Iran today. At the moment, we are experiencing a challenging period of transition from tradition to modernity and our art is somehow a reflection of this critical state in which we are.

From around 150 years ago, we have found ourselves confronted with a world different from our own: it was the modern West whose symbolism both fascinated and repelled us, like a shock that woke us from a centuries-old slumber, to rise and step foot on an unknown path.

We soon realized that we had no choice but to adapt ourselves with this unfamiliar phenomenon, or, in other words, become “modern”. But this modernization would require us to turn our backs on many of the values that formed the basis of our thought and way of life, i.e. the “tradition” that had lost its determining force.

However, detaching from tradition and turning to modernity was no easy task, especially because we knew not why and how these two had come face to face. We neither had deep knowledge of our own tradition nor were we familiar with modernity, history, philosophy and their components. This is how we became engaged in an important social and cultural struggle for which we have still not found a clear solution. Throughout the years, our efforts have been primarily focused on modernization, without having properly experienced modernity itself. This is why I believe that one cannot refer to novel approaches in Iranian art as being modern, nor can more recent tendencies (often multimedia) be considered postmodern. Even though our artistic modernism has stemmed from Western achievements in this regard, they are not one in essence. We have played no role in the development of modernism or in its critique. Our modernism, and any reactions to it, find meaning in the context of our cultural life and its contradictions.

New phenomena in our art have not resulted from an inner evolution of our traditions either (this is because our artistic traditions lost their creative force long ago); however, these new phenomena have undoubtedly arisen from society’s more recent needs. In fact, the need for modernization also leads to changes in norms and artistic criteria. This same necessity also causes transformation and development in Persian poetry, but in a more fruitful manner. Poets have had greater success than visual artists in positioning themselves and attaining new form and content. In my opinion, two factors have been effective in this success: firstly, the support provided by the rich deep-rooted tradition of Persian poetry which possesses the essence of our ancient culture, and secondly, the appearance of modern poets who viewed the issues of their time from a deeper perspective. In fact, modern poetry arises from classical poetry and goes on to pave a new path for itself. However, visual arts either imitate modern styles or try to fit traditional elements into a modern framework. By critiquing tradition, modern poetry is able to move beyond it, whereas modern painting and sculpting take advantage of tradition to distinguish their own identity. In the realm of poetry, new schools of thought come to life and persist, but the same cannot be said for visual arts. In the best case scenario, our artists have managed to achieve personal “syntheses”, but no mutual dialogue or transfer of experience has been established between them. This means that if an artist has been able to achieve something, others have either not wanted to or not succeeded in achieving the same and moving it forward. For this reason, not even one school of thought, in the true sense of the word, has been formed in the 60-year history of our modern art.

New phenomena in our art have not resulted from an inner evolution of our traditions either (this is because our artistic traditions lost their creative force long ago); however, these new phenomena have undoubtedly arisen from society’s more recent needs. In fact, the need for modernization also leads to changes in norms and artistic criteria. This same necessity also causes transformation and development in Persian poetry, but in a more fruitful manner. Poets have had greater success than visual artists in positioning themselves and attaining new form and content. In my opinion, two factors have been effective in this success: firstly, the support provided by the rich deep-rooted tradition of Persian poetry which possesses the essence of our ancient culture, and secondly, the appearance of modern poets who viewed the issues of their time from a deeper perspective. In fact, modern poetry arises from classical poetry and goes on to pave a new path for itself. However, visual arts either imitate modern styles or try to fit traditional elements into a modern framework. By critiquing tradition, modern poetry is able to move beyond it, whereas modern painting and sculpting take advantage of tradition to distinguish their own identity. In the realm of poetry, new schools of thought come to life and persist, but the same cannot be said for visual arts. In the best case scenario, our artists have managed to achieve personal “syntheses”, but no mutual dialogue or transfer of experience has been established between them. This means that if an artist has been able to achieve something, others have either not wanted to or not succeeded in achieving the same and moving it forward. For this reason, not even one school of thought, in the true sense of the word, has been formed in the 60-year history of our modern art.

Above all, the question that arises is, in a society which is still involved with conflict between tradition and modernity, how profound can postmodernist approaches truly be?

When Iranian conceptualists want to put aside the visual in favor of the conceptual, they consider expression of thought to be one with description and narrative. They assume that the more they describe and expand their idea and the more they make use of different mediums, the better their chances of conveying their message to the audience. This “verbosity” is one of the boldest features of works that form a great part of contemporary Iranian art.

Even though this young generation distinguishes itself from previous ones in its thought and practices, they are still involved with similar predicaments. Despite the critical state the world is in today, this generation wants to find its way and prove itself. Such sparks can be seen here and there, and this provides a glimmer of hope. In general, in spite of the efforts of many artists, a comprehensive and cohesive conclusion that could provide a unique aesthetic model to the art world today has yet to be reached. The reason for this can be found not only in injudicious emulation and adoration, but also in the inadequacies resulting from the fact that the phenomenon of new art has not yet been institutionalized in Iranian society. Hence, factors such as political changes, government policies, the opinions of Western circles, and market tendencies have affected the development of this art more than internal ambitions and desires.

Today, Iranian artists are faced with the issue of globalization and fierce competition in the world of art, and this requires greater awareness. If globalization means that the mind should dissolve in that for which no meaning can be found, such globalization cannot be accepted and must not be welcomed.


Mahmoud Pakzad / Shahyad(Azadi) Sq. - 1966
Mahmoud Pakzad / Shahyad(Azadi) Sq. – 1966
Mahmoud Pakzad / Wallnut Seller - 1958
Mahmoud Pakzad / Wallnut Seller – 1958
Mahmoud Pakzad / Barber Shop - 1958
Mahmoud Pakzad / Barber Shop – 1958
Mahmoud Pakzad / Pahlavi (Vali-e-Asr)Ave. - 1963
Mahmoud Pakzad / Pahlavi (Vali-e-Asr)Ave. – 1963
Javad Tahami / Foozieh (Imam Hossein) Sq. - 1961
Javad Tahami / Foozieh (Imam Hossein) Sq. – 1961
08 dar jostojooye hoviat 06 In Search of Identity / Rouin Pakbaz / Amir Takhtravanchi
08 dar jostojooye hoviat 07 In Search of Identity / Rouin Pakbaz / Amir Takhtravanchi
08 dar jostojooye hoviat 08 In Search of Identity / Rouin Pakbaz / Amir Takhtravanchi
08 dar jostojooye hoviat 09 In Search of Identity / Rouin Pakbaz / Amir Takhtravanchi
08 dar jostojooye hoviat 10 In Search of Identity / Rouin Pakbaz / Amir Takhtravanchi

Family Pictures from Arman Estepanian Archive – 1950s


Mahmoud Pakzad / Sar-e-Band Sq. - 1961
Mahmoud Pakzad / Sar-e-Band Sq. – 1961