Iran’s plein-air painters seek to capture and preserve ancient Tehran

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Residents of Tehran, used to getting annoyed by slow-moving traffic, suffocating in the summer heat and suffocating in smog, may be surprised to find a growing number of plein-air painters reveling in the charm history of the Iranian capital.

The overcrowded metropolis can be dusty and it needs beautification, but the honeycomb of alleys that make up old Tehran is drawing crowds of artists out of their crowded studios and onto open streets, a trend that accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

These devotees aim not only to capture the old neighborhoods of Tehran that are fading, but also to help preserve them. Many areas have been demolished. Cranes punctuate the skyline as historic 19th-century neighborhoods give way to modern skyscrapers.

“The paintings link us to past designs and feelings that are disappearing,” said Morteza Rahimi, a 32-year-old carpenter, art aficionado and resident of central Tehran. “They help us remember…Look how many beautiful old buildings have turned to rubble.”

Beside him, the painter Hassan Naderali used loose brushstrokes and bright colors to capture the play of light and the flicker of movement in an impressionist style. With a passion for painting en plein air, French for “in the open air,” Naderali seeks to depict the beauty of his surroundings in ruins.

Tehran has transformed into a teeming city of more than 10 million people from just 4.5 million at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The rise in the population of the young theocracy coincided with mass migration to Tehran after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion in the 1980s. As job and educational opportunities drew more people to the capital, the government responded. to an emerging housing crisis with massive real estate developments.

Some of the city’s 19th-century gems, built by the Qajar kings shortly after they moved Iran’s capital to Tehran in 1796, have been lost to new apartment towers in recent decades.

Through social media, however, artists and historians have sought to counter cultural amnesia amid ever-increasing demolitions.

“Social media has raised awareness among people about the risks that endanger historic and ancient buildings,” said art expert Mostafa Mirzaeian, referring to the decadent palaces of the Qajars, best known for their elaborate mirror mosaics. “People are learning about the value of older places and paying attention to their cultural and artistic dimensions.”

For fans of plein-air painting like Somayyeh Abedini, a government employee and resident of Tehran’s historic Oudlajan neighborhood, the conservationist approach is personal. Oudlajan’s arched skylines, leafy alleys and walled villas serve as her muse, she said, evoking the spirit of her father, who spent her entire life and died in the neighborhood.

“The old places in the neighborhood are our roots, our heritage,” Abedini said. “It is a pity that many of them have been destroyed.”

The practice of plein air painting in Tehran flourished during the pandemic, artists say, as many found solace and inspiration under the open sky when galleries and museums closed for months and construction projects ground to a halt. The health crisis had a devastating effect on Iran, infecting more than 7.2 million and killing more than 141,000 people, the worst death toll in the Middle East.

As the chaos eased on the streets of Tehran, Naderali, 58, set up his studio outside. Venturing out with brushes, pencils, paint, a portable easel and papers, he painted where he felt most alive: in the sun, feeling the breeze.

“I went out every day. Outdoor venues weren’t as crowded and I found more access to places I liked to paint,” she said of his experience with the pandemic.

Naderali sells dozens of his paintings, many of which depict ancient Persian palaces and traditional Tehran houses, to customers at home and abroad.

A longing for bygone eras is in high demand among Iranian buyers abroad, he said: enthusiasm for a time when the Achaemenids carved bas-reliefs on the walls of Persepolis in 500 B.C. C. and Isfahan prospered as a jewel of Islamic culture with blue tiles in the 17th century. .

That nostalgia has become more acute as Iran, ravaged by sanctions and cut off from the world economy, seethes with public anger at rising prices and declining living standards.

Talks to revive the Tehran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump abandoned four years ago. they haven’t made any progress in the past year. From the country poverty has deepened. But in many ways, Iran’s contemporary art scene has flourished despite the challenges.

For years, after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the Western-backed monarchy and brought Shiite clerics to power, hardliners banned modern art and even tried to ban painting. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s extensive collection, valued at billions of dollars, was housed in its vaults.

But the clerical establishment came to appreciate the art form during the grisly Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980. Paintings paying tribute to the war dead and extolling the leaders of the Islamic Revolution sprung up on the city’s drab walls. .

Many of the contemporary art museum’s works, including Monets, Picassos and Jackson Pollocks purchased during Iran’s oil boom under the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, have been brought to light in recent decades as cultural restrictions eased. .

Last summer, just days before the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric hostile to Western cultural influence, the museum reopened with a retrospective of American pop artist Andy Warhol.

Today, successful Iranian artists, including stars exhibiting abroad, have helped transform Tehran’s once-serious art market into a dynamic scene. Auction houses across the city fetch high prices for local painters. An auction last Friday saw sales of more than $2.2 million for 120 works.

Iranian state television regularly airs painting lessons, including the late American painter Bob Ross’s beloved PBS show “The Joy of Painting,” which inspires fans to create their own masterpieces.

Iran’s art schools are flourishing, with a majority of female students. Although the exhibits require government licenses, Tehran’s elegant galleries showcasing new work by Iranian painters are packed with young people.

“A passerby once told me: ‘Art is born in poverty and dies in wealth,’” Naderali said.


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