PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION, FRANCE
From his humble beginnings in Rasht (b.1931), Bahman Mohasses seemed an unlikely prospect to become the icon of Iranian modernism, a legendary artistic figure who has by now attained the acclaimed status of modern master and the 'Picasso of Iran'. He showed artistic aptitude as a child and by the age of fourteen was learning to paint from a local teacher. He moved with his family from Rasht to Tehran where he eventually attended the Tehran University Faculty of Fine Arts. During the same period he joined a well-known cultural society and became editor of a weekly art and literary publication - becoming in this way part of an avant-garde artistic movement and demonstrating his wide range of skills and interests which included translating, theatre direction and sculpture. Though reclusive by nature, Mohasses formed deep friendships with a few other artists who were also part of this 'modernist' movement: the poet Nima Yushij, and the now celebrated artist Sohrab Sepehri, also best known for his poetry at the time. Like these two and as typical of artistic personalities of the time, Mohasses was a well-read intellectual, familiar with Greek mythology, early European classics, and French intellectual thinkers. The scope of this knowledge, as well as his own propensity towards existentialism and nihilism (at different times of his life) informed his artwork in significant ways.
For much of his lifetime Mohasses was an enigmatic figure and little was known or written about him. Though recognized by the cognoscenti and admired by the Empress Farah Pahlavi for the unique quality of his artwork, his was not the popular calligraphic style nor did he aspire to appeal to a mass audience. By 1954 he moved to Italy to study at the Fine Art Academy of Rome - a decision which was to impact the rest of his life and output. Despite experimentation with different styles and modalities, he remains best known for his textured, Tuscan palettes and Etruscan sculptures, all of which carry the distinct influence of this Italian training. As a gay man from a deeply conservative culture, it could be said that Mohasses spoke in the riddles and symbols of his paintings; codes were a way of life where he could not live openly as a young man and resorted to a powerful expressionism in his works in which the viewer is demanded to enter into this anguished vocabulary. Even his relationship with his homeland was a conflicted one - he felt misunderstood by his own culture and not enough appreciated in Italy. Small wonder that his art was so redolent of pain and despair. Frequently caustic and irreverent, Mohasses was ahead of his time in many ways and yet a mirror of its discomfort. These tendencies did not endear him to the general public and prompted him to seek a simple, secluded life in Italy. But even this did not bring him solace - his works continued to reflect a deep pessimism and darkness, though in his own words he sought to glorify the beauty of ugliness.
Sotheby's is privileged to sell one of Mohasses's rarest works to ever appear at auction. The Minotaur Scares the Good People is an iconic work from the artist's most sought after period to date. In it, we see typified the monstrous creatures of his nightmares - half-human, half-beast, missing extremities that symbolize the powerlessness of humans in an existence full of fear - rare are the works by Mohasses who hold this many figurines in them. The composition brings to mind Picasso's renowned Minotaur and Dead Mare in Front of Cave (1936), a work Mohasses would surely have known well. The half-man, half-beast minotaur, unlike a centaur or mermaid was in effect a cautionary figure of classical mythology to ward off bestiality in the human race. For Picasso, this beast-like figure was a symbol of mythic power but also of impotence and mortality. For Mohasses, his minotaur was a manifestation of ultimate yet 'truncated' power - a nightmarish, other-worldly monster (note the blueish hues, suggesting something from the dead) that can provoke fear, anguish, and recoil in the living. But who is this minotaur? Is he the symbol of oppressive social forces? Is he the dark side of all that subjugates man? And those humans - though painted in livelier colours - are clearly symbols of powerlessness: a mother with an infant, a fleeing man, all prisoners of their own condition. A more classical painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (1634-40) conveys this same sheer drama and emotive dynamism - the painting is filled with movement as we see the dialectic between life and death, the pursuit of the fearful by the feared, the hunter and the hunted - with anguish and despair on every face. A metaphorical massacre of the 'innocents' is precisely what we see in the Mohasses painting too. While massacres were a reality at the time of Rubens, to Mohasses with his ultimately nihilistic outlook, the massacre of the human soul was no less a reality. What informed Rubens, with his anatomically perfect figure paintings, also inspired Mohasses; only the deeply disenchanted Iranian master was expressing his hopelessness through truncated and limbless symbols against the social and political inadequacies of his homeland.
In a new book on Mohasses, Arman Khalatbari says, "In Mohasses's world both gods, blacks, and yellow people are all looked upon with disdain. 'Half humans' have a raw and bestial energy, they sweat and labour while a 'pale' human stands aloof and watches them." It is as if this half-beast is cursed and demonized. But in reality the demons are what the artist grappled with in his life-time - the demons of alienation, loneliness and disenfranchisement. As an artist he was not interested in glorifying or beautifying; his aesthetic was one of highlighting, albeit often with a dark wit, the human condition in all its raw tragedy. He felt keenly the potential of his fellow countryman and his nation, and how it was nevertheless squandered. While his peers, such as Al-Ahmad put these thoughts into words, Mohasses worked them into nightmarish dream-scapes of no escape.
A powerful, proud, unconventional and enigmatic artist who despite some recognition and close support from Empress Farah Pahlavi felt misunderstood, Mohasses considered himself an artist who was ahead of his time. The Minotaur Scares the Good People is a rare and unique example of the artist's best work from the 1960s, which were affected not just by his environment but also by the socio-political events of that decade. He began to experiment with increasingly amputated creatures and mise-en-scenes to express his anguish and harsh disenchantment with man's ability to be anything other than condemned. Heavily informed by Francis Bacon’s anthropomorphic figures - an artist with whom Mohasses has often been compared - these powerful visual statements have become part of Iran's cultural treasures, just as Bacon is seen as a key exponent of British modern art. Addressing the human condition in the most universal philosophical themes, these remaining iconic works of the artist (a large number were deliberately destroyed by the artist) form an invaluable resource to understand Iranian modernism. They are an intrinsic and essential part of a complex, baffling, fragmented process so similar to the minotaurs of Mohasses' tableaux: full of power, fearsome and forceful. Indeed, if we connect the dots of the artist's lifeline, it too might resemble the shape of a minotaur.
Sotheby's is honoured to present this historical, rare and iconic work which is undoubtedly an essential addition to any collection of this great artist’s works.
"I never meant to become integrated. I always disliked to be labeled as 'artist'. I consider myself a craftsman. I never felt I belonged to any place, any country, any people, even less Iranian. I consciously destroyed the works that remained for they had become useless and I would never leave anything for the necrophilic. After all, what is the point of painting a world where a sky is without birds, a sea without fishes and a wood without wild beasts."
(Extract from Bahman Mohasses' autobiography)
It was built
It was destroyed
A desolate song
I remain in the world
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