Fereshteh Daftari cited in 'Redefining Modernism: Pluralist Art Before the 1979 Revolution' in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Asia Society Museum, Iran Modern, 2013-2014, p. 38
Early influences in an artist’s life are often key to the development of their output. Legendary Iranian painter Sohrab Sepehri was no exception. A child of Kashan where he grew up amongst the ‘gardens of paradise’, this town, which is famous for its trees and gardens became as central to Sepehri’s creative output as the form of Heech became for Parviz Tanavoli. Sepehri’s prolific Tree Trunks Series however, did not take shape immediately in his artistic career. Born in 1929 in Kashan, he experienced his hometown for its true nature as an oasis – with shady trees offering cool respite and a haven to offer inspiration and spiritual restoration. His father tutored him in painting and calligraphy, and soon he developed a love of words as well. Crafting these into succinct but extraordinarily evocative verse, he revolutionised modern Persian poetry alongside Nima Yushij. However he trained primarily as an artist, moving first to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran and then to Paris in the 1950s where he trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for three years.
Travel has been a great source of influence and inspiration for many artists and writers throughout history and Sepehri is no exception. Sepehri chose to go to the East at a time when many of his generation were seeking a Western education. He was fascinated by what Hinduism and the traditions of Zen in Japan had to offer. It was better suited to his temperament as a quiet, gentle, reclusive soul. Known for his politeness, generosity, and sensitivity, and drawn to simplicity in all its forms, the cultures of the East resonated with him. He therefore opted for a printmaking apprenticeship in Tokyo (August 1960 – March 1961) where he assimilated the subdued Zen culture and minimalist aesthetics into his own universe of the dusty deserts of Kashan. He learned to distil forms into their most refined simplicity, almost reducing them to the level of ‘mark making’. A dot of colour could signify a flower, or a bold vertical brushstroke brought to life a stem or a tree. This type of mark making and brushstroke technique is in fact extremely demanding in its simplicity. With no room for error and corrections, every mark has to be true.
Sepehri’s friend, filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, relates how upon seeing a series of photographs he had taken of tree trunks on a road trip, Sepehri felt the urge to start painting tree trunks. His artistic genius refined and distilled this vision of an archetypal trees into an artistic topos executed in an unmistakable style which is at once abstract and realistic. The trunks would often be grouped in a corner of the composition – dense and clustered, as if huddled in a group. The tones were a limited palette of dusty hues, slightly grainy and reminiscent of Japanese brushstrokes. Interestingly enough, in China and Japan, calligraphy and painting are considered as related arts, and Sepehri’s background in calligraphy is undoubtedly tied in with his success and interest in his painting. The blurred roots of the trees, without a firm anchor in the soil, their extension off the top end of the canvas, all point to a lofty and spiritual viewpoint, much reflected in his poetry as well.
In this particular painting, which Sotheby's is proud to present, there is the added unique feature of huts glimpsed from in between the tree trunks forming a dreamlike "oasis". The huts appear to be made of desert adobe clay, and only a single ‘window’ helps to identify them as a dwelling or shelter. The organisation of the colours in this painting is highly deliberate – with greens in the foreground and browns behind, in a pattern which indicates depth through tonal gradation. It is as if the artist is moving towards a more stylised and contrived approach, leading the viewer’s gaze to a visual play that intends at the same time to provoke and silence. One cannot but think of the artist's hometown, Kashan. The artist described his relationship with his hometown in his Hasht Ketab from 1976: "I come from Kashan, I paint for a living, every now and then I make a cage with painting and sell it to you. For you to see the anemone that is imprisoned in it, so you will remember how lonely you are". (Sohrab Sepheri and his thoughts; Eight Books, 1976, p. 273)
Sepehri is of the rare lineage of painters who innovated and yet preserved a traditional aesthetic. His uniquely expressive voice harked back to a wistful perception of homeland and hometown but at the same time is evocative of a universal lyricism – the same that pervaded his poetry – setting him apart as the consummate Iranian painter of his generation.
The pine tree lives for a thousand years,
The morning glory but for a single day:
Yet both have fulfilled their destiny.
Zen proverb on the Spiritual Path of Zen painting
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