LONDON - I never expected to be moved in the way I was yesterday. It seemed like yet another good Sunday afternoon at the British Museum, enjoying an educational programme – organized by the British Museum, Magic of Persia and independent curator Vali Mahlouji – that I would attend as part of my work-life for Sotheby’s. Imagine my surprise when I found myself rooted to my seat in the BP Auditorium three hours later, deeply moved by a gripping film.
This was not a re-hash of a John Grisham thriller, but a documentary about the last months of the life of the reclusive and self-exiled Iranian artist, Bahman Mohassess. I had always known and loved his work for its twisted, dark qualities that evoke an eerie beauty. I admired his Minotaurs and their textured surfaces, which harken back to the artist’s beloved Italy. But until yesterday I didn’t realize how little I really knew about him and his body of work.
The artist Bahman Mohassess.
The programme began with opening remarks by Dr Venetia Porter who showed images of the BM’s recent acquisition of important works on paper by Mohassess, made possible by Maryam and Edward Eisler. This was followed by a highly entertaining account of a close and fascinating friendship between Mohassess and Ebrahim Golestan – recounted by the latter, himself a legendary filmmaker (the subject of discussion at the forthcoming London Iranian film festival).
The audience hung on the anecdotes and memories that were a living testimony to the now vanished yet highly-prized and commemorated ‘Modernist era’ of Iran (see the Iran Modern exhibition at Asia Society). We learned how defiant and singular Mohassess could be in his views; how the two friends had together traipsed from one Embassy to another in search of visas, at a time when exiled Iranians were a nation of gypsies; we heard about his tastes and influences, and how he had deliberately destroyed a whole body of his own work. It was a lesson in nostalgia and philosophy.
An artist for whom painting was a release similar to the act of urination (his own words!), Mohassess never compromised, holding on to his unrelenting views till the very end – an end which the audience got to witness on audio, the sound being recorded all the while. “Some people just don’t know when to let go,” he had said earlier, “life tricks them into holding on”. This was not his predicament.
Bahman Mohassess’ Fifi Howls from Happiness hung in reverse.
Scenes showing his last transactions with the Haerizadeh brothers seemed to be shown for the purpose of legitimizing the fate of the estate; the final blank canvas which he tellingly never touched, and his beloved work, FiFi Howls from Happiness, hung in reverse to show its defiant back to the viewer – all summed up the man. Like his Minotaurs, he was himself iconic, solitary – yet never lonely within the rich universe he had created for himself.