If Bahman Mohassess, whose Il Minotauro fa Paura alla Gente per Bene features in the 20th Century Art / Middle East sale in London on 24 April, had been alive to see the fervour and enthusiasm with which his art is received today, his art production might have had a different flavour.
From humble beginnings in Rasht (1931-2010), Mohassess seemed an unlikely prospect to become the icon of Iranian modernism, and the ‘Picasso’ of Iran. As a young man he was reclusive and enigmatic, little understood, and made small effort to endear himself to his public or the critics – characteristics which now mark him out as a solitary but unique force on the art scene.
He did not aspire to appeal to a mass market and depicting dark figures of mythological origin, beasts and minotaurs, he used them to express an overriding anguish and despair - in part his own anguish at being misunderstood and unappreciated as an artist, and in part at the universe for the human condition. Influenced by the tide of French intellectualism of the 60s - by existentialism and nihilism - Mohassess’s artistic output focussed on developing a coded vocabulary to express profound pessimism about humanity’s ability to control its fate. His aesthetic was one of highlighting ugliness, satirizing myths and legends, and creating powerful compositions from the depth of his fears.
Il Minotauro fa Paura alla Gente per Bene is iconic example from a sought after period. In this composition we see the typified monstrous creatures of his nightmares: half human, half beast, missing extremities that symbolize the powerlessness of humans in an existence full of fear. Unlike a centaur or mermaid, the minotaur was in effect a cautionary figure of classical mythology to ward off bestiality. For the artist, the minotaur here is a manifestation of ultimate yet ‘truncated’ power, a nightmarish, other-worldly monster that represents all that we fear.
A powerful and profound work, this is Mohassess at his best. Like Francis Bacon, an artist with whom Mohassess has often been compared, this powerful visual statement has become part of Iran’s national treasures, just as Bacon is seen as a key exponent of British modern art. A lucky bidder will become the new custodian of one of the finest examples of Iranian modernism.