Modern & Contemporary Middle East

Parviz Tanavoli, the Lion of Iran at TMOCA

By Roxane Zand

"H alf a century of involvement with the Iranian lion as theme and motif, both in my works and in my collecting, has significantly enriched my creativity. The reward of the Lion exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art exceeded all expectations. Over fifty thousand visitors demonstrated that for Iranians, particularly its youth, there is deep interest in their native culture, and that my efforts in preserving these objects and reflecting them in my work have not been in vain."


The above comment from father of modern Iranian art and leading sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, at the finissage of TMOCA s most important exhibition to date, is an understatement of the significance of this tribute retrospective to the beloved artist. Better known for his Heech sculptures, Tanavoli's prolific artistic output has spanned over six decades and could easily fill a dedicated museum. His work is held in more international museums than any other living Iranian artist. He has single-handedly upheld, explored and glorified sculpting as a medium in a culture where three-dimensional work has frequently been upstaged by traditional flat art. In this, he himself has been equated to the Lions of the exhibition, for his courage and perseverance.


As a child, Tanavoli was fascinated to see grown men dressed as lions in Tazieh performances, and lion images on textiles inside mosques. His curiosity was roused to spend four decades of his life in researching the lion theme in literature, philosophy, folk imagery and other sources, especially in the course of his travels around the country. The exhibition explores the evolution of the interpretation of the lion theme since Tanavoli's first work in 1962, till his most recent creations a few days before the show's opening. These new works are larger in scale and even more powerful.Tanavoli is seen as a unifying force in his ability to have worked and lived in the West, and yet never having left his homeland. His oeuvre is entirely inspired by native themes and preoccupations, and the scope of his work has created a visual anthropology of Iranian culture.

Although the lion has been around for approximately 1.8 million years as the most widespread large, land-based mammal on our planet, the Persian lion has died out over the past fifty years. But its disappearance never detracted from its symbolism. From its early manifestation in pre-Islamic figuration, to its mythological and religious connection to Imam Ali, the lion always appears as a symbol of nobleness, power, majesty, and manliness. It has been on the Iranian flag till the Islamic Revolution, and used ornamentally on ancient axes, maces, locks, door plaques, coins and talismanic objects for its symbolism.


As Moya Carey, V&A curator and Iran specialist who attended the opening, says, "The show deftly weaves together strands of Iranian history, from objects of the royal court, to spiritual objects to nomadic textile traditions," giving the public a meta-exhibition that has lifted TMOCA's status back to its world-class status of showcasing major artistic events. While for Carey a particular highlight was the 19th century folk imagery of Imam Ali, from coffee house banners depicting him as a lion or with a lion, to smaller reverse glass devotional images and talismans, for me the stunning Qajar Qalamkar dating from 1885 that shows two lions with The Tree of Life, is nothing short of a masterpiece. With a 5000 year history, the lion as symbol has shown that cultural motifs can endure and transcend, even where politics fail. There is talk of the exhibition touring, which TMOCA's own collection failed to do. Uniting as it does Iran's past and present, religious and secular, artistic and historical traditions, and highlighting Iran's material culture and ongoing narrative, this show will undoubtedly leave an enduring and powerful legacy.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's