S cenes of 60s Hollywood glamour, rock and roll and loud vibrant Bel Air parties stand against late-night Tehran dinners filled with artists, academics, statesmen and foreign dignitaries. Traditionally notions of East and West tend to bring to mind inherent differences, but beneath the obvious there also lies a world of shared hopes and dreams, pivotal epochs filled with common visions and intersections.
Such is the story of the Azari Collection, seemingly rooted in disparate sensibilities and environments, but in reality, born in that prescient space wherein known and unknown merge together to create something wholly new.
Sheila and Eric Azari’s sensitivity to the artistic and culturally critical times in which they found themselves, enabled them as a couple, but more specifically, Sheila, with her passion for art and background in art history, not only to create an exceptional collection, but also to play an invaluable role in the trajectory of the Iranian modern art movement.
A product of Sheila’s vision and relentless dedication, the Azari Collection has become a capsule of modern Iranian art, from a time when the country’s artistic production was arguably at its most exciting.
Highlights from the Azari Collection
There are indeed, many great collections that carry masterpieces and tell important cultural and historical stories. However, in considering this collection which is at once Iranian modern, but so very relevant through its depth and international appeal, it is important to articulate why it stands out from so many others. There are perhaps arguably three major elements that make a collection truly outstanding: a significant contribution to art historical understanding; clear globally understood thematic underpinnings and lastly, robust material research – the archive. This collection brings together all three. The deep insight and contribution to Iranian modern art, both in Iran and within the global context; Eric Azari’s memoirs and archival material gives us a direct glimpse into Sheila’s process, shedding light on her invaluable contributions. His recounting of her ground breaking journey breathes life into the movement, art and artists, and finally the broader universal themes it addresses – both implicit and direct, of the power of patronage, the beauty and joy of international dialogue, of community and creative spirit but also the inescapable understanding of life’s ebbs, flows and its sometimes painful deviations.
It is impossible to fully capture the depth of this collection within the confines of this text, but by framing it within a brief timeline of movements and events, punctuated with excerpts from Eric Azari’s memoir –we hope to bring to life this formidable collection.
Sotheby’s has the great honour of sharing thirteen of these works, by artists both known and lesser known; Sohrab Sepheri, Faramarz Pilaram and Massoud Arabshai and for the first time ever to appear at auction, Hassan Ghaemi and Fereydoun Rahimi-Assa.
Eric and Sheila met at university in Berkeley, California. He was a Physicist and she studied art history. Eric was of Russian and Iranian descent and Sheila was from an old Southern American family. As a direct consequence of his father’s passing, Eric moved back to Tehran in 1959 and was later joined by his family. The move was only intended to be temporary, to help manage family affairs, and they moved back to Los Angeles five years later in 1964.
"To give you an idea of the social scene in Tehran as Sheila was arriving in December of 1959, this is from the Christmas card I sent to her parents in the United States:
“Greetings. There’s never a dull moment here, they’re calling it the Geneva of the East on account of the heavy diplomatic traffic - Nehru of India, Menderes of Turkey, Ayub Khan of Pakistan, Pinay of France, Edward R. Murrow, and so on in the period of only one month. And then Eisenhower’s short visit for which they had rugs laid out for ten miles from the airport to the royal palace. The royal wedding is next on the social agenda - tonight in fact - and there is a possibility that we may attend. Sheila is sick over what to wear on such short notice.”
As the capital city of the country, Tehran was the central hub for all foreign missions. While Iranians are famously known to be proud of their cultural heritage; ‘the West’ also had an insatiable fascination for Iran. National pride is not unique to Iranians, however, there is something unique in the intensity of reverence felt towards their ancient history – the longevity and relevance of the Shahnameh written by Ferdowsi in the 10th century is only a small, obvious example.
With the promise of discovery, and as many would do after having moved to a new country, not least one with as much rich cultural history, Sheila, with her love for art history, became heavily steeped in the discovery of Iran’s heritage and past. Her delight and enthusiasm was contagious and she soon found a willing partner in Eric.
“We were fascinated by the link between Iran’s archaeological themes and the emerging modern art movement that incorporated Islamic religious art. Sheila believed the artists were only subconsciously aware that they were painting motifs from Iran’s legendary times before the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD. After all, they had never seen the artefacts the archaeologists were uncovering.”
During their time in Iran and encouraged largely by Sheila, the couple developed an interest in archaeology. They began exploring local excavation sites, collecting artifacts and learning about antiquity and ancient motifs. This evolved into an interest in the artistic community – in particular, Sheila wanted to discover artists who provided continuity with Iran’s past: ones who combined Persian mythical themes with pre-Islamic religions and the symbolism of Zoroastrian times, and the Islamic motifs that evolved later. Credited with the establishment of a modernist approach to a national artistic identity, the 'neo-traditional' Saqqakhaneh movement was formed at this time, in the early 1960s. It was more generally identified with artists whose work was rooted in traditionally Iranian, decorative pre-Islamic and Islamic elements, and folk art. The question of Iranian identity and how to express it in visual arts was one of the central concerns among the Iranian artists of this period, who through a variety of subjects and themes, tried to represent their national identity in their artworks.
“To say that the art scene in 1959 Iran was something of a disappointment would be an understatement. Most of what was available was mediocre “marketplace art” available in quantity at the bazaar for the tourist trade. The subjects were primarily clichés and stereotypical village scenes with donkeys and camels, or other such primitive themes that passed for folk art. When Sheila resolved to find some real artists with quality pieces she sought out Marcos Grigorian, an Armenian Persian Christian artist who was sensitive to European art. He had set up the only western-style gallery in Tehran - Esthétique - and we made an appointment to meet him there.”
In his writings, Eric Azari describes the Iranian art scene in 1959 as a disappointment and that the couple had to work hard to seek out local artists. At the time, the only Western style gallery in Tehran was Esthetique, founded by well-known artist Marcos Grigorian (whose style was too western for Sheila’s taste). There were only two artists’ works on display, one of whom was Fereydoun Rahimi-Assa. Formatively, it was after this visit that their journey as collector-patrons began.
“We were also very active on the social circuit. We were young, articulate, and we had the means to pursue our interests and to help those around us. To be sure, our popularity was due in no small measure to our international and unusual backgrounds. Sheila was from an established southern family and traced her ancestry to the 12th president of the United States Zachary Taylor, and I was an expatriate Iranian physicist with a security clearance.”
The couple were also very active on the Tehran social circuit – and popular. Eric describes that they inadvertently became ‘the centre of intrigues’. Initially, Sheila’s vision was rooted in the desire to bring diverse cultures together, through art. She threw parties; their home evolved into a salon where artists, socialites and foreign dignitaries would mingle.
“…in a real sense, this open discussion of modern viewpoints in a safe environment was the essence of the salon, not the art exhibition itself – which was the pretext to bring everyone together”
The more they engaged in art, the more they developed their passion for collecting, alongside a real commitment to the contemporary art and artists in Iran. Eric Azari recalls, the almost romantic memories of late nights at Sheila’s salon, long after distinguished guests had left, of artists discussing religion and expression, of Tabrizi and Pilaram debating their different depictions of their shared spiritual beliefs and Sheila’s steady mediation and insight into a broader set of religious values. His stories are reminiscent of scenes of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris as described in Ernest Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast, where leading figures of Modernism in literature and art would meet to share ideas and talk freely. One can almost imagine Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemmingway, Henri Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald there with Sheila, in conversation with their Iranian counterparts.
“Meeting these artists at Grigorian’s gallery made us realize that a modern Persian art movement did indeed exist, and that it ran the gamut of secular art like Rahim Asa’s all the way to heavily religious themes. It was also clear that we would have to make a very real effort to seek out the artists, as the modern art movement was disparate at best. In a sense, we would have to dig for them as we had previously excavated antiquities.”
What captivated Sheila most about Iranian artists was that she felt they were unique in their artistic sensibilities. They drew on mythology, ancient cultural and religious symbols – and that these traditional motifs existed and continue to exist, in a collective consciousness. Eric Azari describes what they found most impressive in the artists they met, was the way they were able to combine folkloric and religious idioms of their country within a forward looking, progressive art movement. And so, the raison d'être of the collection was to show how much Iran was modernising, which was not understood outside of the country.
“Before Sheila set up her salon, contemporary, pathfinder artists did not have a venue in Tehran. The tradition she established whereby the artists could bring their work, often unframed and simply tacked to the wall, and present it to a diverse audience would be picked up by others after our departure because it worked. People in New York and London would later coin the phrase “a happening” or “living art” to describe what took place at our house in Tehran in the early 1960s, and Sheila pulled it off very skillfully. There were entire walls covered in art. The foreign guests were agog about what they saw all around them, but the Iranians, amazingly, were somewhat oblivious to it - they preferred to talk, eat and drink! So Sheila would take them aside and explain …
“General, have you seen this Tabrizi? It depicts a general like you”
“Really? Where? I don’t see him...”
"Right there...” Sheila would say, pointing it out to him."
“Oh! I see it now. Maybe I should get that one. Do you recommend that I get that one?”
“Well, he’s a native of your province, a brother so to speak,” Sheila would reply. And then the general would summon his attaché with a snap his fingers and order him to “take that one down. It is mine!”
And that was the way it went. The guests loved it. The artists loved it. There was nobody in Teheran that did anything on this scale for Iranian artists until Tanavoli opened the Rasht 19Club the year after we left for the United States.”
Sheila’s salon fostered a new appreciation for Iranian contemporary art. Before this, contemporary pathfinder artists did not have any venue similar in Tehran. It was all new, raw contemporary Iranian art and Sheila had her walls covered with it. She would make clear to their guests that they could support the artistic community by buying their paintings – and in doing so, they inadvertently created the market for these works. She went on to found Ishtar gallery. Critically, she understood the need to formalize and, in a way, institutionalize Iranian contemporary art – with a mind to how it would allow her to raise awareness and promote funding abroad (when she would ultimately return to the US). It was against this context, that (now prominent) Iranian artists would seek them out also. As their approach to their collection matured, the Azaris saw it eventually becoming a foundation or private museum. Their patronage was born from true passion but was bolstered by a realistic understanding of the necessity for commercial opportunity and international exchange for the art and artists.
“We then put him in touch with Hassan Ghaemi (who had also made his way to New York) so they could share an apartment. We heard about their heated discussions in subsequent correspondence – Asa criticized Ghaemi for not thinking of Picasso as a great artist, for example - but they eventually found their common ground and became friends”
In 1964 they returned to Los Angeles and remained deeply connected to Tehran and its creative community.
“We had some of that fever going on in our house and we did a lot of entertaining.”
Just as their arrival to Iran was at a time of cultural regeneration, their return to the US was marked also, by a fundamental shift in culture: the time of rock and roll and sexual liberation. Soirées continued. In 1974 notably, Los Angeles saw a ‘Glimpse of Persian Dance’ and spent a ‘Night in Isfahan’. They were of course related to Middle Eastern/Iranian art – the former in honor of a donation of Islamic art, and the later a gala dinner to benefit the acquisitions fund for LACMA. Sheila succeeded in bringing ancient Persian folklore to Hollywood. We wouldn’t have known it otherwise, but West Side Story and these ancient tales were also to became unexpected bedfellows (Natalie Wood was a neighbor and friend).
How much Sheila’s efforts paved the way for Queen Farah and her decision to found the museum of Modern Art in Tehran with the support of the Pahlavi Foundation in 1977 cannot be directly measured, but it certainly went some way in encouraging it. Notably, while patron and collector Abby Weed Grey is now known as one (if not, the) most important Western collector of contemporary Iranian art during this time, with one of the largest collections of Iranian modern art outside Iran – Sheila Azari’s involvement in the local Iranian artistic community and her desire to expound the creative talents of the country, far preceded Abby Grey.
“I remember on one occasion late in the evening Tanavoli and Sepheri got into a discussion about the concept of the artistic void. Sepheri explained that in his approach the “meaning” could be found beyond what could be seen in the painting itself. Tanavoli replied that it was like his own use of calligraphy, which was ornamental but had no meaning, or “Heech” - he used the Persian word for “nothing”. “When you look at Heech,” Tanavoli continued, ‘you see ‘nothing’ - and that is my representation of the artistic void.” Both artists were in agreement that their calligraphy, their paintings, and their approaches were a window to another way of seeing the art and another reality. That was electrifying and Sheila recorded the exchange in her notebook.”
Uniquely, their collection and narrative breathe life into an artistic movement and the artists who were a part of it. It is without question that Sheila and Eric shaped the discourse of Iranian modern art. Their hope was always to nurture and act as a conduit between cultures to realize the promise and power of global cultural exchange.
“This tragedy took all the passion out of my artistic pursuit”
As life would have it, heartbreaks and reality’s woes: Sheila’s tragic passing, revolution, war and a US recession, steered it off course. The Azari collection is perhaps one of the most important contributions to Iranian modern art history and the inescapable realization that its story could have been lost to all, reminds us of the fragility of historical narratives.
“I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be”
In a sense, the eventuality of this (unfulfilled) journey, allowed Eric Azari to articulate the deeper underpinnings of their shared vision: that global dialogue was, and remains, critical – and that if this message was lost to future generations, it would be an even more profound loss. It was, ultimately, with the realisation of these interwoven passions that the Azari Collection was finally brought out of the shadows.
Sotheby’s is both humbled and honoured to share works from this collection alongside some of the stories that are carried within them.