Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Talin Grigor

The final keynote of the HIAA conference was delivered by Professor Talinn Grigor of University of California Davis Arts. Entitled ‘Modernism as (a)Politics: Marginality and the Autotomizing Discourse on Architecture in Pahlavi Iran’, Professor Grigor charted the pivotal involvement of architects from religious minority backgrounds in the construction of a new Iran during the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The talk began by setting the scene that surrounded the advent of Iranian involvement with Modernist architecture. Grigor introduced Gabriel Guévrékian (b.1892/1900 – d.1970), an architect of Armenian heritage who became instrumental in the Congrés International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) (founded in 1928 and disbanded in 1959) alongside Le Corbusier. CIAM’s manifesto on architecture suggested an ambivalent relationship to the state: although there was a split between design and politics for many Modernist architects, there was an overriding belief that social problems could be remedied by urban planning and these mega projects needed the patronage of those in command of the state. In a political atmosphere where the Bauhaus met its end at the hands of the Nazis in 1933, architects needed to shape the nature of their relationship with power. As leaders of the Modernist movement dispersed to climes beyond Europe, Guévrékian accepted an invitation in 1933 from Reza Shah Pahlavi (r.1925-1941) to act as the chief architect who would erect a contemporary vision of Iran. This was a project that entailed superseding the ad-hoc quotations of Safavid (1501-1736) and Victorian decorative styles which comprised the urban schema of the previous Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) with a distinctly modern update.

Talinn Grigor

Grigor then took the opportunity to posit the key questions which informed her research into the subject of this talk. Firstly, why, given the staunch nationalist prerogative of Reza Shah did the most eminent Modernists emerge from Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities? And secondly, how did these figures come to pursue architecture in the first place, and then succeed in realizing the Pahlavi Modernist vision?

During the interwar years, those from Armenian, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Baha’i backgrounds came to serve as the pioneers of Iranian Modernism and built a secular vision for the country. Despite the homogenising policies of a new, burgeoning Pahlavi nationalism, marginality could be seen as a privilege: those on the periphery could enjoy both a degree of separation from the masses in belonging to a small community whilst taking a space on the international stage of Modernist architecture. This was also a process of integrating modernity into the larger Iranian polity. In an expansion on the structure of modernity laid out by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r.1848-1896), Modernism gestated in the schools which were set up for minority communities. Vartan Hovanessian, the second Modernist architect to return to Iran after having trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, set out on building an arts academy for Armenian girls to serve the needs of the arts and women’s education. Institutions like this set the contemporary standards for architecture and attracted the attention of the Pahlavi cultural elite.

Meanwhile, Guévrékian worked to apply the Modernist aesthetic to all public structures. This new modernity was primarily articulated in the spaces of the bourgeoisie – spaces of middle class leisure, from swimming pools to cinemas such as the Metropole and the Diana that ushered in a new aesthetic. Innovation and interaction went hand in hand. The wealthiest families of Northern Tehran, however, interpreted Modernity though their own commissions, which created a clean minimalism of columns and dissected tiers that was informed by an enduring upper-class affection for the Neo-Classical. At the highest rung of society, imperial projects displayed an eclectic and revivalist style which borrowed from an inheritance of Qajar buildings, Sassanian motifs and Safavid conventions. Tehran’s green and white marble palaces within the Sa’dabad complex displayed this fusion of old and new, whilst the likes of Karim Tehrarzadeh Behzad oversaw projects for the north façade of the parliament building and the mausoleum of Ferdowsi in Tus, north-eastern Iran in an imposing, monumental style.

Bank Melli, Iran, Sandogh Pasandaz

The readiness of patronage, Iran’s economic buoyancy and its rich social atmosphere made it the ideal soil in which to plant an idiosyncratic, localised Modernism. The likes of Hovanessian, Mohsen Forughi and Keyqabad Zafar tried to remain apolitical, tussling between an Avant Garde spirit and the parameters set out by official endorsement. In journals such as L’Architect, practitioners set out architecture as a solely technical endeavour. Many even went as far as refusing the residual attraction to historicism; the past was not seen as the direction in which to approach the future, with the motifs of lions and cows – as quoted from the capitals of the columns of Persepolis – being perched outside the building of Tehran’s national bank being seen as implicit in “turning the capital into a zoo”.

Grigor ended her erudite assessment of the Modernist project within Iran with a broader consideration of how it then fostered the emergence of an influential elite of intelligentsia ‘from the margins’ during the 1960s. Artists, architects and poets associated with minority populations in Iran, from Marcos Grigorian, Behjat Sadr and Forough Farrokhzad to Houshang Seyhoun, all emerged as the next generation who oversaw the future of Iran’s modern incarnation, with women having a particularly pivotal role.  Encompassing some thirty years of Iran’s modern history, Grigor’s talk considered Iranian Modernism in its capacity as a ‘regional’ phenomenon as per the principal theme of the 2016 HIAA biennial. Not only this, but it located its genesis within an even smaller social geography, that of those figures at ‘the margins’ who embraced a novel aesthetic project and tried to maintain its distinctly apolitical philosophy within what were hierarchical structures of patronage and a distinctly nationalistic administrative atmosphere.

Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Jeremy Johns

On the second day of the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s Fifth Biennial Symposium, Jeremy Johns’ keynote speech offered a poignant and critical analysis of the state of affairs of the art historical field. Johns, a professor at the Khalili Research Centre at The University of Oxford, began his speech with news clips about the recent abolition of art history from A-level testing. Johns relayed the argument put forward by journalists and pundits that, “art history is too posh,” which he illustrated with a photograph of The Duchess of Cambridge admiring an Old Masters’ painting.

This introduction asked the audience to consider why art history is not easily shared with the public and why art history of the Islamic worlds are even more obscure to the general public? Between this cohort of renowned scholars, we often forget that this discourse has relevance and urgency for people both inside but also outside of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum. Johns’ keynote examines these questions thoroughly. He hypothesized that art history has diverted from the actual object. He posited that studying visual culture is actually just the practice of studying “things” and the “making of things.” Johns asserts that art history must return to this rudimentary goal in order to succeed in today’s trying times

Johns focused his first example on the famous Umayyad frescos of Qusayr Amra. He asserted that the new studies of these images and inscriptions were only made possible after the extensive cleaning and restoration of the site. This cleaning allowed for previously held beliefs on the iconographies of early Islam to be debunked. He then compared this issue with a well-researched site – the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. This royal chapel, although well known and studied by art historians, is consistently confronted with breakthrough discoveries. As historians return to the architecture itself, they are finding more missing pieces to the puzzle. Ironically, the answers were right under their noses the entire time. In comparing these two historical sites, Johns demonstrated that the constant reexamination of objects and the ways they are produced can shed new light on human civilisation and tradition.

Johns speech then changed tone to examine his most recent collaborative project with the Labratory of Tribology and Dynamic Systems in Lyon. The project analyses and reconstructs archaeological techniques of artistic production. He found in his research on rock crystal art forms that there is a divide between practice of craft and knowledge of art. He asserts that there is an inextricable link between the physical labour of making art and the beauty, soul and originality of the finished product. In the Islamic sense in particular, this difference has a spiritual and divine context, elevating the art to a new level of importance. Johns closed with a touching anecdote about his family, more specifically, his grandfather who was an antiquing man. He taught Johns the importance of the tangibility of items and the desire for humans to work with such things.

As art historians, we have a duty to travel through time and different cultures and translate these past desires for the present. Johns’ speech truly resonated with the audience, from the most accomplished art historian in the room to the most junior like myself. His speech showed to me that the history of art is both reliant on the previous studies of others, but it also can and must evolve.