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Playing with reality
The art of Behjat Sadr

By Fariba Amini
December 13, 2002
The Iranian

I feel a stupefying pressure under my skin...
I want to pierce everything
And penetrate as far down as possible.
I want to reach the depths of the earth.
My love is there; in the place where seeds grow green
And roots reach one another
And creation perpetuates itself amidst decay...
-- Forough Farokhzad

I was thinking that it might be a nice change to write about someone who has been a role model for women and, as my aunt, an inspiration to me. She is an old pro; the first woman painter to be equally revered as great modern contemporary male artists in Iran.

Behjat Sadr's works have been exhibited throughout the world, in Paris, Rome and New York. And just recently, at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, an exhibition entitled "Between World and Image, Modern Iranian Visual Culture" (September 18-December 7, 2002). The show also included paintings by Parviz Tanavoli and Hossein Zenderoudi, as well as photos by Abbas from the revolution. >>> See

Sadr was born in 1924 into a modest family in Arak. Her father was the late seyed Mohammad Sadr Mahallati; the brother of Sadr-ol Ashraf (Reza Shah's attorney general) and her mother was Ghamar Amini Sadr. She was sent to study art in Italy, at the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome. Through a scholarship and the help of her brother, whom she always respected like a father.

Sadr received her degree in 1957, returned to Iran, and started teaching at the Institute of art at Tehran University. She married Mortaza Hannaneh, a prominent artist/musician and had a daughter, Kakouti (the name of an herb grown in the mountains of Iran), who now lives in Paris.

Although having been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, Sadr continues to paint. Here are excerpts from my interview where she talks about her art and close friendship with the late great poet, Forough Farrokhzad:

I studied hard as a youngster at school and received good grades, which entitled me to a scholarship to study abroad in Italy. I went to the Academy in Rome and Naples but was too impatient to just attend classes. So I began painting at home and managed to have exhibitions while still a student.

When I returned home finally, I began teaching. I taught for almost 20 years. While in Italy I met my husband, Hananeh and we had a daughter together. Upon my return to Iran, I brought back most of my works from Italy and continued to paint.

I was given a teaching position a faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran, which allowed me to pursue my work. My functions at the University did not allow me to devote myself entirely to painting but, with perseverance, I managed to work and create artwork.

Although I have a good knowledge of Persian writing and calligraphy, like other artists I have never tried to approach that in my paintings. It is true that using a spatula on the support has a lot of similarity with the gestures of a calligrapher using a kalam. Black also brings me close to calligraphy.

I always went from the interior to the exterior, from the subjective to the objective in my abstract work. Capturing moments has always been very important to me. The reason why I was interested in photography was also the capacity to seize those moments. Instant expression appeared in my paintings under abstract forms, while in photographs they kept their narrative form. It was a way of playing with what was real and what was "false" by reconciling them.

After the revolution, I came to Paris with my daughter Kakouti (Mitra) for her studies. I became ill with cancer and started treatment. I was offered a great many services for just being an artist by the French government. As you may know, the French give special preferential treatment to artists from all over the world.

Because of the chemotherapy it was very difficult for me to function and paint, but I never gave up. As soon as I felt stronger, I would begin to use the brush. I even exhibited at the Darial Gallery in Paris presented by Pierre Restany. When I learned about the organization of the exhibition I forgot about my physical condition and threw myself into the production of the new works.


I like to tell you a little about my friendship with Forough Farrokhzad. We were very good friends and had a lot in common. She stayed with me for the longest time when I lived in Rome. And once back in Iran, we shared a good many times together. For me Forough was a rock, like a shapeless mountain. I was honored to have befriended her during the time when most people did not know Forough or chose to ignore her.

Forough was ahead of her time. She was a woman who took pride in her womanhood. And she was brave, very brave, in a very difficult period. Sometimes people would tell me why are you in the company of Forough and I would say, because I really love her for who she is. Those same people, I am afraid to say, have now come to know and appreciate her. Now that she is gone, they respect her and her work. It is how we are; we don't value people until they are dead and gone.

I remember an incident before her fatal crash. We were all at my place; Asad Behrouzan, another intellectual was present as well. We were all hungry so we decided to go to the airport to have dinner. Somehow we passed the city of Karaj. She was driving fast and our car skidded off the road and fell into the river. We were not hurt. Forough started crying but I started laughing. We all survived that accident. My mother used to say; "All of you must learn the meaning of humanity from Forough Farokhzad." She was like a thunder that went away in a flash.


I have to say that my mother has been the main inspiration in my life, my guiding light. At the time, when the main objective of girls was to get married, she motivated me to study.

After I had finished 9th grade, everyone told me that it is time to get married. I remember, it was after her afternoon prayer, when a relative came by to announce that there is a prospective khaastegaar for me who holds a good position in one of the ministries. At the same time, I had just been notified of the art scholarship. My mother said very adamantly, "Husbands are always to be found, but scholarships are not!"

The second person I have always admired throughout my life has been my eldest brother, Nosratollah Amini. He too encouraged me to study and gave me a lot of moral support. We talk on the phone almost weekly.

I travel to Iran every year and have had many exhibitions at the Niavaran Cultural Center. Two years ago I sold three paintings to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts. I must say that today at the age of 78, the ideas I had when I was 30 hasn't changed that much.

Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell me to fix it.

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By Fariba Amini




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