Saturday, January 07, 2012

Surrealism in Iran: Iran Darroudi

The first published book of Iran Darroudi’s paintings carried introductions written by André Malraux and Jean Cocteau. Even Salvador Dalí championed her work. Despite her resulting fame in her native Iran, Darroudi has indeed found the West much more hospitable after the Islamic Revolution. The elegant surrealist painter is profiled in her fellow countryman Bahman Maghsoudlou’s documentary Iran Darroudi: Painter of Ethereal Moments, now available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Darroudi’s family was always quite cosmopolitan, but it was their misfortune to be in the wrong place during times of global upheaval. Her grandmother’s Caucasian mercantile family fled Russia shortly after the 1917 Revolution. Profoundly misreading the geopolitical climate, her father moved the family to Germany in 1937 to pursue commercial endeavors. Though never directly threatened by the National Socialists, the severity of the war eventually forced them back to Iran. The wartime atmosphere of fear made a lasting impression on Darroudi, who explicitly identifies it as a major influence on her work.

As an artist, Darroudi’s kinship with Dalí is readily apparent. Her style is often described as surrealism informed by the Persian artistic tradition. There is an undeniably distinctive look to her dreamscapes. However, uncharitable viewers and critics might liken them to Yes album covers. Yet, regardless of aesthetic judgments, she is a significant figure for the manner in which she has led her life and pursued her art as an Iranian woman.

Although Maghsoudlou treads gingerly on political topics, Darroudi forthrightly bemoans the legal status of women in Iran. A striking beauty in her youth, she clearly never felt compelled to hide beneath veils or headscarves (which would have been a shame). She also explains the ice-bound images her work immediately following the revolution as an expression of the need to preserve her country’s culture from the ascendant barbarism. Frankly, Ethereal would have been somewhat stronger had it included more such contextual commentary.

While some art snobs might well find Darroudi a bit kitschy (unmoved by the advocacy of Malraux, the existential Gaullist), the Daumier-like grotesquery of Ardeshir Mohasses should appeal to their sensibilities. Maghsoudlou’s 1972 short documentary about the Iranian caricaturist is also included as a bonus feature on the Pathfinder DVD. While Mohasses’ style might be more visceral, the director’s earlier effort is considerably less artful, featuring unusually long soundbites from art critics that do not really add much to viewers’ appreciation of his work. Still, we cannot help but be intrigued by the fierce but unprepossessing looking critic of the prior regime. Like Darroudi, he also found exile the wisest course of action in the wake of the Revolution, dying in New York a little over three years ago.

Granted, Ethereal and Ardeshir Mohasses & His Caricatures are not perfectly executed, but they introduce viewers to two artists too distinctive in style, with too much integrity, for the current Islamist regime. Interesting stuff for Iran watchers, Ethereal is now on-sale at all major online DVD retailers.