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Iranian Studies

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Fictive Layering and Inversion in the Paintings of

Ali-Akbar Sadeghi
Aida Foroutan
To cite this article: Aida Foroutan (2016) Fictive Layering and Inversion in the Paintings of AliAkbar Sadeghi, Iranian Studies, 49:4, 533-553, DOI: 10.1080/00210862.2015.1062251
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Published online: 06 Oct 2015.

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Date: 13 July 2016, At: 05:03

Iranian Studies, 2016

Vol. 49, No. 4, 533553,

Aida Foroutan

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Fictive Layering and Inversion in the Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi

In Iran surrealism is spoken of by artists and critics as a living element in art, long after its
popularity in Europe and North America has waned. This article explores key features of
the work of one of the most prolic contemporary Iranian artists, Ali-Akbar Sadeghi.
While Sadeghi says that he thinks of himself as a surrealist, his work is distinguished
from many self-professed surrealists in Iran: whereas the latter are concerned with
representing metaphysical, even mystical, meanings, Sadeghi sees his art as a kind of
intellectual exercise, presenting a dramatic theater in which the viewer engages in
epistemological interrogation. Though Sadeghis paintings are full of apparent
references to surrealist themes and tropes from the past, here it is argued that his work
is not so much a storehouse of surrealist content as a series of puzzles for the viewer to solve.
The following essay on the contemporary Iranian artist Ali-Akbar Sadeghi1 (b. 1937)
is a development of one of a series of case studies in a doctoral thesis.2 The thesis was a
study of the gradual reception and penetration of surrealism/surrelism in Iranian
culture, from its rst manifestation in literature in the 1930s, then in painting,
sculpture and other media. Discussion ranged over a wide arc to 2010 and inquired
into why, in the early twenty-rst century, its reception has been so diffuse, and
why many contemporary artists are still using it consciously and unconsciously as
one of the many inuences on their styles and identities. This essay, however,
is not concerned with the many complex issues of that thesis, the greatest of which
is a dual problem: the denition of the term Surrealism and the phenomenon of
its hybridization, decentering and relocation across the world to areas as far apart as
South America, the Middle East and East Asia.3 The focus here is to discuss some
of the striking and unique strategies of one particular Iranian artist who has himself
identied some of his work as surreal or surrealist: the term is therefore used in
this article as an -emic as distinct from an -etic term and is not tantamount to claiming
a xed, essentialist or universal denition.
In contemporary Iran, surrealism is now one among many different artistic styles
which are thought of as translated importations from abroad. It is found as part of
honar-e elteqti (eclectic art) and is part of the palette of a new art, though it is
Aida Foroutan is Lecturer in Modern Persian Literature at the School of Arts, Languages and
Cultures, University of Manchester, UK.
2015 The International Society for Iranian Studies

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534 Foroutan

variously acknowledged and unacknowledged by the artist. Its signicance is that it is

arguably the most dynamic and expressive element in postmodern Iranian art. The relevance of surrealism to artists in Iran today has to be considered in the context that they
regard themselves, for the most part, as postmodern artists: this means that they access
and use all that is available to them as they choose. In general it may be said that Iranian
artists who are happy to use this term for their art are not necessarily indulging in a
mimicry of a past European movement.4 It is difcult to assess the extent to which surrealism has been effective as an element in Iranian art, and in most cases the attempt
will perhaps tend to elicit a subjective type of response. Some Iranian artists may
appear to have quoted from European surrealism and ended up going in the direction
of purely fantasy art, Kitsch sentimentality and popular mysticism. Nevertheless, there
are others who have sought to extend the range of their artistic language by using techniques and strategies from the European and Iranian past, with the result that their
work is iconoclastic, tending towards either a satirical or humanistic art that mirrors
the principles of early European Surrealist thinkers such as Breton.5 In any case, in
Iran the idea of surrealism, as they understand it, still has currency among certain
Iranian artists. While it goes without saying that the legacy of the surrealist writer
Sadegh Hedayat (190351) has been inestimable for Iranian intellectuals, it is also
arguable that Ali-Akbar Sadeghis work has affected a generation of younger artists
who call themselves surrealists or neo-surrealists, or who acknowledge that surrealism is a component in an eclectic style. This was borne out, at least, in an interview
with Sadeghi during my eldwork trips (200911), and also in discussions with
younger artists who acknowledged the inuence of Sadeghi in their work.
The Artist and his Work
Ali-Akbar Sadeghi was educated in Tehran in the 1950s, and rst worked in watercolors before he began oil painting in 1959: he also practiced in stained glass and
lm animation until the 1970s. Since his rst venture into surrealist painting in
1977, just before the Iranian Revolution, he has continued to produce a very prolic
output of work over thirty-ve years to the present day.6 In several interviews, including one by the present writer, he has said that he is happy to call himself a surrealist
painter.7 Indeed, he is recognized widely by artists and the public as a surrealist, and
has been described as such in many publications about him and his work.8 The titles of
his works are, by his own admission, deliberately oblique:9 many refer to geometrical
or mathematical terms;10 the artists account of himself and his art is seemingly enigmatic, just as masks and disguises feature as prominent motifs in his paintings. One
could thus speculate endlessly on meanings in his paintings. However, in the
present article it is the formal aspect of Sadeghis work that is brought under discussion, in particular certain features of his style that make his work unusual and perhaps
even unique in contemporary Iranian art. Sadeghi had developed a precise technique
of painting in both European trompe lil and Persian miniature styles, and he moves
easily between medieval and modern registers in his scenes and tableaux. It would seem

The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 535

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that out of such a technical ability arose the two features discussed below, namely
ctive layering and inversion.
We can be sure that, whether or not the term surrealist is in dispute among art
historians, it is one that is happily used by Sadeghi to describe a type of his paintings.11
On his website a considerable amount of his work can be seen,12 including more than
130 Persian Surreal Works from the 1970s to the 1990s. There the following assertion is made:
This series consists of a large body of work belonging to a long span of time in Ali
Akbar Sadeghis professional career. Surreal scenes with strong references to traditional Persian motifs, myths and stories are among the key characteristics of
the artists works Many know Ali Akbar Sadeghis work through his iconic paintings that belong to this series.13
Sadeghi has been celebrated by critics for the power of his imagination: for example
Javad Mojabi comments,
Sadeghi has built an imaginary planet with a strange geography, chimerical peoples,
a real history and surreal adventures The planet of Sadeghis paintings is made
not out of reality but of the substance of imagination.14
Surprisingly, considering the period in which he is working, his art is devoid of all
reference to Islamic themes. If there is any trace of religious symbolism, it is Zoroastrian and Manichaean, drawing on traditions of a dualistic imagery that opposes light
and darkness, good and evil, etc. Inversiona technique that will be discussed below
is a graphic exploration of this dualism. Another feature of his work is a particular
type of collage and juxtaposition of Iranian and European styles, painted with a meticulous attention to detail. However, it will be argued below that Sadeghis art lies not
so much in what he represents but rather in how he arranges the forms of his imagination: he creates spaces and multi-layered dimensions and platforms within a single
canvas which comment on the act of representation itself. In this regard it could be
said that he has taken so-called surrealist ideas to another level, by putting images
in a ctive, not actual, juxtaposition through the technique of trompe loeil and use
of planes: this adds another type of comment, since it further questions how the
process of producing images takes place.
Sadeghi has a distinctive technical facility in a wide range of indigenous Iranian styles
of painting, which include miniature, Qajar and Qahve-khne (coffee-house), as well as
that of the naturalistic school of Kamal-al-Mulk. He is also capable of mimicking European styles of painting and frequently references European Renaissance15 and several
modern surrealist painters, principally Salvador Dal and Ren Magritteindeed his fascination with, and prociency in, the painting techniques of the Old Masters is similar to
that of Dals. His paintings include close-up portraits, full-gure studies of warriors and
quasi-legendary male and female heroes, and also gurative paintings populated by many

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536 Foroutan

different kinds of animals, particularly horses, snakes, shes and birds, and also natural
forms favored by European surrealist artists, such as eggs, rocks, apples, owers and
trees. A major genre of his workindeed it is a theme that runs through much of his
workis the theatrical scene, either in close-up, involving a few characters, or largescale scenarios teeming with gures both human and animal. Throughout his work he
uses one particular strategy to maintain a critical distance from the mainstream of contemporary values, namely temporal dislocation: his pictures depict a vivid utopian/dystopian world of medieval warriors and militaria, bringing ancient mythological and
cultural motifs of Iranian national identity to color his works.16 He has recourse to
Iranian myth and legend17 just as European surrealist artists often found inspiration
in classical Greek mythology.18 In a witty way he avoids, or disguises, any graphic depiction of the modern world to create a timeless mood, toying with anachronism, in some
no-mans-land that is also familiar. A telling example of surrealist temporal defamiliarization is signied in the trompe lil taped-on sheet of sketch paper of The Line (Khat
Figure 1, 1987), which is discussed in the next section.
Figure 1. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, The line (Khat), 1987, oil on canvas, 60 75.5 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 537

Sadeghis preoccupations with medieval weaponry and accoutrements (including

swords, spears, daggers and helmets), as well as his fascination with fabrics, textiles,
surfaces and backgrounds, are indicative of his almost theatrical self-consciousness in
the act of making art. A strong theme in much of his work is a combination of the
autobiographical and the comedic: for example, the physiognomy of Sadeghis medieval warriors, clad in imaginary Persian-Mongol regalia and accoutrements, is very
often derived from his own visage, as appears immediately to anyone who opens
Sadeghis website. The large-scale scenes of his Surreal Paintings take place in
what may be likened to Dalesque and Magrittesque landscapes and seascapes, in
cavernous or claustrophobic interiors, or in impossible combinations of all of
these (e.g. Area [Mashat], 1993), as if he is a set-designer in a vast theater. The published sketches he made for his paintings19 show that he planned them in exact
detail, though he stressed in interview that he does not know the source of the imaginative ideas that appear on his canvases. Particularly interesting for an examination
of the surrealist dimension of his work is the way he executes and manipulates not
only his subjects and themes, but also the very mise-en-scne itself. This effect is
achieved by a conceptually innovative use of trompe lil, which is the subject of
the next section of this article.

Fictive Layering in Painted Superimposition

Sadeghi uses trompe lil not just for decorative effect but as a structural component of
the whole work. It is suggested that the term ctive layering is helpful to describe
Sadeghis technique of creating a single tableau out of three or more discrete planes
of representation. In the past, modernist, and especially surrealist, artists have deployed
collage as a means of juxtaposing disparate objects and images so as to present them in
a new way. Among Iranian artists of the modern period, Wahed Khakdan is the best
example of an artist who has included painted representations of collage, in pictures
such as his Dora in a Box (Figure 2, 2007).
Such works include paintings within a painting, but although the objects are connected, they are not interconnected between the planes of representation. Sadeghis use
of ctive layering allows him to pose the double question what is the nature of painting? and what is perceived reality? Elza Adamowicz has argued that surrealist collage is
much more than cutting and pasting, collating distant realities. She says, citing Wolfgang Babilas on the subject, that collage is
more essentially a creative act of dtournement, diversion, through the subversive manipulation and creative transformation of ready-made elements, forging
the surreal out of fragments of the realm suggesting the merveilleux through
the combination of banal and defunct images, clichs and rewritten texts.
It is essentially a semiotic practice of transforming preformed iconic or verbal

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Figure 2. Wahed Khakdan, Dora in a box, 2007, mixed media on paper, 61 46 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Such a semiotic practice takes many different forms on Sadeghis canvases. His surrealist use of collage as trompe lil is not empty visual punning but a feature of his comic
seriousness. Mojabi goes further, seeing him as taking refuge in a superior reality:
Sadeghi faces the surrounding reality with humor and, unbelieving in history and
its current clichs, takes refuge in a superior reality where the logic of dreams, inversion, displacement, ambiguity and grotesque space rules.21 An image which most
simply depicts the comic seriousness of simultaneous ctive layering and inversion
is The Line (see above, Figure 1), which is perhaps the very image of the surrealist
at workit is the proverbial signature work. Everything is upside down: the fantastical creature of the artists imagination is a medieval warrior (whose face is, as often in
his work, Sadeghis self-portrait) astride not a charger but a childs wooden hobbyhorse. The object of the portrait/artist (who has drawn his sword) is not on the
blank sheet of sketch paper, but stands outside it, on a sky. The blank paper signies
nothing, except that it is stuck with masking tape, masking a painted background of
storm clouds above a line of trees. Reality seems as banal as the picket fence that runs
across the picture: only representations exist, and on their own are all as banal as one
anotherit is as if Sadeghi is saying that only in the act of presentation do they become

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 539

In Sadeghis work, there are often three levels, which comprise a foreground,
middle-ground and background. A simple example of this is Prism (Manshur
Figure 3, 1990), where the foreground is dominated by a mounted warrior whose
horse stands in a sea reaching to the horizon. In the middle-ground a large, brightly
illuminated screen hangs pinned to the background: this screen depicts an outlandish
medieval Persian miniature scene, in which two soldiers drain a victims blood. In the
background there is another, darker, large-scale painting, imitating the Persian miniature style from which a warrior pierces the screen in front of him with his sword (i.e.
his pointsee below). The resulting ctive collage and juxtaposition create a multidimensional theatrical narrative in a two-dimensional painting. The question the
artist seems to be posing pictorially is What, after all, is the real? The answer may
be that none of it is real, it is all painted. Sadeghi repeats this formula of triple presentation in many of his works over several years.
Figure 3. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Prism (Manshur), 1990, oil on canvas, 61 76 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

540 Foroutan

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In such paintings this technique works to create a theatrical effect, as superimposition animates the characters out of and across their own planes. In Diameter (Qotr
Figure 4, 1985) it is as if the foreground were a bare stage on which two canvases are
positioned to face one another like antagonists, one obscured yet whose hand emerges
three-dimensionally from the canvas, and one facing the viewer whose spear leans in
three dimensions outside, oating a few centimeters above the ground, leaning against
the canvas, casting a shadow and apparently touching the background. This background is a medieval battle-scene below a sky of menacing clouds painted in Sadeghis
version of a miniature style and positioned as if it were a theatrical backdrop. The
warrior of the facing painting has raised his sword and cut down through the opposing
canvas, and a stain runs from the gash in the canvas, again making his point..
Figure 4. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Diameter (Qotr), 1985, oil on canvas, 60 91 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 541

The ctive levels in the painting are now briey analyzed here. The artists signature
with the modern Common Era date of the paintings creation (1985) is revealed in
trompe lil as underlying the main canvas under a corner peeled back at the lower
left edge, and is designated here as layer A1. The picture known as Diameter is designated here as taking place at layer A2. In A2 there is a middle ground of narrative
depicted theatrically as if upon a stage: let this middle ground be separately designated
as layer B, on which stage there are two characters who emerge from two canvases
C1/C2, which are depicted as existing between two dimensionsi.e. as emerging
from two-dimensionality into three dimensions. This layer C is the point of the
painting where it pivots between two-dimensional representation and three-dimensional presence. The two canvases C1 and C2 are virtual actors in the theater of the
middle ground of Bthey break out from the xed two-dimensional representation
of the past into the theatrical present of the painting. The fully visible character of C1
on the right is typical of Sadeghis style of warrior, painted in his own pastiche of the
Qajar Coffee-house style. It is noteworthy that though the gure is in the Persian
style, the canvases are European in style. By contrast, the backdrop to the stage, designated D, is a painting of a battle scene in medieval Persian epic miniature style, in two
dimensions. It is set, apparently ironically, against yet another, more distant background of an over-arching sky of cloud, E, here painted realistically in the European
mode. The artist is going to great lengths to show he has directorial control over the
layers, planes and dimensions: the gures in the respective planes follow a trajectory
back to the epic past of Iranian history, yet all is set under a sky painted in the
modern style.22 To sum up this complex layering in the above schema: A1 (signature)
underlies A2 (the work), which depicts B (middle-ground/stage), which features C1/
C2 (canvases/characters), which stand before D (battle backdrop) beneath E (sky).
The whole is a theatrical animation in a single frame, which ingeniously moves
between the present and the past, all self-consciously as in a theater where the audience
is supposed to suspend disbelief in the actual present in favor of the theatrical presence.
In an animated lm the illusion is created mechanically by the speed of the multiple
frames per second. Sadeghi achieves an analogous animation in a still painting,
wherein the representation gives way to a dramatic presence on the screen. It is signicant, for this and several previous observations about his work, that even before he
became famous for his surrealist paintings, Sadeghi also worked as an animator:23
in this and similar paintings he replicates the experience of animation as ctive layering takes the viewer through dimensions and times to a quasi-three-dimensional
staging. What is going on, we may puzzle over; that it is going on, is certain, and
all the while the painter has our attention. A common theme of many of Sadeghis
paintings is just such theatrical presentation of the protagonists, as if they are set
upon a stage. For example in Graph (Nemudr1979) a horseman emerges from a
trap-door under the stage; in Crowd upon Crowd (Jam dar jam1980) the set has
a cast of hundreds already on stage; in Breadth (Arz1982) and Exchange (Mobdele1982) it is as if a vast stage awaits a cast of thousands.24 All such theatricality
is a signicant function of his ctive layering in painted superimposition. Adamowicz
has explored similar ideas in her discussion of Magrittes LEsprit et la forme (c. 1928),

542 Foroutan

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reecting on what a virtual theatrical space allows the artist to achieve in two dimensions. The passage is quoted at some length to allow her to make a complex point:
The theatrical space presents an ambivalent ontological reality, renouncing
mimesis; constructed as a simulacrum, it is a space of presentation rather than representation. Magritte often introduced objects into his paintings in such a way
that they appear to have no apparent connection; he considered this operation as
an exploration of the unknown. The objects are estranged, freed from xed
spatial relationships because of the absence of a coherent pictorial syntax and
appear to oat in space and to be suspended in a moment of time. A single enclosed
spacethe frame or the stagecombines incongruous objects. The indexical function of the curtains, like that of the frame signals the ctionality of the elements
assembled. Presented as pure artice, collage space stages incongruous and enigmatic
actions, suggesting, without explicitly articulating, a narrative and inviting the viewers
suspension of disbelief.25
An important idea in this explanation is that the theatrical space is one of presentation
rather than representation, or mimesis, of reality. Sadeghis paintings are examples of
a collage space that stages incongruous and enigmatic actions. The painting unfolds
dramatically, just as the levels of the painting unfold graphically.
In a slightly different vein, ctive layering, or painted collage, of multi-layered representation is used as a means of deconstructing the portrait form, as in Rectangle (Mostatil1986), in which a rose has been sprung out of a still-life painting, which is behind
it, to personalize a foregrounded torso dressed in an old-style brocaded silk coat. Such an
image is familiar from, for example, Magrittes La Grande Guerre and Le ls de lhomme
of 1964, and the rose closely resembles Dals Meditative Rose (1958). Unlike these
European paintings, Sadeghis rose is fully separate from, but related to, a canvas in
the background, as in Diameter the action of B emerges from the canvas of C. In Similitude (1983) the structure is also composed of three elements, but they are arranged
differently in a mixture of superimposed planes. From a background that purports to
have been a medieval European portrait, a large nger intrudes through the background
where the human head should be, in what seems to be an obscene or irreverent gesture,
also mocking such defacements of the past. The work comments on the modernist
European practice of defacement, and may be compared with Aydin Aghdashloos
1975 painting Identity: In Praise of Sandro Botticelli (Hoviyyat: dar setyesh-e Sandro
BotticelliFigure 5). Sadeghis friend and fellow artist Aghdashloo was the rst
Iranian artist to deface famous European old master paintings to surrealist effect.
In a similar way, Sadeghis Reason (DalilFigure 6, 1985), which has a crumpled
cut-out of a miniature-style warriors face which replaces the original face, is to be
compared with another of Aghdashloos works, Crumpled Miniature (Miniytor-e
mochle1980): whereas Aghdashloo applies the technique of distorting the image,
Sadeghi appears to put it to surrealist use. The date of Reason, in the middle of
the IranIraq war, suggests that a detail of the painting may also be signicant: two

The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 543

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Figure 5. Aydin Aghdashloo, Identity: in praise of Sandro Botticelli (Hoviyyat: dar

setyesh-e Sandro Botticelli), 1975, gouache on board 57 75 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

identically dressed mounted warriors split each others heads open with their swords as
if alluding to the mutual destruction that was actually taking place in the war. There
are other iconographic witticisms in the painting, and it seems that his allusions are
subtle in inverse relation to their political signicance.
In another work, Subtraction (Tafriq1979), the face has not been afxed from
elsewhere but has been detached, or subtracted, from the gure, and is drawn
aside slightly to reveal a skull. This also seems to make a political point: the gure,
which bears the old Iranian motif of the sun on the breastplate, may represent the
exposure of the modern Pahlavi monarchy to reveal its deadly interior.
In sum, Sadeghis ctive layering is more than collage. It does not merely juxtapose
diverse elements, but metamorphoses one into the others. In doing so, he represents
visually what poets do verbally in metaphor: things which are impossible to see literally
in the exterior world, and difcult even to imagine, are visualized by transference

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Figure 6. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Reason (Dalil), 1985, oil on canvas, 45.5 60.5 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

(Greek ) of the merveilleux into his paintings. He nds the means of doing
so by breaking down the interface between the edges of surfaces and discrete entities,
just as they are broken down in the dream-world and in the unconscious mind. The
melting of surfaces and the liquefying of solids are visual metaphors of the exibility of
the unconscious. The ctive layering of his painted superimpositions recalls, to take
just two examples, Magrittes juxtapositions and Dals melting dissolution of forms;
Sadeghis strategies of replacement, defacement and deconstruction of images are
found in other surrealist painters, but it is the ctive layering of his painted superimposition that animates his pictures in a unique way.26
Spatial and Thematic Inversion and Hidden Eroticism
The works Expression (Ebrat) and Irregular (Nmonazzamboth 1988) are invertible images, where the ground/sea/sky are interchangeable depending on which way

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 545

the viewer looks at the painting. However, these are also thematic inversions: an excellent example is Negative (ManFigure 7, 1991).
In this work, a miniature painting of a beautiful boy on a ne horse is presented
upside down: it is realized as if superimposed three-dimensionally upon the foregrounded subject of the painting, which is the partly decayed corpse of another
horse, all propped up by swords and a tree branch in Dalesque fashion (cf. Dals
Sleep, 1937). The dead horse also bears a human corpse on its back weighted down
by an enormous boulder. The human corpse with dead eyes mirrors the boy with
vacant eyes in the miniature, juxtaposing modern surrealist and medieval miniaturist
style: in the juxtaposition the similarity of the horses faces may be noticed, with the
present (i.e. foregrounded) horse only a dead reection of the sumptuous past
painted in the miniature. What the boy in the miniature painting sits upon cannot
be seen, but the human corpse is laid out on a silk cloth, over a faded, paisley patterned,
hand-woven textile, as if it has been transferred (note the previous reference to
Figure 7. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Negative (Man), 1991, oil on canvas, 60 75 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

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546 Foroutan

metaphor) from the miniature above. A humorous twist is that the shadow of the nag
is about to gallop away, as if the soul of the original steed has bolted. A similar shadow
of a horse galloping is seen in Red Season (Fasl-e sorkh), also painted in 1991, but with
a rider in the shadow, brandishing a sword, with a dagger plunged into his heart). The
overall impression created by the inversion and juxtaposition in Negative is an
amalgam of many possibilitiesincluding nostalgia for a moribund culture,
propped up by noble antique swords but nevertheless utterly dead. Moreover,
perhaps the title is a key, in that the picture depicts the negative corollary of the
romantic image of the miniature painting.27
The women who appear in his paintings are usually unveiled and glamorous, with
ancient and medieval attire and accoutrements, in the manner of Persian miniature,
Coffee-house, hybridized and even kitsch styles. The legendary Scheherazade reappears
in several paintings, as an image of an etherealized Persian beauty. It could be related to
Hedayats fascination with the femme fatale of the miniature painted on the pen-case
in The Blind Owl. Sadeghi is one of the few Iranian painters of this period who inserts
erotic motifs into his paintings under cover of surrealist complexity and ambiguity.
Sometimes the technique of substitution is used, e.g. with a pair of rosebuds for
breasts in Inexion (Atf1984), or a pair of birds in the kitsch Correct (Sahih
1995), and the eroticized armor with pointed breast plates and tight clothing in
Symbol (Namd1997). Another technique is to pretend to disguise the breasts in
the landscape, and to echo this in the bowl of grapes in the lower half of Clock
(Sat1986) this painting is also to be compared with the not-so-cryptic phallicism
of Natural (Tabii1993). Clock is a condent example of Sadeghis surrealist technique of superimposition. It is difcult however to resist the interpretation that the
primary function of his erotic allusions is entirely jocular, not scatological.
One genre of his work, which allows him to camouage erotically charged symbolism, is the detailed narrative painting that would seem to have been inspired by the
works of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. These are deliberately
complex, and the eye must travel around the details of the interconnected images.
An example of cryptic eroticism is to be found in The Beginning (ghz1982),
painted at the height of the Iranian cultural revolution, in which the artist personally
asserts his own independence by painting himself into the foreground of the work, in
the act of creation.28 The eye does not have to travel far above his head to see a naked
female breast and nipple concealed in the corner of a large eye. The painting is virtually
a technical exercise in camouage, as hidden in the crowd of wild animals, both real
and mythical, is an array of banned images, including a chess piece which is being
mounted by a hybrid, striped zebra-like creature. This is not his rst foray into the
narrative style of Bosch: Crowd upon Crowd (Jam dar jam1980) and Table
(Jadval1992) are such tableaux. Triangle (Mosallas1989) has the appearance of
the story-board for an animated childrens lm, and again reects Sadeghis experience
in animation and childrens illustration. The humor may be compared with a larger
painting of even greater complexity. Area (Mashat), which is close to the mood
and manner of several of Boschs paintings: it is a view of a castle teeming with soldiers
who are each engaged in seemingly absurd activities painted in a comical style, a little

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 547

like Pieter Bruegel the Elders Childrens Games, yet also reminiscent of medieval
visions of the torments of Hell. Sadeghis playful imagination seems almost limitless
here. There is a clue painted in a small detail at the bottom center, where a row of
tomes each bears a name, from left to right: Bosch, Brueghel (sic), Dal, Ernst,
Magritte, Tanguy and Sadeghi, in acknowledgment of his indebtedness to the great
proto-surrealist and surrealist painters, alongside whom he has not shied from
putting himself.
Like Salvador Dal, Sadeghi plays with the contexts of temporal and spatial reality as
a shared objective experience, on the one hand, and as the organic and subjective uidity of personal time and space, on the other. As was mentioned above, many of his
paintings use forms that are familiar from European surrealist paintings, but they
are all put into a theatrical scenario of dramatic layering. In Geometry (Hendese
1987) time has run out, shown by a fallen clock and a punctured hourglass from
which trickling sands make a conical pile. The background has similar conical piles
of sand as far as the eye can see: the hourglass contains pyramid shaped piles, as if
the artist challenges the viewer to dispense with conventional narrative logic. A resemblance may be seen in another painting done in the following year, Lozenge (Lowzi
Figure 8, 1988), where the Dalesque imagery is continued, with a soft alarm clock
melting through the neck of an hourglass. In Lozenge Sadeghi employs a superimposition of three planes, as the middle-ground hourglass and clock metamorphose into the
foreground, where the lake opens and then narrows symmetrically in the manner of the
hourglass above it. With regard to time, Lozenge may be compared with Dals The Persistence of Memory (1931). The two paintings have apparently similar elements, and
share a common metaphor, namely the juxtaposition of the objectivity of time, represented by the face of a timepiece, and the subjective experience of time in the world.
Dals painting is caught up in the apocalyptic mood of a dead and dying world.
Sadeghis painting may be inspired by Dals work, but he has inverted its meaning
and points to a world that is alive. Dals watches appear to be stopwatches that represent not real time but a single measured time, and their distortion suggests that they
are not valid for real time;29 Dals tree is as dead as the human-faced marine creature
on the sand that is covered by time, and to the left of it ants swarm over another stopwatch. In Sadeghis painting, however, the timepiece is not dying; nor is it a stopwatch
but an alarm clock, set to reawaken the sleeper. It is falling as if in liquid state through
the hourglass of time to the living world below, of waters owing from a pool, between
lush banks of a green sward bathed in sunlight. In various paintings Sadeghi has
included references to Dals symbolic objects, whether they be timepieces, eggshells,
fried eggs, or his own face like Dals in The Persistence of Memory, but the intention
always seems more existentially afrmative than negative.
What is distinctive in Sadeghis Lozenge is that it is reminiscent of old Iranian
mythology: time enters into a world encased by the crystal sky30 of Ohrmazds
ancient creation. The upper part of the hourglass resembles a wine gobletan
obvious reference to the Cup of Jamshid (jm-e jam) which reects the universe in
its mirrored inner surface. The enclosed sea may well allude to the sea Vourukasha
of Zoroastrian mythology,31 and the tree itself to the Tree of All Seeds 32 recorded

548 Foroutan

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Figure 8. Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Lozenge (Lowzi), 1988, oil on canvas, 46 16 cm.

Image courtesy of the artist.

in the Zoroastrian text of the Creation,33 on which the miraculous bird Simorgh34
perches (indeed Sadeghi has a bird perching on the hourglass).35 Thus he is operating
in an Iranian aesthetic world: though he has steeped himself in the work of European
classical and modernist painters, he is closer to fellow Iranian artists such as Alireza
Espahbod (19512007) and Aydin Aghdashloo (b. 1940). Espahbod is said to have
found his own particular surrealist way of painting, moving between social realism
and conceptual art.36 Aghdashloo belongs to the older generation of artists who established their reputation before the Revolution, and his predominant strategy, which
runs through his work to the present day, is that he takes a familiar subject and
defaces it, distorts or otherwise manipulates it, and does so as if before the very eyes
of the viewer. Sadeghis use of miniaturist motifs, and particularly the crumpled miniature painting, is directly evocative of Aghdashloo. They share more than technical
and iconic similarities, in so far as they speak about the question of representation,
original and reproduction. Alireza Sami-Azar has given theoretical expression to
what Sadeghi and Aghdashloo were doing:

The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 549

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Based on their historical value, portraits and miniatures suggest a classical quality
and a metaphysical ontology, whereas their reproductions are simply physical and
material objects: a crumpled or torn paper the viewer sees two kinds of paintings,
from two different worlds: a work with mythical and totemic values, and the other,
an objective picture with a palpable existence.37
Sadeghi stands out from his contemporaries in bringing the surrealist deconstruction
of art into the layout of perspective and composition in his paintings. He is in the line
of the predecessors he quietly acknowledges in Area (Mashat), while at the same time
he keeps faith iconographically with the Iranian tradition of his art. This was at a time
just after the Revolution when such Iranian-ness was being radically challenged and
threatened, by the re-Islamicization of Iran and the attempt to eradicate Irans nonIslamic past. There is hardly a beard or an Islamic veil to be seen in his paintings.
In a published interview a ash of his wit on the subject appears when he relates
the following:
After the Revolution they asked me to re-illustrate the book Pouriya-ye Vali.38 They
wanted to change the illustrations and replace them with new ones. So I sketched
them again After a while they told me to put a beard on Pouriya-ye Vali. I said
that I saw him like this, never with a beard. If I had seen him with a beard, the beard
would have come down to his waist, and I absolutely would have done it. Usually in
our minds heroes dont have beards. They said, Well send the new drawings back
and we wont pay you for the job! I said, No problem. After a few days they contacted me and said, We have put a beard on your Pouriya-ye Vali, and they sent
me the money.39
Ali-Akbar Sadeghi extended the range of his own surrealist language for Iranian art by
using ctive layering and inversion as surrealist presentation as distinct from realist
representation, or mimesis. His surrealist collage of trompe lil, as explained before,
allows a level of theatricality and dramatic narrative to emerge out of the otherwise
enigmatic juxtapositions of surrealist art. His quotations from myth and legend
and his references to cultural tropes and stereotypes are all more or less familiar to
the Iranian viewer. These quotations are combined with strategies, such as layering,
inversion, distortion, defacement and camouage, that can be read even by the inexpert eyehence his work is accessible and has become popular, and even a model for
other artists.40 His technique of ctive layering is sufciently expert and seamless in its
execution to bewilder the eye and go unnoticed until studied closelyyet it remains
an effective strategy of unifying contrasting and disparate elements into a theater that
discloses otherwise unavailable meanings and feelings. This is very much like the classical Persian poets use of metaphor and simile, and correspondingly it is well within
the literary/aesthetic competence of the Persian reader/viewer. Sadeghis recourse to

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550 Foroutan

myth, or rather mythicized image, is key to this: he speaks as if he is able to raise

himself above the noise of contemporary culture and remain outside the present
day, as if neutral and decontextualized from the present.
Of the many kinds and degrees of surrealism that have been current in recent
decades in Iran, Sadeghis strikes a new chord in Iran. His surreal is not mystical
or metaphysical but epistemological and interrogative. It is as if he posits not a
higher meaning, but poses a meta-question: What, after all, is the real? This is
the thrust, indeed the point of works such as Diameter discussed and analyzed
above. His art is deconstructive in the sense of attempting a discovery of what is
beneath the surface, behind the lie, the mask: all is dis-played theatrically, as layers
of several levels of superimposed planes. His graphic manipulation of the mise en
scne, using trompe lil, not just of objects but of dimensions, emphasizes at the
same time their two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, all in a two-dimensional medium of a painted surface. The deliberate emphasis is accentuated and
self-caricatured by his signing the superimpositions and layerings with pins, tape,
rough-cut-ness, shadows etc. In sum, whereas other artists have used collage to challenge logic and context, Sadeghi creates a collage of whole planes to challenge the
viewer to make the connections and transferences by supplying a narrative between
them. The scenes take place on a multi-dimensional stage and the viewer is in the audience before a drama unfolding. Herein lies Sadeghis comic seriousness: like the poet,
he directs the eye of the reader of his images to what is not normally seen in the
external world, through many kinds of visual metaphor.
1. This is the transcription of the artists name on his website (see
where the name is also spelled Aliakbar Sadeghi), though more formally his name may be transcribed
Ali Akbar Sdeqi.
2. Foroutan, The Reception of Surrealism in Iran.
3. In this regard it may be mentioned that in the thesis one of the strategies the present writer used to
negotiate this issue was to write the term surrealism/surrealist in lower case font when applied to
Iranian art, in order to distinguish it from the European Surrealist movement of the early twentieth
century. When appropriate, this practice is followed here.
4. Like the concept of modernity, it is easy to reify surrealism, which is already an abstract concept,
into meaninglessness. Surrealism is perhaps best understood as an artistic language, with a body of
work (i.e. the art of the surrealists), that may be translated, i.e. rendered into the Iranian cultural
context. This is because, whereas there may be a sense of cultural ownership of a commodity,
languages are recognized as existing in a state of equivalence with one another: i.e. there is a
ready, set-up condition of translatability between languages. Speaking between cultures precedes
trade of commodities, and thus facilitates trade: language per se is not necessarily implicated in a politics of cultural superiority and inferiority. It is true that dominant languages exert power over minority languages, but that is not relevant to the point here, which is that surrealism is not a copyrighted
intellectual property registered by an Apollinaire or a Breton: it is not a commodity at all, but a
language of expression. Thought of in this sense, the pitfalls of essentialism may be avoided.
5. Artists such as Ardeshir Mohassess (19352008), Shahpour Pouyan (b. 1908) and Hamed Sahihi
(b. 1980) were discussed in the PhD thesis mentioned above as cases of artists who have shown surrealist tendencies in certain of their works.

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The Paintings of Ali-Akbar Sadeghi 551

6. See Bish az har chiz yek naqqsh hastam.
7. In the course of pursuing research for the PhD the present writer made several eldwork trips to Iran:
in May 2009 she met Sadeghi in his studio in Tehran and recorded an interview.
8. E.g. Ebrahimi, Alphabet; and Mojabi and Zarrinkelk, Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, 20.
9. I do not label my paintings as such and so because an artist shouldnt analyze his own work. Thats
other peoples business, to ride their horses into the paintings to explore what is behind that mountain. Surrealist painting is a mental exercise (varzesh-e zehni) for the mind of the viewer that brings
the viewer closer to art if the viewer does not become my partner (sharik-e man) I shall denitely go
bankrupt. Minus Innity Plus Innity: Ali Akbar Sadeghi at TEDxTehran
10. For example Algebra (Jabr), Digit (Raqam), Cone (Makhrut), Prism (Manshur), Diameter
(Qotr), Subtraction (Tafriq), Triangle (Mosallas).
11. See where a section of the virtual gallery Works presents his
Persian Surreal paintings. The reader is urged to explore the series of paintings published here
in conjunction with reading this article. Also, a direct link to his paintings has been set up by the
present writer at
13. See, in the section Persian Surreal Works/About Persian surreal
14. Javad Mojabi, Turning Toward New Horizons, 20.
15. For example, his inclusion of the Mona Lisa in Cone (1989) and, to humorous effect, in Symbol
16. See Flahiyeh, Heroes Dont Smile,.
17. See Darya-bakhsh, So That This Fire; also Aliakbar Sdeqi.
18. See for example Frascina, Picasso, Surrealism and Politics, 136.
19. Ebrahimi, Alphabet; Mojabi and Zarrinkelk, Ali-Akbar Sadeghi.
20. Adamowicz, Surrealist Collage, 17, citing Babilas, Le collage, 353; emphasis added.
21. Mojabi, Structural Particularities, 35.
22. A detail to be noticed is that the warrior of the right-hand canvas splitting the left-hand canvas down
the middle recalls Sadeghis painting Division (1977), made eight years prior to this work, of a warriors head sliced from the top, down through the face, and through the painting itself, i.e. it refers to
its own dual nature as both a two- and three-dimensional image/object.
23. For example Seven Cities (1971), Shower of Flowers (1972), I Am He Who (1973), The Castle
(1974), The Sun King (1975), Zaal and Simorgh (1977).
24. It should be repeated that where these works are not illustrated in the gures, they can be seen on the
ofcial website of the artist,
25. Adamowicz, Surrealist Collage, 61; emphasis added
26. For comments on Sadeghis work, see further Fatemi, Sadeghi the Master; Moorizi-nejad, Contemporary Iranian Artists; also Mesle honarmandn-e ronesnsi.
27. See also Cone (1989), in which a woman with closed or hollow eyes, apparently turned to stone, sits at
a table laden with fruit and bowls similarly petried in cold grey stone: on the table an image of the
Mona Lisa is weighed down by a stone, and is painted upside down to the viewer. The inversion is
not only graphic, but also thematic, as the image of the Mona Lisa is full of color and alive by comparison with the main character.
28. See I am My Own Model.
29. Klingshr-Leroy, Surrealism.
30. Avestan Khshathra Vairya, Pahlavi Shahrevar. On such Avestan divinities see chapter 8 of Boyce, A
History of Zoroastrianism.
31. Avestan Yasht 12.17. J. Kellens, Fravardn Yasht [170] (Wiesbaden, 1975). For translations of all
the Yashts see Darmesteter, The Zend-Avesta Part II.
32. The Tree of All Seeds is also known in the Zoroastrian books in Pahlavi as the Sana Tree, the Tree
of All Healing and the Tree Opposing Harm. As Mary Boyce says every year [the rain-god] Titrya

552 Foroutan


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takes up the seeds from the Tree with the waters, so that he may rain (them) upon the world with
the rain, and renew the life of plants everywhere; Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, 138.
Pahlavi Bundahin.
Avestan sana mura or mr san. On the Simorgh see Schmidt, Simorg. http://www.
See further Foroutan, Some Hybrid Forms.
Javad Mojabi, speaking at the artists memorial, reported in
ID=News-883070&Lang=P, accessed December 2011.
Sami-Azar, Elegy of Annihilation, 166.
A childrens book named after the eponymous hero of history and legend.
See Akrami et al., Past Times in the Mirror of Today, 37.
The inuence of Sadeghis technique on the younger generation of Iranian artists is extensive and
ongoing but the subject goes beyond the remit of this article.

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