Untitled, oil on linen, signed in Farsi lower right, framed, 73 x 114cm (28 3/4 x 44 7/8in).
'I'm from Kashan A painter by trade Sometimes I build a cage with paint and sell it to you So that with the song of the poppy imprisoned within The heart of your loneliness may be refreshed'
From: The Sound Water's Footsteps, first published in 1965, translated M.R. Daraie, 2009
An influential practitioner of "New Poetry", the early-20th century modernist literary movement that formally challenged classical Persian poetry, Sohrab Sepehri is equally considered a key member of the second generation of Iranian modernist painters. Rather than participating in the search for a national Iranian artistic identity, as advocated by the Saqqa-khaneh group of artists during the 1960s for example, he espoused a global vision embedded in non-denominational mysticism and a deep spiritual relationship between humanity and nature as an antidote to unbridled materialism and armed conflict.
Sepehri was born in Kashan in 1928, a historic city renowned for its beautiful architecture and carpet design. He wrote and painted from an early age. Self-taught, he developed his art outside of the academy system, remaining stylistically on the periphery of the avant-garde. Even so, his formative paintings were clearly influenced by European expressionist painters. His signature work, quickly rendered, semi-abstract meditative landscapes, are strongly indebted to Zen painting and brush techniques and come later after a life-changing journey to Japan in 1960.
This present lot is a unique example in Sepehri's oeuvre, executed at the height of his career. It depicts an Oriental woman in a full-length white dress standing on a wooded precipice and gazing intently west towards a blood-red setting sun. The composition is rendered on a diagonal and divided into two halves, leaving figure and landscape floating on a sea of monochrome unfilled space. The painting was realized with quick calligraphic strokes akin to Japanese sumi-e, ink and brush paintings closely associated with Zen Buddhism. Customarily executed in one sitting in a state of high concentration, sumi-e works on paper emphasize an aesthetic world view expressed by the term wabi-sabi, that is the visual representation of the Buddhist concept of transience imbued with a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing familiar notions in all of Sepehri's creative products.
Customarily, analysis of Sepehri's work has focused on his treatment of spiritual harmony and nature entrenched in autobiographical vignettes. Often compared to Iran's mystical poets, he has been labelled a neo-Sufi and a modern mystic. Little is written on his passionate anti-war stance, however.
It may take iconographic interpretation a step too far, but nonetheless, I would like to propose that this lot represents Sepehri's socio-political concerns in the mid-1960s. If we observe closely the lone female figure we can identify her garb as Ao Dai, the Vietnamese national dress for women. Traditionally the colour of mourning, the white Ao Dai was adopted as the school uniform for female high school students during the war, a double meaning redolent of virginity and death. The trees around her appear charred and desiccated. Her field of vision is taken up with the far-away red star setting in the west. Around her nothingness, void, linking her private loneliness to global Weltschmerz. The fact that Sepehri rarely if ever, incorporated figures into his eastern landscapes only supports this reading and may be sustained by To the Promised Garden, an epic poem first published in 1967. An excerpt from it reads:
And then Tell me about the bombs that fell when I was sleeping Tell me about the tears that fell when I was sleeping Tell me how many doves fled from the trees ...
...And then As if an evergreen tree of faith I will plant you at the gate of the Promised Garden