by Fabrice HergottExtract of the publication Behjadt Sadr. Traces, Paris, Zamân Books, 2014.
The single constant and most loved of Behjat Sadr’s ideas was painting. Not painting as such, not that of others, but her own, her pleasure but also, to a degree, her aversion to spreading colour, matter, on a surface, and seeing things develop before her eyes, under her palette knife, to observing colours react, eventually understanding that this was an echo of her memories of the past. The woman who did not care about what would remain of her work was totally immersed in this pleasure. Creating shapes and colours, arranging them and seeing how a misalignment, an accident, can transform an expected thing into a wonderful surprise.
At first sight, it is possible to believe in European painting of the late 1950s or mid-1960s, during that period in art history known as Art Informel, in its final stage, its rather dark, obsessive phase as seen in Dubuffet’s Texturologies and Réquichot’s reliquaries. But there is only a small amount of paint here. The paint is dry, ‘on an empty stomach’ as Barthes recalled Brecht advising his actors. It has been spread, extended across a hard surface for maximum efficacy, stretched to the limit of its possibilities with the gesture of an artisan whose sure, tranquil movement transforms matter. This work draws the gaze without shouting. It says “Love me!”, and the gaze instantly loves it, without quite understanding why. Is it a dance, an incantation, music? From the earliest still lifes and landscapes of the mid-1950s to the kinetic works, of course, and the collages that include – encircle – photography, rhythm asserts itself everywhere, as bewitching as the second movement of The Rite of Spring or the dizzying spiral of the Bolero. The subtle interplay of verticals and horizontals forms a precise orchestration, creating an irresistible effect. And this rhythm that reveals and conceals lights and shadows can be understood as belonging to the world where we are, where the history of others is the history of everyone.
Colour has been laid down, but without excess, with all the restraint with which the essence of the lived is revealed. And although the interplay of shapes and colours is organised in keeping with a silent order that does not belong to European modernity, the gaze understands that this voice comes from further away. The Orient and Iranian visual culture form a path. In her interview with Narmin Sadeg, she mentions the bricks of the great mosque of Isfahan and the fascinating misalignment in their arrangement. A misalignment is a subtle but effective undermining of homogeneity, of the single vision, of the dominant language, of power. The distance in her work is of an ethical order. It stems from protest, rejection, an inability to tolerate constraints. She no doubt chose painting because it seemed to her more powerful than politics, more powerful even than history. She liked her painting because it enabled her to disrupt, through a flick of the wrist, the homogeneity of the system and of habit, and because it could, through a single line or a combination of colours, reproduce the memory of a crystalline structure.
In the film that Mitra Farahani made about her, we see the artist in a car, marvelling at the sequence, both regular and unpredictable, of cracks on the asphalt road surface unfolding before her. Clearly, her joy stemmed from the fact that reality was always unpredictable, that nothing is more inventive than life. However big the tragedies and the weight of existence, her painting enabled her to stay connected with these unforeseen things and to apply them, to render them visible through the expanding power of her paintings. And this gaze outwards, towards that which arrives in such a surprising way is also, in a quiet way, inwards, where what has arrived exists. The black in her works is doubtless the shadow of this gaze trained from the past, the frame from which her painting observes the becoming-present. It acts as a visual accessory, but also as a moral element. It is the materialisation of this past in her paintings. This is no doubt where the true ‘distance’ of her work lies. It constitutes its exoticism and its Orient, but paradoxically this is also what living humanity has in common.
Although the world appears more global today, it is perhaps not so much globalisation that brings people together than the enormity of the mass murders that took place throughout the previous century. Their echo is so deep, their tremors so violent that no one is impervious to the darkness of their reality. And to think that the internet is said to have been invented as a way of containing its effects so that they do not entirely dissolve people’s soul in an unanswerable guilt. Auschwitz devastated human conscience forever. No painting, and by extension, no work of art, can ever be looked at or created as before. It is not that they bear witness to what took place. Modern wars and still less the genocides have no real witnesses. They are dead or incapable of bearing witness. But the survivors bear the effects of the violence, whose noise they experience without understanding the causes, as if they lived surrounded and even possessed by their ghosts. Art Informel demonstrated this destruction of the image of man in man, just as horror films and films with the living dead betray the fear being gradually overcome by death.
Behjat Sadr’s paintings thus seem to act like small but effective dams that do not conceal this reality of a past that is far from over, but filter the violence and transform it into something viable. Of course, it is not the negation of what she felt, or even what she might have experienced in Iran and from Iran, between the revolutions and wars, and a life far from the roots of her childhood, but a response that renders this reality liveable. If black, present in many of her paintings, represents oil, it symbolises the immense stain, the indelible oil slick like a gob that this oil represents in the history of Iran, through which this country was restored to the rank of producer, eliciting covetousness and the darkest passions of the human soul. Her painting knows that, shows it and, instead of denying it, chooses it as a subject, one that she plays with like children playing at war, keeping it within the confines of the painting, of her studio, of her tidy bedroom, from where she makes the world and puts it to rights.
Indeed, she transforms this reality into a world and, to be on the safe side, to be certain that this world cannot be threatened by another, she expands this world, turning it into a cosmos (as Morad Montazami points out). Each painting is a window with a view so extensive and penetrating that it appears to contemplate a star. And what seems to us to be a star is not only the sign of a tragedy, but also a galaxy, the possibility of other worlds, of which it is very difficult to say why it is both distant and near. She painted with enough restraint to ensure that there was nothing insipid about it, which no doubt explains the striking sobriety, the dryness of abstinence that we discover when seeing her works. Is it because she paints from a world that is crumbling, from ruins that, following on from the murders, fires, bombs and mass exterminations, continue to collapse on top of the survivors? To be transmitted, the tragic must be contained; it must choose the lesser word if it wants to be able to transmit the luminous darkness of any tragedy that reaches its aim. ‘The dark brightness that falls from the stars’ of Le Cid cannot do without the observation of memory, trees in blossom or even a patch of beach – particularly when this patch of beach is an illusion, a reality that no longer exists in a time of oil slicks. It is nothing but a dream whose evocations in the middle of its dark architectures are like apparitions, marvellous spectacles for the future, in a world that is prisoner of its past.
Behjat Sadr’s work is an exception, unique in the history of 20th-century art. Thanks to the artist’s personality, it was intermingled with the most radical movements of Western modern art without, however, being fully attached to them. By chance, and despite her regular trips to Rome and Paris, the stylistic and historic draw of Iran kept her on the fringes. But it would be more accurate to say that it kept her in suspension, as if it was this very state of weightlessness that enabled her to force herself to remain within the obsession of pictorial practice. And in sticking with painting (and collage), she was able to forge an original link with the world that she saw turning before her eyes.
The discovery of a body of work is a complex and fascinating experience. Although it is possible, at first sight, to link it to such and such an artist from the French or Western scene, such a link perhaps says nothing of any real relevance. If one looks at the evolution of her entire oeuvre, and if one accepts that each of her paintings, even considered in isolation, exists only as a single stone in a more ambitious construction, but a stone which, like a hologram, contains an image of the whole, then there is perhaps no work of art that gives such a realistic image of what took place and is taking place in Iran, and by extension, in a world of which Iran and its tensions are part. No doubt such an affirmation might appear excessive. However, one of the great qualities of this body of work is to convince us of its truth as soon as we look at it for the first time.