My mom had already arranged everything. She had bought tickets for us both to fly from Shiraz to Tehran, she had arranged with my cousin and his wife so that we could stay at their place in Tehran, and she had made a preliminary appointment to visit Parviz Kalantari, one of Iran's most outstanding contemporary artists. We were supposed to be there "sometimes" in the afternoon of Sunday, December 28th. So Sunday noon time, after arriving to my cousin's place the first thing she did was to call Ostad (or Master in Persian) Kalantari and nail down the appointment for 15.30.
Mahbobeh (my cousin's wife) had prepared a "small" lunch, a 3 dishes menu including my favorite dish Ghormeh sabzi, a herb and meat stew served with saffron-rice. After the lunch, my mom and Mahbobeh went for siesta. Although I was tired cause of a late dinner party the night before, I couldn't even think of sleeping. I was excited to meet Kalantari in person, excited to talk to him, and excited to see his works. But more than anything else, I was excited to see my "family" as my mom called it, a 50x60cm painting which my parents had ordered for me as a gift.
We left the house after having cardamom tea served with dried fruits. It was almost 15.10. The heavy traffic of Tehran had calmed down a bit when Mahbobeh drove us to Kalantari's resident, a small two floor funky style house in northern Tehran. We were welcomed in by the artist's wife to an L-shaped room which looked like to be used as living room. The room was tastefully furnished by old Persian carpets, intersia inlaid cupboards, and armchairs. All looked to be from early 1900. On the walls Kalantari's own work with projectors on. I started to look on the paintings. My eyes were caught by scenery of an old village. This must be one of his Mud and Straw paintings, I thought.
On his curriculum I had read that after finalizing his studies at the School of Art at Tehran University in 1958, Kalantari had started to work as a teacher for drawing to architecture students. During those years, he traveled together with the students on their field trips to the Kashan area. Kashan is one of the largest oases of the central deserts of Iran. A place where the contrast between the parched immensities of the deserts and the greenery of the well-tended oasis is stunning. Kashan is also famous in the world of architecture for its authentic spirit of old Persian construction art from late 1600 (see Horizon's photo stream on flickr.com). All these vistas came through Kalantari as sources for inspiration and he created a series of paintings which he called Mud and Straw. In old construction techniques, mud and straw were used as basics. Kalantari, mixed acrylic with straw and used it as foundation in all his paintings in the Mud and Straw collection. In every painting, mysterious elements of traditional architecture were combined with a unique light and shadowing technique to create an astonishing result. A result where tradition met modernity.
Parviz Kalantari joined us in the room. An average long man with a never ending smile on his face. He looked younger than his 77 years of age. Immediately he started to ask me about Italy, about Florence and all the great renaissance work he had seen there. "But I have never been to Milan, how is this city?" he asked. "For me Milan is one of Italy's least beautiful cities." I replied. "Besides the Cathedral (Dumo di Milano), La Scala and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, there is nothing much to see on the streets. Of course, Milan is hosting Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera which is one of the leading art centres in the world." I continued. I also told him about da Vinci's Last Supper in monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He started laughing when heard about The Last Supper. He then portrayed one of his memories:
When I was a student, I used to paint on the streets of Tehran. I used to paint copies of well-known art works and sell to earn some extra money. One day when I was painting The Last Supper, a guy stopped by and watched me painting. After a while, he asked: "Can you paint this on the walls of my chelo-kababi?" (Chelo-kababi is a typical restaurant where in old days only one dish was served, chelo-kabab, the national food of Iran: 2 skewers of lamb/beef grilled over a charcoal grill and served on a bed of saffron-rice.) "Yes, of course!" I replied. The guy then said: "If you do a good job, you can eat at my chelo-kababi for free, whenever! Until the end of your life! But there is one condition" he said. "You change their food on this painting (he pointed out the picture of original Last Supper I had in my hand) with chelo-kababs!", he continued. Kalantari, laughed again. "So I painted The Last Supper on the wall of the restaurant with a chelo-kabab served on each plate!!"
We were served tea, dates and oranges. I wondered how he had come to the idea of creating his second bigger series of work, In Step with the Nomads. "I collaborated withthe Ethnography Museum of Tehran, and there I learned a lot about the life of the Nomads of Iran" he said. Traditionally, nomads travelled with their flocks each year from the summer highland south to the winter pastures on low-land. Nomads are close to their nature. Their flock is considered to be a part of their families, whom they live in harmony and symbiosis with. In In Step with Nomads, Kalantari portrays the life of the nomads with all its beauties and difficulties. My eyes were captured by a painting called Passage through Zard-kuh. I remembered a silent documentary from 1925 called Grass, which I had seen for many years ago. In the film, the camera follows the passage of 50,000 Bakhtiari nomads with their animals through Zard-kuh (a 4,200 m high mountain in the east of Iran). "Yes, this painting was inspired by the documentary" Kalantari told me. In this painting he portrays the life of the nomads with all its beauties and difficulties. And although he uses traditional elements as key attributes in his work (such as the details of the cloths of the nomads), he combines it with exaggerated simplicity.
My chitchat with Kalantari was coming to its end when he started to talk about some of his recent works which was a part of an UN's anti-war campaign and was exhibited in China last November. The message was conveyed by crossed glasses on which scenes of bombed homes, split families and destroyed houses were painted. Here Kalantari uses traditional elements, feelings, imagination, and fantasy to create an image of the reality. The brutal reality in many people's daily lives.
Kalantari's three collections I have been brushed against are all different in style. Oases, deserts, old construction techniques, nomadic life-style, war and its consequences... The common denominator is probably the cultural/historical/traditional elements of them.
Finally, Kalantari showed me the way to "my family". And there it was. An oil painting with a selected motive from his In Step with Nomads. The scene is clean and simple: a nomad family and its flock are on their way, probably to green pastures. Their movement is real. The father with his decisive steps, the mother with her eyes focused on the skyline while holding the lamb in her arms, the daughter taking care of her little brother, the horse, donkey, sheep and goats... everything in this painting is moving toward a final goal. Even the small dust particles flying in the air, playing with the thin lines between shadow and light areas give a strong sense of movement.
I fell in love with "my family" immediately. Maybe because of how the scene was poetically expressed in conscious brush movements, maybe because of its complicated simplicity, maybe because of its traditional elements which reminded me about my origin, maybe because of its hidden but strongly present momentum, or maybe because that this painting reminded me about my own lifestyle and my countless passages through it, moving steadily from one place to the other, with the difference that for the nomads the grass IS really greener at the other side.
* For you who would like to see more of Parviz Kalantari's works, click here and follow the scribbled line...
* The full article including pictures can be found on my blog here.
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