The Poet and the Beloved of the King 1964–6 is a large-scale, brightly coloured sculpture made of various cubic, cylindrical and abstracted elements that suggest two figures, one larger than the other. The smaller figure in front displays two yellow round circles on its upper half, marked with the word ‘Limou’ (Lemon) on the right-hand side. In Farsi the word lemon is used colloquially as a reference to breasts and the lemon is a strong sexual reference in many of Tanavoli’s works. A painted red phallic arrow is another dominant feature of this figure. It points upwards and is embraced by the suggested hands of the sculpture, which consist of two thin horn-shaped pieces of metal painted yellow. Their shape may allude to the word ‘Aahoo’ (‘Deer’) written on the back of the larger figure. At the head of the smaller figure a yellow circle of Plexiglas contains the sentence ‘Ya bolbol, arabi ya raghayash’ (‘Oh Arabian nightingale, oh his veins’). The larger figure is broader and comprised of more rectangular shapes. It incorporates two pieces of lattice-work (a typical feature of Tanavoli’s work), one of which can be seen in the upper half of the figure and the other in the lower part, which contains the artist’s name ‘Parviz’ and the word ‘Arab’. On the back of the sculpture – in addition to ‘Aahoo’ or ‘Deer’ – the word ‘Bozorg’ (‘Big’) can be read. The component representing the figure’s head displays a sentence written in Farsi: ‘Aya kassi darvaze kassi ra baz mikonad’ (‘Does anyone open anyone’s gate’). The sculpture was originally designed to be plugged into an electricity supply so that it moved periodically. However, this feature is no longer working and the artist is content with it remaining a static piece.
An important starting point for Tanavoli’s practice as a sculptor is the love story of Shirin and Farhad, written by Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi (935–c.1020) as part of Shahnameh (977–1010), the national epic of Iran. In the story, the stonecutter Farhad falls madly in love with the Armenian princess Shirin. The King, Khosrow Parviz, greatly concerned about his daughter, decides to give Farhad the impossible task of carving a passage through Mount Bisotoon if he wants to be able to take Shirin’s hand. When Farhad seems to be succeeding at the task, the King sends him a false message informing him that Shirin has died. In deep distress, Farhad falls from the mountain to his death. According to Tanavoli, this event marked the end of sculpture in Iran, as Farhad was the last great sculptor in the country before the Islamic prohibition of figurative art discouraged any representational work. In The Poet and the Beloved of the King the lemons on the smaller figure refer specifically to the breasts of Shirin and, since Farhad had no means of being physically with Shirin, become a sexual replacement. The figure of Farhad and the theme of lovers recur throughout Tanavoli’s work.
Art historian and curator Fereshteh Daftari has written about The Poet and the Beloved of the King and its local, everyday materials:
Building his works incrementally, whether vertically or horizontally, he developed a vocabulary of welded faucets, tubes, knobs, grillwork and the keys and locks he collected in small towns and local bazaars. Fused together, these agglomerations ultimately yield the image of a gendered figure or generic couple primitive and regal. Neither inhabitant of the unconscious, as in the work of Max Ernst, nor warriors of the machine age, these creatures belong to a preindustrial era.
(Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Another Modernism: An Iranian Perspective’, in Balaghi and Gumpert 2002, p.76.)
Tanavoli returned to Iran from Europe in 1960 when the art scene was dominated by painting. While this fashion opened fertile ground for him as a sculptor, he had little chance to develop the Western figurative tradition that he had been exposed to while living in Italy. Iran reflected a fear of idolatry and this urged Tanavoli to look at his own cultural heritage. He used mostly found objects, carefully chosen to create abstracted figures and compositions. Alongside his art practice, he collected locks, talismanic objects, posters with religious inscriptions and carpets. His studio was situated in the south of Tehran surrounded by pottery workshops, blacksmiths, foundries and welders’ shops, and this environment was a major inspiration for his practice.
Tanavoli is a key member of the Saqqakhane movement, a term first used in 1962 by the Iranian art critic Karim Emami to describe a group of artists, also labelled ‘Spiritual Pop artists’ or ‘Neo-Traditionalist artists’, who integrated votive Shiite folk art into their practice. The movement began when a number of artists, including Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Tanavoli (who had returned from studying in Paris and Milan, respectively) started to adapt traditional Iranian motifs and themes into their work as a way to create a bridge between tradition and modernity. Tanavoli was also the founder of the Atelier Kaboud (1959–60), a gallery and gathering place for poets, artists, filmmakers and architects, which was, according to the historian Hamid Keshmirshekan, a catalyst for the development of the Saqqakhane movement.
Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert (eds.), Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution, London and New York 2002.
Jessica Morgan and Flavia Frigeri (eds.), The World Goes Pop, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2015.