Bahman Mohassess

Head V


In Tate Liverpool

Bahman Mohassess 1931–2009
Gouache on paper
Support: 306 × 207 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2014


This series of five small paintings in gouache on paper (Tate T13986T13990) was painted in Iran in 1966. The artist titled the first two works in the series Head I and Head II, leaving the remaining three untitled. They have subsequently been titled Head III, Head IV and Head V accordingly. Each painting in the group depicts a singular, abstracted head, its form painted with few recognisable traits or facial characteristics beyond the suggestion of a rudimentary pair of eyes. Each is painted so as to resemble a carved, stone sculpture emerging as a free-standing object in stark relief against a largely monochromatic, grey background.

As a whole the series investigates the significance of the human face in ancient cultural traditions, combining the artist’s interest in the iconocentric tradition of Western figurative art with characteristics of Eastern cultures. Instrumental to the artist’s development, the series exemplifies Mohassess’s preoccupation with sculptural forms, organic shapes and human figures, elements he explored through painting, sculpture and mixed media assemblages throughout his career.

The Italian art historian and critic Enrico Crispolti has described the body of work to which the Heads series relates, emphasising its existential and mythical qualities:

In the mid-1960s Mohassess’s works were characterised by a strong dramatic tension, often of tragic irony. His anonymous male figures, ‘hominids’, were imbued with a material force, clearly influenced by the tradition of the informel, and depicted in a state of basic deformation, aimed at emphasising their essentially atemporal nature and at the same time acting as a violent declaration of existential force. These are anonymous and common human images, figures that in some cases have mythical references.
(Crispolti 2007, p.8, trans. from Italian by Flavia Frigeri, Assistant Curator, Tate.)

The palette of grey and white tones and the textured surface of each painted head evoke the hand-crafted sculpture and masonry of ancient cultures, giving the works the mythical or primitive qualities to which Crispolti referred. The distinct, free-standing figures point in particular to the rigid aesthetic of early Greek Cycladic sculpture, where human features are rendered through simple, almost abstract forms.

Mohassess spent most of his life working in Iran, where he was born, but travelled in Europe when he studied in Italy at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome in the mid-1950s. Upon returning to Iran, he worked extensively in theatre, translating and staging plays by Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco, as well as participating in several solo and group exhibitions in Rome, Milan, Florence, Paris, Beirut, Geneva and Tehran. Mohassess forged a reputation as a respected sculptor in his native country and his sculptures were once found in some of Tehran’s most important public spaces and squares. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 his art was extensively censored by the Iranian state and most of his public sculptures were destroyed. Mohassess himself subsequently destroyed the majority of work that remained in his possession.

Further reading
Enrico Crispolti (ed.), Bahman Mohasses: Scultura, Pittura, Grafica, Teatro, Rome 2007.

Vassilis Oikonomopoulos
July 2013

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