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  • Nov 01, 2009

Behjat Sadr (1925–2009)

BEHJAT SADR, Abstract III, 1961, oil on canvas, 19.4 × 28 cm. Courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection.

Iranian painter Behjat Sadr died from a heart attack, aged 85, at her home in Southern France on August 11. She will be remembered as an artist, teacher, traveler and peerless pioneer for women in the Iranian arts diaspora.

Born in Arak, Iran, in 1924, Sadr’s studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Tehran led to a scholarship to the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and further studies at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts. She was featured in the 1956 Venice Biennale, and returned to teach at the University of Tehran a year later, holding a position there for almost 20 years.

Sadr developed her signature style, working with a palette knife on canvases placed on the floor, during her years in Italy. She had a singular command of her chosen tool, generating effects ranging from the robustly geometrical to the optical or poetically impressionistic, from the assertive to the serene. Despite what she called a “good knowledge” of Persian writing and calligraphy, Sadr preferred to think of her fluid, graphic mark-making technique as “capturing moments,” a means of couching emotion within gestural snapshots, moving, she said, from “interior to exterior.”  She experimented tirelessly throughout her career, collaging photographs and found materials into her later canvases.

Sadr left Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, moving to Paris with her teenage daughter Kakouti. She worked steadily during her second European period, even painting and mounting exhibitions of new work through a protracted battle with breast cancer in the 1990s. Her work from the 1960s and 1970s was revived in “Between World and Image, Modern Iranian Visual Culture,” organized by New York University in 2002, and “Manifestations of Contemporary Art in Iran” (2007), in which Sadr’s paintings were shown alongside works by 24 international artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. The artist was consistently supported by galleries in her adopted France from the 1980s onward, and exhibited as recently as February 2009 at the Galerie Frédéric Lacroix in Paris. Without question an underdocumented artist, the definitive record of Sadr’s accomplishments may be 34-year-old Iranian filmmaker Mitra Farahani’s 2006 documentary Behjat Sadr: Time Suspended, which includes footage of the then-82-year-old artist at work, as well as extensive interviews in which Sadr reflects on her process, history, influences and the mysteries of fame and mortality.

During a memorial held at the Iranian Artist’s Forum in Tehran on August 16, painter and Iranian arts figure Aydin Aghdashloo spoke mostly of Sadr’s peaceful manner. “As one of her students, I always envied her cheerfulness, freshness and easy way of life.” Earlier in the service, renowned poet and literary critic Javad Mojabi had taken particular care to point out the added hardships Sadr faced as a female artist in Iran, and lament the lack of support she received in her homeland. “It is hard to judge in a society where criticism is not welcomed. Most artists are not in their rightful position. We even despise ourselves or others, and then after we are gone, we are highly respected. If an artist like Sadr had been introduced to the upcoming generations during her lifetime, our youth would have been able pick up her methods instead of only repeating her experiences.”

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