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A Note on an Artwork by Massoud Arabshahi

Author : Taranom Taghavi

Reading Time : 3 Minutes

On March 16,  2012, a show entitled "Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection" was held at the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this show, seven works from three generations of Iranian artists including Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Parviz Tanavoli, Y.Z. Kami, Shirin Neshat, Afruz Amighi, and Ali Banisadr were exhibited; the works address identity, political, social, and cultural issues despite their diverse ways of expression, and have an intrinsic connection with Iran.

Among the presented works in this show, there is an untitled painting by Massoud Arabshahi (1935-2019), which the artist created in the early 1960s. His interest in architecture (plans of palaces, historical and ancient buildings and temples) and ancient art motifs of the Middle East and especially Mesopotamia (Sumerian seals and Babylonian and Assyrian reliefs), ancient Iranian art (Achaemenid and Sassanid art and architecture and epigraphs), bronzes and their metalworking industry (Elamite and Lorestan art), in confrontation with the technological and industrial developments of the modern and contemporary world, in a painterly view and a combination of lines, colors, and textures, have led to the creation of abstract works in a lyrical expression.


Massoud Arabshahi | Untitled | oil and metallic paints on paper | 101 × 75.6

In the opposite image, the use of multiple color layers and oxide, metallic and dark colors has rendered the artwork as an old yet industrial object and made the audience's eyes and mind constantly sway from the ancient wall to the metal surfaces of the assembly lines of the factory, its working gears, and smoky atmosphere. In fact, the artist has combined tradition and modernity in Iranian modern art by using the identity elements and aesthetic principles of the past in favor of the aesthetic principles of his time. In the opposite frame, like most of the artist's works, the background is divided into ancient wall reliefs-like rows and the geometry overruling the entire work, like a calculated architectural map, has organized its symbolic elements and visual signs. The signs of ancient writing systems such as cuneiform are imperceptibly imprinted on the background, and the overall presence of these allegorical symbols prompts the audience to intertextual reading in the continuity of past and present time.


The circular form, which refers to ancient motifs such as the rosette, the lotus, or the god of the sun, Shamash, (Mesopotamian god), is frequently seen among other signs of Arabshahi's paintings. In this painting, circles in combination with the robot-like humans and the hard and rigid lines of their bodies find references to contemporary industrial life and its effect on the people of society. A symbolic narrative of the life of workers who are like intertwined bodies in the gears of industrial machines and are moving automatically. Undoubtedly, the artist's experience and studies in the field of graphics, painting, architecture, sculpture, and ceramics and his knowledge about the art and mythology of Iran and the ancient world, in combination with the artist's right interrelation of the look, thought and pen, have led to a symbolic and conceptual reading of this abstract work. Although Arabshahi has a wide range of works, sometimes only a formal reading and aesthetic interpretation of them are enough to praise his art.