In July of this year we invited Negar Azimi, a writer and the senior editor of Bidoun, to talk to Mitra Goberville about her mother, the artist Behjat Sadr. Sadr, a pioneering Iranian modernist whose work spanned painting, kinetic works, and photography, passed away in 2009. Sadr was the subject of a show at the gallery in May 2020.
Behjat Sadr in Iran, circa 1945. Courtesy The Estate of Behjat Sadr
Negar Azimi: Dear Mitra, I never met your mother, but from what I can gather — bits of oral history from her contemporaries, anecdotes from you, and of course Mitra Farahani’s incredible film about her life — she was irreverent, mouthy, and terribly funny. What was it like being her daughter?
Mitra Goberville: We were not a typical family by any means. My parents met in Rome, where they had both been supporting themselves by dubbing Italian films into Farsi. Years later, they would joke about the films they had worked on. “I was Anna Magnani!” or “I was Toto!” each would say. I think my father was the love of her life but more or less disappeared from our lives after they divorced. My mother raised me by herself. Nevertheless, decades later, she cried when he passed away.
Behjat Sadr in Rome, circa 1955
Behjat Sadr in Venice, circa 1955
Behjat Sadr in Tehran, circa 1960
All images courtesy The Estate of Behjat Sadr
We lived on Pahlavi Street, and then later in the high-rise A.S.P. Towers. The biggest room was always my mother’s atelier, though eventually the entire house would stink of her oil paints. At times, I acted as her assistant, helping her prepare the painting surfaces. She was an insomniac and would work through the night. At home there was no standard routine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which is probably why I still don’t understand those rituals to this day. There were other markers of difference, too: our house didn’t have curtains or carpeting like the homes of my friends from school, but instead we had Alvar Aalto furniture and parquet floors. For a while I wanted to be like other children. I wanted a mother who had a manicure rather than dirty, paint-covered hands. But that didn’t last long. I eventually realized how special she was. We went on strange and exciting trips with her students. If she had to go to Japan for work, she would say, “Kakooti has to come!” That was my nickname, Kakooti. We often traveled to the Iranian cities of Kashan and Isfahan with architecture students from the university. You might notice that some of her drawings seem influenced by the roofs of ancient mosques that we saw there. Eventually we spent two of her sabbatical years, ‘68 and ‘74, in Paris. Of course, the political effervescence of May 1968 was a fascinating thing to see. In the end my mother opened my eyes to what beauty could be; she taught me how to look at life.
Behjat Sadr and daughter Mitra Goberville, Tehran, 1966
Behjat Sadr’s home in Tehran, circa 1970
Behjat Sadr’s home near the Capsian Sea, circa 1970
Behjat Sadr and daughter Mitra Goberville, Caspian Sea, 1972
All images courtesy The Estate of Behjat Sadr
N.A.: Looking at her work across time, I am struck by how she kept reinventing painting. She didn’t stick to a single identifiable style over the decades. Instead, she moved from depicting organic forms like trees to creating kinetic works in the ‘60s to photo-collages later on. Do you have any thoughts about this migration between forms and idioms? And what are some of the earliest paintings you remember your mother making?
M.G.: She loved experimenting. At the same time, I think there is a coherence in her work over the decades, from her first nature mortes to the later “photo-peintures” and collages. The same rhythms keep coming back, and the patterns and textures begin to resemble one other. She left behind hundreds of photographs, and I believe they reveal a distinct way of seeing things that’s also discernable in her paintings.
The earliest paintings I remember are the kinetic ones modeled on Venetian blinds. I was very young, but I remember the motors that were attached to some of them, and the sounds they emitted. I was transfixed as I watched the blinds move.
Behjat Sadr, Untitled, 1967. Oil on canvas, venetian stores, artist frame, 135x100x12 cm. Courtesy Balice Hertling
N.A.: There was a vibrant modernist scene in 1960s Iran. Some of it manifested in the Tehran Biennials and the budding gallery scene. There was also a group of artists — mostly or entirely men as far as I can tell — whose vernacular modern art was referred to as the “saqqakhaneh” movement. How did your mother fit into this landscape? Did she? Do you get the sense that she was embraced as a painter of note?
M.G.: I remember she expressed a lot of frustration; she felt that many people didn’t understand her work. But she did show her work at several Tehran Biennales, and was recognized there, as well as twice at the Venice Biennale, in 1956 and 1962. Still, Iranians didn’t like to buy my mother’s paintings. They weren’t commercially friendly: they were too black, too abstract. The kinetic paintings were never appreciated. Once, I remember a couple bought a work from her, and when visiting them at home she learned that they had hung it in their bathroom! Of course, she promptly removed it and gave them their money back. Her pay at the university where she taught was not that much, but my mother always instilled in me that culture mattered more than money.
N.A.: Her contemporaries were artists like Parviz Tanavoli, Hossein Zenderoudi, Bahman Mohasses, and Mohsen Vaziri. What did she make of them?
M.G.: She liked the male artists, she had respect for their work, but she also always remarked that it was so much easier for them. There was always a Madame Zenderoudi or a Madame Tanavoli, you know? She didn’t have that kind of support. Instead, she had to struggle alone while also taking care of me.
She was especially close to Bahman Mohassess, and they often spoke on the phone. I suppose they both stood apart from the mainstream by being uncompromising—and they both suffered because of this. I remember Mohasses traveled to Paris from Italy one or two years before my mother’s death, and he offered me a drawing. He wanted to gift one drawing to each of his close friends’ children. It was a painting of a fish, but it was a Mohasses fish, so it was a bit surreal and melancholic.
N.A.: Did she ever tell you stories about her artistic coming of age?
M.G.: Early on, a painting teacher had told her that she didn’t have any talent! She eventually trained to become a teacher so that she could be independent and support herself. In her early 20s she had been a student of the famous pedagogue Ali Ashgar Petgar, who himself had been a student of Kamal ol-Molk, the father of Iranian painting in the academic style. One day under Petgar’s tutelage, she was asked to paint a nature morte. She decided to paint a fan, because she said she loved the way it moved. She loved movement, as you know.
She later studied at the Fine Arts Faculty of the University of Tehran. She became close to the painter and poet Sohrab Sepehri, with whom she exchanged a lot of letters that I still have. After that she won a scholarship to continue her studies in Italy. She really discovered herself in Rome. Not only because she could access the modern art scene there, but also, as she later wrote in one of her notebooks, because she was able to experience and learn about the ancient arts: everything from the Greeks and the Romans to art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. She decided to go back to Iran in the beginning of the 1960s, just as things were picking up in Rome. I don’t really understand why she made that decision, though I do know that she always felt insecure about not having a rich and powerful family to support her. She very much wanted to get a job as a professor at the University of Tehran. She always told me that as a woman I must get a job of my own, and that I should never depend on anybody else.
N.A.: Iran was rapidly changing during the 1960s and ‘70s, as the Shah invested oil money in modernizing the country and spoke in bold tones of catching up to Japan and Europe. Many artists, writers, and filmmakers grappled with this rapid change, its perks as well as its pitfalls and paradoxes. Your mother was arguably one of them, with her paintings full of movement — both literal and metaphorical — and her distinctive brush strokes evoking sinuous oil slicks. Did your mother ever speak of this swiftly modernizing landscape?
Behjat Sadr, Untitled, circa 1974. Oil on aluminum, 100×200 cm. Courtesy Balice Hertling
M.G.: She was not one to say that all progress was bad, but I do remember her taking me somewhere when I was young — I can’t remember where — and pointing out that the people there had no running water and yet they had color television. Or let’s say people had color televisions but they could not read. The petro-wealth thing was obviously complicated, and she did have her critiques. She understood that it was both a blessing and a curse; she often said things like, “Maybe it is all happening a bit too quickly.” She never cared for the –isms: capitalism, communism, etc. Maybe it’s fair to say that she just didn’t like dogma.
Behjat Sadr, Untitled, 1977. Oil on paper pasted on hardboard, 172×80 cm. Courtesy Balice Hertling
N.A.: Your mother was also unusually close to the legendary Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad, who died tragically in 1966, in a car crash. I noticed that you have versions of poems written by your mother that Forough marked up.
M.G.: Forough was her best friend. She considered her a person of the utmost integrity, very authentic and true. My mother hated the others, I mean the people who warned her away from Forough, who said, “Don’t hang out with her, she’s a prostitute.” I was young, three or four years old, and would call her dorough, because it rhymed. As you know, dorough in Farsi means, “lie.” That would upset her, and we would all laugh. When Forough died, all those awful people were at her funeral, the ones who told my mother to stay away from her. For this reason, my mother left. She didn’t want to have anything to do with such hypocrites. Forough’s passing left a big hole in my mother’s life.
N.A.: You and your mother stayed in Iran for one year after the revolution of 1979. What was that like and where did you end up afterward?
M.G.: We left for Paris when things got messy. I can say my mother wasn’t in love with the Shah’s regime — she loathed the clientelism and corruption — but she wasn’t going to follow Khomeini, either. Anyway, we arrived in Paris with one suitcase of summer clothes and very little money. Luckily the director of the Cité Internationale des Arts offered us an apartment in their annex, so we stayed there. It was quite a change to move from our 200 square-meter flat in Tehran to a 30 square-meter space full of cockroaches. But I didn’t care. I was young, and so happy to be in Paris.
N.A.: Can you tell me a little about your mother’s initial artistic reception in Paris?
M.G.: It was never easy. She had some supporters. The great critic Pierre Restany was one — a true champion of her work. But there weren’t many. If you can believe it, at one point she painted flowers to sell to some Iranian collectors to make money, but she stopped shortly after. She said, “I can’t do that anymore!” She also shifted to smaller-scale works, as well as photomontage and collage, in part because she didn’t have access to much space in our small apartment, and also in part because of her battle with breast cancer. We tried to help her show work in exhibitions, but for the most part it didn’t work out. I remember us going to galleries, knocking on doors. One gallerist told her, “Madame Sadr you are not young, you haven’t died, and Iran doesn’t interest us.” Can you imagine?
Behjat Sadr, Untitled, circa 1985. Oil and photo collage on paper, 50×70 cm. Courtesy Balice Hertling
N.A.: The market fetishizes the newly dead. It’s so depressing. Can we speak a bit about Behjat Sadr the writer? I was very moved to recently read fragments of her letters and poems in the book that the curator Morad Montazami beautifully put together on your mother — they’re so full of lust and love, verve and introspection. When and what did she write?
M.G.: She seems to have been writing forever. I even have a poem from before my birth. But she really started systematically journaling after the exile and her cancers, and she continued until her death. She wrote down her raw thoughts and sensations, but she also wrote about the past, about painting in general. There are many poems and drawings, too. In one notebook from March of 1957, she writes, “Today I really understood what I want. I want there to be in the history of world art, in the history of the world’s painters, the name of one woman at least.” Then she adds this: “I’m prepared to place all I have, my comfort, my happiness, all of it in the bargain …”
Behjat Sadr in front of one of her paintings, circa 1990
Courtesy The Estate of Behjat Sadr