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The Letter as a Sonata

In CANVAS Magazine
Issue September/October 2009

by Myrna Ayad and James Parry
With thanks to Roula El Zein

In 1970, the renowned French journal, Connaissance des Arts, nominated Charles Hossein Zenderoudi among 10 of the most important living artists, alongside Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. The founder of the Iranian Saqqa-khaneh movement, this most universal of artists is also a master of the letter. Clarity, simplicity and purity are his consistent hallmarks, bringing an unerring order to what appears to be Zenderoudi’s very own particular form of chaos.

Charles Hossein Zenderoudi is quite clear about his art and why it strikes such a strong chord with the public. “People around the world are all the same and everyone is able to read my work,” he explains. “What matters is the harmonisation between the heart of the artist and the heart of the viewer.” That there should be such pronounced empathy between creator and viewer may help explain, at least in part, why Zenderoudi was so outstanding an artist at such a young age and why he has continued to be a major player on the world stage of art for half a century.
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Zenderoudi has received many accolades and won many international awards, starting at the biennales of Venice in 1960 and São Paolo in 1961, when he was still in his early 20s. Following the 1963 acquisition by New York’s Museum of Modern Art of his K+L+32+H+4, which not only marked the first of his paintings to enter a major public collection but also served as a catalyst for other museums to follow suit, most of the world’s prominent art institutions have sought to include his works in their collections – London’s British Museum, Paris’s Centre Pompidou and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum, among others.

A Curious Mind

Born in Tehran in 1937, Zenderoudi’s discoveries began in the bazaars of the Iranian capital. An independent child, he was insatiably curious and attracted especially by images, primarily posters of American and Indian films and stamps, but also the Hands of Fatima, rings inscribed with calligraphy and medallions too. “I used to spend all my savings on such things. I remember having bought hundreds of stamps with people’s names on them made out of semi-precious stones,” recalls Zenderoudi, who would continually wander through the alleys of the bazaars on the lookout for objects that caught his eye. At school, his favourite class was geography, mainly because of the maps, which he would colour or make cut-outs from – an idea that, along with stamps, he would later pursue through his artworks. Art was a passion for the young Zenderoudi; not in painting and drawing per se, but rather through a more self-experimental approach. “I did bizarre things – prints and others – in my own way, and I discovered, later on, that I was able to do portraits or landscapes.”

Scientific theories, concepts of time and space, astrolabes and astrology, all fascinated the young Zenderoudi. In particular, a visit to Iran’s Bastan Archaeological Museum triggered the beginning of his questioning of the nature of man’s relationship with the cosmos, something that has engaged him ever since. In two of the museum’s display cases, calligraphic script and tables of numerology completely swathed white cotton shirts worn by warriors underneath their armour. The numbers, symbols and talismanic nature of the cloth were to feature in his work later.

By 19, he was exhibiting in various galleries in his native Iran, but when the College of Decorative Arts (CDA) opened in the late 1950s, he enrolled immediately – despite already enjoying a rapidly rising level of fame. “It was very important for me to have a diploma to be able to continue,” he recalls. “My aim was to leave Iran and go to Europe, but I also wanted to learn classical subjects such as drawing, lithography and fresco-making.”

It was in the late 1950s that Zenderoudi created the Saqqa-khaneh movement. A reaction to Western art and the relentless clash between traditional and modernist Iranian art, the Saqqa-khaneh lobbied for the incorporation of national, folkloric and religious elements into Iranian art. In essence, Saqqa-khaneh took pride in Iranian-ness and sought to mesh Iranian heritage with Contemporary art, proposing a re-reading of cultural content by means of a referential continuity. The ideas it expressed set alight the art world in Iran and were quickly taken up by other important figures of the time, especially after Zenderoudi left Iran in 1960. The ideas he championed proved to have potent durability. Indeed, until today, the movement continues to exert a significant influence on younger generations of artists. Meanwhile, important art critics who became close friends with Zenderoudi, such as Pierre Restany and Frank Elgar, encouraged him to move to Paris, something which became possible when the French government granted him a scholarship at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, in 1960.

Steady Rhythms

The 23 year-old Zenderoudi found Paris “fabulous”. He met artists like Alberto Giacometti, Stephen Poliakoff and Lucio Fontana and writers such as Eugène Ionesco, recalling how, “the artistic and literary scene in Paris was extraordinary, with no frontiers, and I was part of it.” The years that followed saw an infusion of iconography into his work, with Iranian motifs enveloping his canvases. However, by the early 1970s he had abandoned much of the iconography, albeit briefly returning to it later, and preferred to focus on the letter per se. Essentially, Zenderoudi toyed with the rules of calligraphy – rhythmically overlapping words and letters into complex, indecipherable compositions. By the 1980s, his letters took on larger forms and his childhood fascination with stamps resurfaced in some works in the early 1990s, resembling work executed two decades before. His more recent work, however, harks at a disambiguation between balance and imbalance. “We don’t hear them,” says Zenderoudi of the visual vibrations in his work, “What we hear is the music.” For him, writing is to spaces what notes are to music.

His is an explicit will to distance, a desire to abolish the seductiveness of the line so as to retain its conceptual path. “I am a scholar in calligraphy but I am not a calligrapher. I paint; I don’t do letters. Like the architect who uses stones or bricks to construct a building, I use calligraphy to construct my painting,” he explains. When asked whether the repetition of letters and numbers is associated with Sufism, his response is quick: “I dislike all ‘isms’ and I have nothing to do with that. When people speak of calligraphy in my paintings, they are really talking about the stereotype: if there is a letter then it is calligraphy and if it is repeated then the artist is Sufi. Spirituality is found in all periods and many artists in various fields and cultures have dealt with this question. The list is endless, from Giotto to Kandinsky to Bergman... Each and every one has a personal answer.”

The desire to know and learn more keeps him alert. Lively, fast-moving cities are where his varied interests thrive most. “I change the process according to my feeling or by necessity. If I am, for example, in a car in the desert, I use my camera to take photographs. And these are as valid and worthy as my paintings. I always have to find a way to create and I can adapt to all sorts of situations,” he says. Meanwhile, Zenderoudi can be funny, ironic and challenging, his works never shrinking from saying the un-sayable – as, for instance, in one of his Saqqa-khaneh works, where he penned ironic dedications to “writers who cannot write, poets who spout nonsense, philosophers who witter on about this and that, and artists who make crap.” In this way, Zenderoudi mocked the concept of ‘intellectualism’ and challenged the prevalence of value judgements, which he felt served to obscure the real content, and indeed, beauty, of art.

Matters of Substance

Zenderoudi’s open-minded approach is one in which his conceptual drive leads him down many avenues and to work through all possibilities. He is a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a book illustrator, the list is constantly expanding, the career studded with landmark achievements. In 1973 Zenderoudi won the UNESCO award for ‘The Most Beautiful Book of the Year’, for example – a project that involved design and lithographs for the Holy Qur’an. A decade later, he created monumental works for the international airports of Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Then, in 1995, at the Bernay Museum of Fine Arts in France, he created an extraordinary work in which he spent a whole night painting and walking on a 100 square-metre canvas in one of the museum spaces, working against a backdrop of music and poetry. He mixed ancient techniques, such as the use of egg-based tempura, with vocal art expressions from more contemporary periods, and in so doing, fulfilled “an act of art, music and poetry” and created a bridge between different periods and styles of art history.

In this way, Zenderoudi has consistently worked to break codes and conventions, to disrupt the boundaries that exist between forms of artistic expression. At the same time, his works – however ornate and intricate they may appear – are invariably lean and to the point. Every component is specifically essential to the work in which it appears, and there is nothing that is superfluous or gratuitous – the artist has already stripped away anything unimportant.

In 2001, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art presented a retrospective of Zenderoudi’s work. Appropriately, the same art critic, Restany, who had encouraged Zenderoudi to move to Paris in the late 1950s, wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue. In it, he explained how Zenderoudi transcends painting and photography in his art to affirm “his unmistakeable distancing vis-à-vis calligraphy”. Meanwhile, Zenderoudi himself affirms: “What was written about me decades ago proves that my art has no frontiers. Do people refer to Picasso as ‘Spanish’ or Duchamp as ‘French’? It is not a matter of country or nationality. Artists are universal.” It is surely this uncanny ability to transcend categories and definitions of art, culture, history and geography that will prove this artist’s most enduring legacy.

 


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