Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur

Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

In Bahman Mohassess’ 1966 artwork Minotaur, a commanding presence demands the viewer’s attention—a figure that merges human and bull elements. The background is dominated by various gray tones that serve to isolate and emphasize the figure. The Minotaur is depicted with gray-greenish hues, featuring a robust and muscular back, and a slim waist. Scattered across the figure’s body are subtle red dots that create an impression of wounds or vulnerability, almost humanizing the enigmatic creature.

Mohassess’ painting reinterprets the Minotaur. In ancient Greek mythology, the myth of the Minotaur centers around the tragic existence of a grotesque creature. Conceived through the extraordinary union of Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, and the Cretan Bull sent by the god Poseidon, the Minotaur finds itself imprisoned within the labyrinthine recesses of King Minos’ palace in Knossos. The labyrinth itself serves as a poignant symbol of the Minotaur’s perpetual torment—a physical manifestation of his cursed lineage and a metaphorical representation of the inescapable emotional turmoil that defines his existence. The Minotaur’s tragic fate is further exacerbated by the Athenian tribute—a harrowing practice in which seven young men and seven young women from Athens are periodically sent into the labyrinth as sacrificial offerings to quell the creature’s insatiable hunger. 

An example of Saqqakhaneh art. Faramarz Pilaram, Mosques of Isfahan (A), 1963, ink, watercolor, gold, and silver paint on paper on board, 137.1 x 97.2 cm (Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection) © Pilaram Family (Ali Pilaram as Estate of Faramaz Pilaram)

An example of Saqqakhaneh art. Faramarz Pilaram, Mosques of Isfahan (A), 1963, ink, watercolor, gold, and silver paint on paper on board, 137.1 x 97.2 cm (Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection) © Pilaram Family (Ali Pilaram as Estate of Faramaz Pilaram)

Art in 1960s Iran

In the context of Iranian art during the 1960s, the incorporation of Greek mythology represented a highly unconventional choice. The prevailing artistic climate in Iran, largely shaped by the political agenda of the ruling Pahlavi regime, witnessed the endorsement of abstraction as a means to align with contemporary trends in painting. The period also saw the emergence of a localized art movement known as Saqqakhaneh. [1] This movement melded Islamic and Persian iconography with Western aesthetics, aspiring to create a distinctive art form deeply rooted in Iranian culture. The convergence of these two trends resonated with the broader strategy of the Pahlavis to reshape their image as modernized Shi’a monarchs, project authority reminiscent of the grandeur associated with ancient Persian empires, and position themselves as progressive, and open to diplomacy with the West.

Mohassess held a starkly different perspective. In contrast to many other artists, he critiqued Saqqakhaneh and steadfastly insisted that contemporary art should not be confined to the usage of local motifs and elements of the artist’s region or culture. His rejection of the prevailing artistic norms was met with resistance within the Iranian art scene. Painter-critic Ruyin Pakbaz argued that such a visual language was disconnected from Iran’s historical and cultural context. [2] Even an intellectual like Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who had initially supported Mohassess as an antithesis to the Iranian abstract painters of the time, suggested that Mohassess should adopt a hybrid approach, fusing diverse visual styles to create more authentically Iranian art. [3] However, Mohassess remained resolute in his defense of his artistic choices, asserting that essentialist notions of art were constrictive and commercial, and catered to a limited market and foreign buyers. His stance was a deliberate departure from officially sanctioned art, making him stand alone in the art scene, much like the Minotaur in his painting. [4]

Bahman Mohassess, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Bahman Mohassess, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Why the Minotaur?

Mohassess’ use of the Minotaur from Greek mythology relates to his own experience in the Iranian art world. In a solo exhibition in Tehran, held just one year before he painted Minotaur, Mohassess made a significant stylistic shift from abstraction to figuration. At that time in Iran’s capital city of Tehran, abstraction was associated with artistic progressiveness. In embracing figuration, Mohassess was seen as less advanced—an imitator of Western masters.

Left: Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 1949–50, canvas, 55 x 85 cm (Tate Modern, London) © Fondazione Lucio Fontana; right: Abstract dark marks that resemble wounds (detail), Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Left: Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 1949–50, canvas, 55 x 85 cm (Tate Modern, London) © Fondazione Lucio Fontana; right: Abstract dark marks that resemble wounds (detail), Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

In Minotaur, Mohassess’ inner struggle between figuration and abstraction finds visual expression, offering insight into his artistic dilemma. Notably, the figure of the Minotaur bears marks resembling gestural strokes reminiscent of the marks and holes found in the abstract works of one of his favored Italian painters, Lucio Fontana. These abstract marks resemble wounds and infuse an element of tension and contrast into the composition, creating a dynamic interplay between the representational and the abstract. They resonate with the expressive, spontaneous brushstrokes and marks that characterize many abstract artworks from this period—such as the iconic paintings of Abstract Expressionists—while simultaneously challenging the conventional portrayal of the mythological creature.

Mohassess’ portrayal of the Minotaur distinguishes itself in several significant ways from the previous representations of this mythological figure. In contrast to George Frederic Watts‘ Victorian-era painting, which portrays the Minotaur as a malevolent creature crushing a small bird in its hand while awaiting its youthful victims, who are being brought to him on a ship with white sails visible in the background, Mohassess’ interpretation casts the creature in a more favorable light. What immediately captures the viewer’s attention is the palpable aura of nobility, emphasized by the idealized physique of the Minotaur. This quality sets Mohassess’ rendition apart from its predecessors. The background, intentionally devoid of contextual details, serves as a conscious choice to direct the viewer’s attention squarely on the central figure. The Minotaur, as envisioned by Mohassess, is a commanding presence. Its stoic expression conveys an unmistakable aura of strength and resilience. While one could certainly engage in allegorical readings of Mohassess’ Minotaur, the context and message are far less overt compared to the works of artists like Watts.

Left: Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess); right: George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Left: Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess); right: George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur, 1885, oil on canvas, 118 x 94.5 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Facing the Pahlavi Regime

Mohassess painted Minotaur in 1966 during a period of intensified censorship in Iran that cast a shadow on creative expression across the nation. Within this restrictive climate, the existential struggle depicted in Minotaur, a creature trapped in a labyrinth, emerged as emblematic of the broader challenges faced by Iranian artists and creative individuals grappling with the constraints imposed by the Shah’s regime. The Minotaur’s captivity within the labyrinth can be interpreted as symbolic of the pervasive constraints on social and political expression during the Pahlavi era. The regime exercised strict censorship and control over creative output, aiming to align it with the Pahlavi ideological agenda. Much like the Minotaur ensnared within the maze, Mohassess must have felt similarly confined and restricted.

The myth of the Minotaur serves as a powerful allegory for the plight of individuals subjected to situations beyond their control. While cautious with his choice of words, Mohassess critiqued the art scene in 1960s Iran. In an interview, Mohassess identified the “prevailing atmosphere of complacency,” suggesting that artists conformed to the dictates of the Pahlavi Regime. When one artist expressed gratitude to Empress Farah Pahlavi for her support of Iranian art, Mohassess interjected, stating, “It is this environment that separates the artist from the [social] issues.” [5] This statement underscores Mohassess’ belief that the Pahlavi regime’s support for certain forms of art came at the cost of artistic integrity and social engagement. For Mohassess, the oppressive environment itself emerged as the primary issue, drawing parallels to the Minotaur’s involuntary role in the labyrinth. Just as the Minotaur was trapped in a situation not of its own making, artists in 1960s Iran found themselves confined by the expectations and demands of the Pahlavi regime, unable to freely express their true artistic vision or engage with the pressing social and political issues of their time.

Minotaur (detail), Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Minotaur (detail), Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur, 1966, oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm (private collection; printed with the permission of the Estate of Bahman Mohassess)

Mohassess’ painting, therefore, can be understood as a subtle form of resistance, offering a platform for nuanced critiques and expressions of both personal and collective struggles. Minotaur by Mohassess stands as a thought-provoking work that skillfully weaves together elements of mythology, personal turmoil, and socio-political commentary. It is a testament to Mohassess’ artistic mastery and unwavering commitment to engage with the issues of his time. Simultaneously, it casts light on the intricate interplay between art and politics in 1960s Iran, where artists like Mohassess navigated the complexities of self-expression while contending with restrictions imposed by the nation’s rulers.

[1] For more on the Saqqakhaneh movement, see Maryam Ekhtiar, and Julia Rooney, “Artists of the Saqqakhana Movement (1950s–60s),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000).

[2] Javad Mojabi, “Vazife-ye naqqāsh-e Irani chist? goft-o guyi bā Jodat, Pakbaz va Khansari,” Etela’ate Sal (1969), p. 610.

[3] Jalal Al-e Ahmad, “Darbāre-ye Mohassess,” in Mostafa Zamaninya, Adab va honar-e emruz-e irān. majmu’e maqālāt 1324–1348, (Tehran: Mitra Publications, 1994), p. 1360.

[4] Mohassess later accepted state commissions for his large sculptural projects in the 1970s. However, even in those cases, his approach was not aligned with the cultural policies of the Pahlavi regime.

[5] Javad Mojabi, “Chand aks-e fowri az Bahman Mohassess,” Tandis Magazine (June 17, 2008), p. 14.

Learn about the Tehran Biennial in this Guggenheim article

Jalal Al-e Ahmad, “To Mohassess, For the Wall,” ARTMargins, volume 10,  number 2 (2021), pp. 127–36.

Abbas Amanat, Iran: A Modern History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

Hamid Keshmirshekan, “Saqqa-Kana: ii. School of Art,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition (August 15, 2009).

Cite this page as: Dr. Mohammadreza Mirzaei, "Bahman Mohassess, Minotaur," in Smarthistory, June 13, 2024, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bahman-mohassess-minotaur/.