Iran Darroudi was born in the culturally wealthy Iranian city of Mashhad, on the evening of September 2nd, 1936. Her father came from a renowned family of traders from Khorasan and her mother from a family of Caucasian merchants who had migrated to Iran and settled in Mashhad in the wake of the October Revolution.
Her familial environment caused her to become acquainted with a diversity of culture from childhood. She wrote about this: “As my father’s mother-in-law was Russian and the wife of one of my uncles was German, Christian festivals were celebrated in my father’s house. However, as my maternal family was attached to Turkish festivals, all the Islamic festive and mourning ceremonies were also performed in full pomp. Proud of his Persian origins, my Caucasian grandfather used to read, in a strongly Turkish accent, poems from Sa’di and Hafez or narrate the saga of Rostam and Afrasiab for my sister and myself, while my paternal family proudly spoke to us of Goethe, Tolstoy and Chekhov. My presence in this family in which four different languages were spoken allowed me to receive the influence of other cultures.”
Iran’s father, who had studied in Russia and spoke both Russian and German, was extremely fond of beauty and art, particularly painting. He was the one who ignited the flame of love for painting in the young child, first teaching her the foremost lesson in painting – that of looking – and then telling her about the mysterious beauty of lines and volumes and the attractiveness of colors: “In my opinion, my father was a painter who never took up painting. His painting was the inevitable presence of masses and harmonious colors within his sight…I have repeatedly wondered if I would have turned to painting had my father not offered me that famous book of paintings with a strange beautiful leather cover engraved in silver letters with the words ‘Dedicated to Czar Alexander II’; most certainly not. Perhaps that book was the book of my destiny…Seeing the originals in the Louvre many years later, I realized that all its images were indelibly recorded in full detail in my mind, and that I had indeed been well taught the most important lesson of painting: that of ‘seeing good paintings.’
Together with love, her mother gave her first piano lesson, so that, along with colorful melodies, Iran could learn that any individual incarnates the entire universe and that one cannot appreciate music unless one’s soul is permeated with love. It is not without reason that Iran thus describes her mother: “My mother is my stifled rebellion against the constraints of life and the poetry by which I sing my love for life.” Thus, music, coupled with her love for painting, developed in her soul as an absolute principle even before she could read or write or indeed understand the meaning of words. She says: “Music was the foundation of my relationship with art and it played a much greater role than painting in the development of my mind and perceptions. The sound of the piano was familiar to my ears and had refined my senses even before I began learning to see and to appreciate painting. Just as the air one needs to live, the presence of music has always been, and still is, a necessity for me…When my fingers become tired of handling coarse brushes, they begin gliding softly on the black and white keys of my piano, driving out all weariness from my body. Painting, however, is my entire existence, and the piano is its flight. If I go to paradise some day, I’m sure a piano will be waiting for me there!”
The great future painter thus grows up in a hybrid cultural environment in which she becomes familiar with the magic of colors and lines and falls in love with music. Hence, many years later, she depicts these early emotional cultural acquisitions in tableaux filled with light, revealing her cultural identity, based on Ferdowski’s epic and Mowlana’s mysticism.
Iran Darroudi was one year old in 1937, when, together with her mother and sister, Pouran, she traveled to Europe to join her father, who had set up a commercial firm in Hamburg.
The family spent a carefree life in those years of calm before the storm, while the Nazis had come to power and loudspeakers were broadcasting the Fuhrer’s speeches. Soon the flames of war engulfed Europe and night bombardments began shaking Hamburg. Nevertheless, they stayed in this city until well into the war. The German government eventually notified all foreign citizens residing on its soil that it could no more honor its commitments regarding their security and food rations. Iran’s father, who had apparently underestimated the magnitude of the events and assumed that the war would be over shortly, decided within the hour to take his family back to Iran, leaving behind all their belongings.
The homeward voyage, or, in other words, the flight from Germany, was difficult and frightening in that hostile environment. It left behind an unforgettable terror in Iran’s memory that is reflected in many of her early paintings. The deafening roar of bombs exploding during air raids, the clamor rising from trains brimming with terrified people, deeply impressed the young child, causing her to retreat in a bewilderment which others attributed to her probable mental retardation. Darroudi describes it thus: “I still remember the bomb shelters of Hamburg, the deafening roar of bomber planes, the sudden explosions of bombs. My horror of bomb explosions and alarm sirens is literally extraordinary. Recalling the memories of our flight from Germany, the war itself, and its subsequent continuation in Iran, I imagine that much of my confusion was due to my witnessing scenes of fire and conflagration, as well as the consequences of World War II. In this way, although it occurred several thousand kilometers away, the war left indelible scars on my mind.”
The allies landed on Iranian soil and began arresting German and German-speaking natives, who were taken on foot to the Russian border and transferred thereof to prisons. Iran and her sister, who both spoke German, sought refuge in the family’s summer garden in the village of Shandiz, near Mashhad, living in hiding in a house overlooking the only graveyard of the village: “Rather than a shelter, that fair-weathered summer residence, with its cherry trees bending under the weight of fruit, was to become the prison of my mind, upon which it impressed the bitterest of memories. Because there, in that quiet, eventless village, in that large garden without walls, I became acquainted with death, the fear of death, and the fear of God.”
After a while the gardener’s old wife, a bigot and superstitious woman, gained access to their refuge and began telling the young girl horrible things about the nearby graveyard and the dead buried in it: “I had lost all hope in God’s mercy and compassion. I was afraid of everything and everyone; of the dead coming back to life in their graves; of men falling prey to the devil or djinns; of ditches brimming with corpses…From then on the beautiful garden and serene graveyard lost all beauty and serenity for me. The darkness of night became filled with horrid images. I imagined several strange creatures in every corner of the garden and the slightest sound conjured images of the dead scuttling out of their graves which left me shaking in horror.”
Nonetheless, alongside those bitter events, a touch of creativity as glorious as the old woman’s tales had been horrible was burgeoning in the young child, developing her artistic outlook of nature. Her first direct encounter with nature occurs in her Garden of Fear, in which she marvels at this wonderful order. As she writes: “I saw the green leaves, the white flowers, the seeds growing in the soil. I gazed at the dirt road running next to our house, longing to visit the village into which I had never set foot. The village appeared abandoned. Perhaps its inhabitants had fled to a land where God was compassionate and merciful.” Elsewhere, she notes: “One must sow seeds and watch them grow into plants, one must feel the water of the sea in the moisture of a single raindrop, and one must look at the enamored black fish that relinquishes the clean sea water to seek its mate in a swamp.”
It is in that “garden of fear” that imagination prompts the child’s mind to delve into imagery and inspiration, stimulating her to transcend apparent realities in her quest. Therefore, the mold she later adopts to depict her mental images is a type of surrealism ideally matched to her inner contradictions and combinations of order and disorder. In fact, Darroudi’s surrealism depicts her worldly outlook even more than her painting manner. Acknowledging this fact, she writes: “The image of that garden of glass which the presence of the gardener’s wife had transformed into a garden of fear are still intact in my subconscious and invisibly present in my paintings…The landscapes that took form in my later paintings were mostly inspired from images of that village…Once the fever of arrests abated and relative calm returned, the family moved to Mashhad, to grandfather’s large and sumptuous mansion. But the house lacked its former cordial atmosphere. We all felt uncomfortable in it.” Before long, Iran’s father rented a house near the Green Dome in Mashhad, to which he moved with his wife and two daughters.
A new ordeal was soon to begin for Iran. She was going to school for the first time, entering a society that would judge her. But little Iran, still confused by her memories of the war and the “garden of fear,” paid no attention to others’ judgments and assessments, showing no interest in learning or care for her classmates’ scorn.
Iran’s main supporter in those years of stupor and mental inhibition was her elder sister, Pouran. Pouran’s wholehearted devotion helped her endure the contempt she was subjected to at home and in school. This emotional support continued in subsequent years, during Iran’s studies in France, as it does today: “I had repeatedly told my sister about Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, and convinced her that she was to play Theo’s part vis-à-vis myself. My kind and magnanimous sister never cast off her impersonation of Theo or cared that I was not Vincent.” In this way, a love burgeoned from the two sisters’ relationship that flowed as a limpid stream all along the painter’s life and influenced her art; a love founded on deep mutual understanding and respect.
Her migration to Tehran in 1945 brought about a perceptible change in the future artist’s view. Nostalgia for her birthplace constantly haunted her. Memories of the minarets of Mashhad, with which she was familiar, never left her alone. The presence of blurred vistas of Mashhad and desert landscapes in her works bears enigmatic references to this nostalgia in the artist’s heart. Garden of Memories (1985), To Endeavor (1986) and Luminous Cascade (1985) embody her mastery at interpreting apparent similarities to express her cultural identity through spatial lighting.
Soon after settling in Tehran, she caught a disease (advanced trachoma) that endangered her eyesight: “I almost entirely lost my eyesight. Blindness was the most painful, most dreadful feeling I had experienced until then. An atavistic sense of survival arose in me. I had to recover my eyesight! The painful fear of solitude and blindness made me rise up and assert my existence…In fact my regaining my eyesight brought about a great change in me and shifted my attention to other issues. It was as if I had suddenly awaked from a nightmare and was looking around myself for the first time. The dust of bitter memories cleared up and the world appeared to me in all its glory.”
Rather than shattering the ten-year-old child’s morale, illness and mental stress bolstered her sense of survival. Her blindness caused Iran to suddenly snap out of her stupor and apparent mental retardation of several years, breaking her silence, which was nothing but a full record of her sufferings, and regaining her will to fight.
Having realized the value of vision, she became enraptured with seeing prior to beginning her studies. The child who until recently was considered a nuisance in class and hardly passed her tests suddenly became the top student of her class; a status she retained through the end of her secondary schooldays. Meanwhile without her parents knowing, she also began learning to paint. Her father, who soon discovered her secret, encouraged her and bought her her first painting.
She was fourteen when her grandfather’s distressing suicide happened. That sad event shaped her worldly outlook in years to come and was one of her main incentives to embrace the career of a painter. Convinced that “only the value of art remains undiminished by events,” she decided to enter a profession in which values are determining, not prices.
Completing her secondary studies in 1954, several years after her grandfather’s suicide, Iran went to Paris to join her sister, who studied the piano at the conservatory, to study at the École de Beaux Arts.
Her initial contact with the French cultural environment came as a shock. She soon realized that whatever she had learned during private painting courses in Iran was incorrect and that she had to begin relearning from the ground up. As suggested by her professor, Chaplin Midy, she began copying works preserved in the Louvre, so as to become familiar with the fundamental concepts of painting, such as color combinations and the value of space. However, besides feeling oppressed by the confined atmosphere of classrooms and disturbed by her cultural naïveté, she also found the presence of nude models extremely offensive. Her classmates laughed at her prudery, confronting her with yet another unwanted challenge.
At the Beaux Arts, she was the only female student to come from the Land of the One Thousand and One Nights, as others put it. This reference, which somehow ignored Iranian culture, prompted Iran to dispel the misunderstanding it implied from her national identity and introduce time-honored Iranian culture.
During those years, besides curricular exhibitions, she also took part in group salons and exhibitions and earned a few prizes. Iran Darroudi’s first individual exhibition was held in Miami in 1958, when she was 22, at the invitation of the Florida State Art Center. The first stage of her successful artistic career, that exhibition opened the doors of fame and fortune for her. The mayor of Miami offered her a golden key to the city and the governor of Florida commended her artistic activities in an official letter.
On her way back from Miami, she took a course in English language at Columbia University, New York, during which she became acquainted with several Iranian students and held an exhibition with their help.
Now the time had come for Iran to return home with a bagful of honors and a superb statue of herself that her sculpture professor, André Deldelbio, had made when she was twenty and exhibited under the title ‘Portrait of a Young Iranian Painter.’ The Museum of the City of Paris later bought and exhibited this statue.
Darroudi remained in Iran a little more than a year, spending a month at Persepolis and visiting Esfahan, becoming acquainted with the most magnificent manifestations of Iranian art.
Iran Darroudi’s first exhibition in Iran was held in April 1960 at the Farhang Hall. The press strongly criticized the young painter for having appeared alongside her diplomas and prizes, and satirically titled her ‘A Painter from the Orient,’ the hullabaloo following her through her subsequent exhibitions. After that exhibition, Darroudi traveled to Europe in order to widen the scope of her studies and take in as much international culture as she could. The influence of her favorite painters, as well as different schools of painting, even calligraphy, are visible in this period of the artist’s work, which culminates around the thirtieth year of her life. Her subsequent bold brushstrokes and unrestrained chromatic temerity well indicate how lovingly the painter looks at life and how utterly she is enraptured with painting. She eventually succeeded in finding her way amid doubts and uncertainties, revealing her unique outlook and different personality.
She writes: “The period between ages 40 and 46 was a mental ordeal for me. Those years of wandering were my years of truly restless learning. From the Academy of Brussels to Italian artistic circles, from Spain to the Cinema and Television School in the USA, from my painter friends to my theater and cinema friends, I kept learning from everyone and everything.” During that period, she resolutely traveled about, welcoming every new acquaintance. She completed a course on the manufacturing of stained glass in Brussels in order to achieve vibrant colors in her paintings. She learned the history of art at the Louvre before moving on to New York to study the production and direction of television programs. In Italy, she met with the Spanish critic Alexandre Cereci, with whom she traveled to Spain, becoming acquainted there with the renowned Antoni Tapies. She lived for a while in the mansion of Bertha Salkind, the wife of film producer Alexander Salkind, where she met with such famous figures of the cinema as Orson Welles, Claude Chabrol and Michelangelo Antonioni and attended several of their shoots. At the Poet’s Festival at Knokke het Zoute (Belgium), she met with Jean Cocteau, who later wrote and mailed to her a beautiful introduction to a group exhibition of Iranian painters being held at the Museum of Ixelles. In 1964, she became a member of the Society of Artists and Art Critics of Rimini and first met with Salvador Dali at her own place in Paris. That meeting developed into a friendship and in 1973 when Iran Darroudi was due to hold an exhibition at the Galerie Drouand, Paris, Dali expressed a wish to inaugurate this Iranian surrealist painter’s exhibition. On the opening day, December 12th, 1973, a general strike paralyzed Paris, upsetting everything. Dali was unable to attend the opening ceremony and publicly endorse a painter who saw her works rooted in light and mysticism and therefore different from the light of his own birthplace and paintings.
During those years Iran Darroudi held exhibitions in Iran, at the Hilton Hotel, the Iran-America Society, the Borghese Gallery and the Farhang Hall. The large (2 x 3 meters and more) canvases she put on show during her sixth exhibition held at the Negar Gallery, fully established her as a full-grown surrealist contemporary Iranian artist. The publication of her Oil in the important press across the world earned her international fame. Darroudi soon after traveled to the USA, to benefit from opportunities she had been offered and to conclude contracts with renowned American art galleries. However, the conditions put forth by American galleries, by which her freedom was to be limited on a long-term basis, made her change her mind and choose instead to live independently free from all commitment, residing either in Iran or in France, and to never enter any contract and forever remain an independent painter.
In the intervals between her numerous travels to Europe and America, Darroudi began writing articles on the history of art and art critiques in Kayhan newspaper’s “Thought and Art” page. In 1962 she joined the editorial board of Sokhan and her critiques and translations on contemporary schools of painting were published in this monthly magazine. She then returned to Europe to study Achaemenian art, Master Poor-Davood, the eminent expert in ancient Iranian culture and languages, assisted her in this regard by putting research sources and translations of the Avesta at her disposition. The results of her studies on Achaemenian art were published in the Iranian press and formed the basis of a televised program titled ‘Immortal Flames of Iranian Art,’ which was broadcast by Iranian television. In winter 1966, in New York, she met with Parviz Moqaddasi, who was studying television direction, and married him.
Iran ever cherishes the memories of that acquaintance and eighteen-year-long marriage: “I had left tears and anxieties behind me. Not even death concerned me any more. My fruitful life with Parviz had revealed the true values of living really and living happily. I leaned on the strong mountain he was and nurtured aspirations of flight.” The effects of personal happiness are conspicuous in many of her works of that period, especially The Hegemony of Being, Space, Stone, Leaf Earth and the Roots of Folly.
A few weeks after her marriage, having completed her cinema and television studies, Darroudi returned to Iran. She was soon joined by Parviz and both began working at the newly established Iranian television organization as producer and director.
Iran’s involvement in television lasted six years, during which she produced and directed various programs. Two of her series programs concerned plastic arts. Besides directing 1900 minutes of televised programs, Darroudi’s most important work was a 55-minute-long documentary on the 1968 Biennial of Venice. The Society of Italian Art Critics and Experts invited her to appear on the jury of the Biennial of Venice, and Iranian television commissioned her to produce a film of important cultural events in cooperation with Italian Radio-Television. The film on the Biennial of Venice, which showed the impact of the French Cultural Revolution on this festival, revealed Iran Darroudi as an artist well capable of working with artistic media other than the paint brush. The film was dubbed in French and Italian and shown in France and Italy.
Some time later, the success of Darroudi’s televised programs prompted the Industrial University of Iran to invite her to occupy a chair as honorary professor and teach a course of Knowledge and History of Art.
As in 1971, Darroudi spent two years teaching a course in art history to students of industrial fields, always emphasizing that “science and industry are not separate from art and aesthetics.”
While working for television, Iran created works in her studio which were exhibited across the world, from Mexico to Canada, from Paris to Milan to Tokyo, earning her international success. In 1969, the I.T.T. Group, which had laid the Abadan-Mahshahr oil pipeline, sent a team of experts to Iran with the mission of selecting an artist to paint a tableau of the venture. After seeing the works of several painters, they visited Iran Darroudi’s small atelier, where her large Resurrection stood almost finished. They immediately commissioned her to paint Iranian Oil in exchange for the painter’s rights accruing from a circulation of several million copies. This work was reproduced twice, in 1969 and 1970, in such world-famous periodicals as Life, Time, Newsweek, etc., in two pages and was later reprinted in poster form. Ahmad Shamlou gave it a beautiful name, “Our Veins, the Earth’s Veins.”
In 1973, her trilingual book was published, with a preface by André Malraux and Jean Cocteau, a poem by Ahmad Shamlou and a foreword by Hooshang Taheri, in conjunction with her exhibition at the Goethe Institute, Tehran. This book was reprinted in 1976 by Amir Kabir Publishers. In the same year, her Vial of Life and Neverland obtained the first prize at the Women Artists exhibition of Paris and earned her the title of Woman Painter of 1973. Afterwards, she decided never again to take part in any competition, a resolution she never broke.
1973 was a prolific year for Darroudi. Alongside her exhibition at the Goethe Institute, she held four more successful exhibitions in four provinces of Iran before moving on to Paris to set up an exhibition she had been contemplating for eighteen years, at the Galerie Drouant, one of the city’s most notorious art galleries. The latter exhibition brought her great fame and prompted other European galleries to request her appearance on their premises. After Paris she held successful exhibitions at the Atrium Artis Gallery, Geneva, and, a month later, at the Galerie 21, Zurich. In 1974, a film on Iran’s life, directed by Stoloff, was broadcast on American television.
Her long presence in Western artistic circles acquainted her with eminent international art and culture figures, including the Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1963), the French poet, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1963), the Spanish painter Salvador Dali, the great French man of culture and letters André Malraux, the famous Japanese painter Togo Seizi (1975), and the Mexican modernist architect Varimez Vasquez (1976). These artists each in turn influenced the mind of this Iranian painter and widened her worldly outlook. Today Iran Darroudi is a cosmopolitan artist.
She writes about her meeting with her favorite painter, Salvador Dali: “Dali has always been and still is a saint for me. The wonderful sources of Dali’s imagination and the stupendous atmosphere of his paintings always elicit my admiration. Undoubtedly, Dali’s painting is the pure essence of imagination and the manifestation of the impossible.”
In 1975, an exhibition at the Galerie Drouant, Tokyo, the counterpart of its Parisian homonym, took her to Japan, where she resided in Togo Seizi’s mansion during her stay. Darroudi thus describes her meeting with Togo Seizi: “ I wished I were one of his garden’s statues. Had Giacometti carved me, I could have contemplated the artist creating.” The upshots of that travel were A dance as this… and Legend in which the influence of Japanese art and coloring is perceptible.
Back from Tokyo, she went on to Mexico, where her exhibition at the La Galeria Mexico was so successful as to prompt the Mexican Palacio de Bellas Artes of Art to bid an appointment for a future exhibition of her works on its premises. She also became acquainted with the Mexican modernist architect Varimez Vasquez during her stay in Mexico, and on her way back to Tehran she was received in New York by the United Nations Organization’s Secretary General Kurt Waldheim who presented her with an album of UN postage stamps.
In 1976 Darroudi returned to Mexico to hold an exhibition at the Mexican Museum of Art. Her hosts, besides the museum curator Varimez Vasquez, were the television stations of Mexico. She was particularly delighted by the warm welcome she received from the Mexican press and artistic circles, feeling proud of being an Iranian artist exhibiting in a land of painters. She writes in this regard: “A painter from Iran was going to say, in the land of painters, ‘This is my visage; I am Iran.’ Therefore, in memory of Persepolis guards holding each other by the hand, I became the hand raised in prayer for contemporary Iranian art to keep flourishing.”
A few days later, Antonio Rodriguez, a famous Mexican critic, praised her as one of the world’s four greatest painters. The fall of that year was one of the most active periods of Iran Darroudi’s career, during which she held six simultaneous exhibitions at the Heritage Gallery, Toronto, the Alexander Gallery, Tehran, and in four provinces across Iran. The provincial exhibitions, which she attended in person, showed her prolific activity as well as her desire to promote modern art throughout her fatherland.
In 1978, during which the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was inaugurated, Darroudi moved to France, wishing to escape the vitriolic press, which had disparaged her fourteen times in a single day. She ended up settling there in an unforeseen self-exile.
The black years had begun. Within several years, death took away four of her family’s most important men. The untimely death of her husband, Parviz Moqaddasi, in 1985, coincided with ice fields appearing in her works. She writes: “Ice pervades the sky and earth of my paintings, even the sun freezes to announce the disaster…My first work was The Assumption of Parviz, following which ice and icicles suffused my paintings.”
This time, the memory of Parviz became a springboard for the artist to rise up and depict existence and light.
Her most important exhibitions in this period were held at the Azadi Cultural Complex, Tehran (1992), Gallery 54, New York and the United Nations headquarters New York (1994). After her exhibition at the UN building, she wrote her autobiography, titled “In the Distance Between Two Points…!”, published three years later in Tehran, in which she humbly and respectfully speaks of her love, praises the most eminent figures in her life: master Poor-Davood, Parviz Natel Khanlari, Ahmad Shamlou, Mehdi Akhavan Saless, Forugh Farrokhzad, Bijan Mofid, etc., and delves in sincere tones into her mind and soul, putting forth a sensible psychoanalysis of “man” and his aspirations and endeavors.
The publication of “In the Distance Between Two Points…!” earned her invitations from various universities and Iranian cultural societies in Europe and America, including Berkeley University, the University of California, and the Iranian Studies Center, London. In her paintings and lectures alike, she stresses her love for Iran. Although she has learned painting in France and spent most of her life abroad Iran has remained Iranian, rooted in the soil of her fatherland. She writes: “I have learned the culture of today’s painting in France, but I am rooted in my fatherland’s culture. Painting is an art which, I believe, reveals the painter’s national identity. I am proud of the identity that exudes from out of my paintings.”
In 1999, following three consecutive surgical operations, Iran Darroudi traveled to the USA, there to hold four exhibitions and deliver eleven lectures in different cities, well illustrating her stamina in the face of ailment.
Thus, alongside several great women in this country’s history, she has become an epitome of the worthy Iranian woman.
Even today, Iran Darroudi is painting more busily than ever, and she brashly writes: “My best work is one I have not created yet, and which is involved in the corners of my mind with new interpretations of life and which must materialize and take form.”