READING ROOM | SEPTEMBER 2020
Negar Azimi in conversation with Mitra Goberville, Behjat Sadr’s daughter
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.
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.
Behjat Sadr in Iran, circa 1945.
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.
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
Behjat Sadr in Rome, circa 1955
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?