The human figure - twisted, crazed, voluptuous - has jostled its way into the art galleries of Tehran. Though figurative art may not seem radical by any stretch, in post-revolution Iran, which generally adheres to a template of strictly non-representational visual works, it has become an avant garde mode of expression. It is thus with great interest that many artists of the post-revolution era have begun to experiment more and more with figurative style, placing their focus on the human form. It is a nod to an increased desire for expression - "one that is absolutely vital here," says the painter Golnar Tabibzadeh, as she leads me to the Niavaran Cultural Center, off a tree-lined boulevard in an affluent northern suburb of Tehran.
The centre, a large, concrete complex set amid trees and gardens, is hosting a show of Iraj Zand, a painter and sculptor who was best-known for his flattened bronze figures of men and women. Over 30 life-size and miniature forms are on display at the centre, which is housing the first retrospective of the artist's work since his sudden passing in 2006. The statues, ranging from small figurines to life-size metal works, are emotive and direct. A woman shaped from a single sheet of bronze crosses her legs and gazes down at a dove; a man and a woman face each other, invading each other's space in confrontation or curiosity; two men, grappling with each other, are caught in suspended animation. Each sculpture curls, twists and bends its way through a narrative - these are simple figures which convey complex emotions.
The large, expressive eyes, simple lines and exaggerated movements are an outgrowth of Zand's paintings, whose figures seem to want to leap from the paper. A family posing for a portrait seems trapped by the window which frames them; are they jealous of the three-dimensional sculptures around them? These figures are elongated or coerced into disproportion, expressions of an emotional spectrum manifested in human form. They are, as Mansour Tabibzadeh, a close friend of Zand's, remarks, "sculptures that create a sort of visual narration through their shadows and light".
A contemporary of Zand, Tabibzadeh sculpts an impressive selection of woods into carved heads and horses. Each sculpture is made of disparate pieces of pistachio, elm, pine that are cut into geometric blocks and assembled into a harmonious blend of pixelated pieces. There is an element of construction and deconstruction within the composition, cog-like elements which comprise a form that is surprisingly organic, lively and natural.
Despite their differences, Zand and Tabibzadeh's works agree on one theme: that of the figure. It is a subject that has been continued and reworked by a newer generation of young artists, whose desire to depict their inner lives has pushed the exploration of figurative expressionism in the local contemporary scene. In a culture where ta'rof, or formalised hospitality, asks individuals to always defer to others, such personal expression offers an alternate mode of being that goes against the cultural grain and that has become all the more visible in the younger generation's art.
Gitty Seif's work, for instance, is a perfect example. On display at Tehran's Etemad Gallery, Seif's works are a series of figurative portraits that reveal the nervous inner worlds of their subjects. Reminiscent of Oskar Kokoschka's colourful anxiety and Honore Daumier's satirical cartoons, Seif's people are nervous, dynamic and slightly ephemeral, with translucent hair, clothing and skin that make them blend into their backgrounds.
Golnar Tabibzadeh, Mansour's daughter, also follows a figure-focused aesthetic. Her subjects, many of whom are friends and acquaintances, are darker, wilder, more intense versions of themselves. Eyes heavy and black-rimmed, their faces are contorted in undisguised emotion - disdain, fervour, apathy, delight. Their narratives are made available to the viewer who takes the time to unravel the intensity of emotion constrained within the canvas.
It is a far different series than that of Ramtin Zad, whose colourful canvasses recently finished exhibiting at Etemad. Resembling the dramatic figures of Rokni Haerizadeh, Zad's figures are facetious, comedic and overwhelming - raised swords, large animals, and swirling colour evoke a world more fantastical than real, but full of feeling and narrative. Though far different in aim and process, these artists are directly inspired by a figurative legacy that Zand and others of his generation helped to establish. While mainstream Iranian art outside of its home country is synonymous with calligraphy and traditional patterns, this art shuns the abstract and the decorative todepict the human figure it in its confusing, gritty and dramatic glory.