ESPAHBOD, ALI-REZA (ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod, b. Tehran, 22 Āḏar 1330 Š./13 December 1951; d. Tehran, 5 Esfand 1385 Š./24 February 2007), painter and graphic designer (FIGURE 1).


Born to Raḥmat-Allāh Espahbod and Šams-al-Moluk Sigāriān, Alireza showed artistic talent from an early age. He received his high school diploma from Tehran’s Honarestān-e honarhā-ye zibā-ye pesarān (Boys School of Fine Arts) in 1971 and attended the Dāneškada-e honarhā-ye tazʾini (College of Decorative Arts), concentrating on graphic design, from which he graduated in 1975 (Seyḥun, Catalogue-e Nemāyešgāh, 2001). In his third year of college, he started working as a graphic designer at Iranian National TV and Tamāšā, its official publication. Espahbod was still in college when he married his classmate Mitrā Ebrāhimi; the couple had a son named Bāmdād.

In 1977 Espahbod went to the United Kingdom and attended Goldsmiths, University of London, where he received his Master of Fine Arts, specializing in etching and lithography. While there, he held several group and individual exhibits. Espahbod returned to Iran shortly after the 1979 Revolution and soon found himself at odds with the new regime. He tendered his resignation to Iranian National TV and to Tamāšā. However, from 1984 to 1988 he produced cover designs and layouts for Donyā-ye Soḵan, Ādina, Mofid, and Irān-e fardā, among other periodicals. Although banned from exhibiting his work at galleries from 1991 to 2001, Espahbod continued working as a graphic artist and showed his paintings privately.

Espahbod distanced himself from any distinct authority or power structure, and gave voice to his ideals of equality and justice through his artistic expressions (Espahbod, 1996, pp. 40-44).  While working with Ahmad Shamlu (Aḥmad Šāmlu [1925-2000]) on his Ketāb-e Jomʿa, the two came to form close ties. Sharing similar social and political views that ranged from cultural and political themes to freedom of speech, Shamlu became his mentor and his great source of inspiration (Aḵavān, 2011) (FIGURE 2).  In 1995, in a joint interview with Shamlu, conducted by Der Spiegel magazine in Germany, he discussed the difficulties involved in working under a totalitarian regime (“Mit den Feuer spielen”).

Espahbod published his collection of works in 1999, and on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, in 2001, he was asked to exhibit a series of paintings at Seyhoun Gallery. He dedicated this exhibition to poets, writers, and all those who had lost their lives in the quest for freedom (Seyhoun, Exhibition Catalogue, December 2001).


Although issues of chance and non-rational significance of surrealist imagery awakened Espahbod’s interest in surrealism from early on, his well-executed paintings and drawings situate most of his work on the border between realism and surrealism (Mohājer, pp. 38-39). On his canvases human beings and animals, overflowing with playfulness, terror or despair, are all integrated in a single scene or moment (FIGURE 3).

Espahbod’s “Crows” series (Kalāḡhā), in which the use of light and shadow illuminates the canvases, remind the viewer of fantastical fairy tales representing various facets of human personality and character (FIGURE 4). Although traces of illustration are evident in Espahbod’s early works (Mojābi, 1988, pp. 18-19), the tension between the illustrative elements and his indirect visual discourse, as noted by a critic, has led to the development of a multilayered emotional expressiveness in his paintings (Āḡdāšlu, pp. 14-15) (FIGURE 5).

Some of Espahbod’s paintings include sketch-like strokes playfully rendered in monochromatic colors with dreamlike characters. He incorporates intersecting geometrical systems in many of his compositions, which are less visible in his later period. Espahbod has been commended for his utilization of color surfaces in combination with his metamorphosis of figures. In many of his pencil drawings, black space dominates and  “figures, faces and geometrical surfaces all have the same value” (Mojābi, 1999, p. 24) (FIGURE 6).

Espahbod’s body of meticulously rendered work, in the late 1980s, are expressive depictions of an age of horror and his canvases exhibit “the smashing of faces by the raid of time” (Mojābi, 1999,  p. 25). In the early 1990s he abandoned his precise realism in favor of fast, spontaneous sketches, vague imagery, and exaggerated, superimposed layers of colors that seemed to flow in space and signified an eruption of moods and movements. He used his simplified version of realism, which bent towards abstract expressionism (Šamḵani, p.12), and engaged in a metaphoric language that reflected “realities of his environment” (Farrahi, p.30).

Espahbod’s anthropomorphic animals, employed as metaphors, are by far his most distinctive work. He painted a multitude of these anthropomorphic creatures that involved examination and interpretation of human characters, fulfillment of human desire with pain and despair. At times illustrational, some of Espahbod’s compositions reveal an underlying symbolism and understanding of qualities of light, form, space, and time. (For a selection of Espahbod’s interviews, in which he talks about his art, see Bibliography.)

Espahbod created more than 400 covers, along with logotypes, cards, and posters, for national and international occasions. His drawings were used without his name or credit in official government textbooks (Ruznāma-ye Ḵordād, p. 16). His works were also used by Fender, the world’s leading guitar manufacturer, on a line of sleekly contoured body of its most popular electric guitars, the Stratocasters (Espahbod, 2001, p. 10). Espahbod also designed posters for the Frankfurt International Book Fair. The book covers, posters, and postcards designed by him are published by the German PEN on the occasion of Freedom of Expression Day, Women’s Day, and Writers in Prison Day.


Selected Solo Exhibitions:

1972  “Ensān o Paranda,” Tālār e Qandriz, Tehran

1975  “Kalāḡhā,” Seyhoun Gallery, Tehran
1975  Lautrec Gallery, Tehran

1977  Bedford House Gallery, London

1978  University of London

1981  “Charcoal on canvas,” Golestān Gallery, Tehran

2001  “Ensān Alefbā,” Seyhun Gallery


Selected Group Exhibitions:

1972  Tālār-e Qandriz, Tehran

1974  First Exhibition of International Art, Tehran

1975  The Hundredth Anniversary Celebration of Iran Gallery

1976  The International Art Fair, Art Basel, Switzerland

1983  Seyhoun Gallery, Tehran,

1991  “Charcoal Works,” Golestān Gallery, Tehran

2000  “40 Years of Iranian Contemporary Art,” London Barbican Center


Bibliography (online articles accessed 10 September 2012):

Āydin Āḡdāšlu,  Introd. to ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod: Bargozida-ye naqqāšihā 1350-1376, Tehran, 1999, pp. 13-30.

Sohrāb Akhavān, Alireza Espahbod documentary, at Youtube (, uploaded 23 April 2011; see also “The Day of the Crows” (funeral clips and images of Espahbod’s work), at Youtube (, uploaded 26 April 2007.

ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod, “Āfarineš-e honari šureš-e āzād-e ādamist” (interview), Ādina, nos. 86-87, 1996, pp. 40-44.

Idem, “Porseš az ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod” (interview), in Nešāt 1/33, 24 Farvardin 1378  Š./April 13 1999.

Idem, “Eʿtebār-e āṯār-e honari rā kasi taʿiyn mikonad?” (interview), Ṣobḥ-e emruz, 26 Dey 1378  Š./16 January 2000, p. 7.

Idem, “Bāyad tup rā be zamin-e dowlat andāḵt” (interview), Ḥayāt-e-now  2/299, 30 Ḵordād 1380 Š./20 June 2001, p. 10.

Farhang Farrahi, “Rāhi barā-ye šenāḵt-e bištar-e yek naqqāš o grafist-e moʿtareż-i ke zud az miyān-e mā raft,” Javānān, no. 1030, Los Angeles, Esfand 1385 Š./February 2007, p. 30.

“Ḥaḏf-e nām-e Espahbod dar ketāb-e darsi,” Ruznāma-ye Ḵordād, no. 237, 11 Mehr 1378 Š./3 October 1999, p. 16. 

“Mit dem Feuer spielen” (Playing with fire), Der Spiegel, 1995, no. 19, p. 150.

Firuza Mohājer, “Dar marz-e miān-e reʾālism o surreʾālism,” Ādina, no. 33, 1367 Š./1988, pp. 38-39.

Javād Mojābi, “Farzandān-e jahān-e sevvom,” Soḵan, no. 18, Ḵordād 1367 Š./June 1988, pp. 18-19.

Idem, Introd. to ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod: Bargozida-ye naqqāšihā 1350-1376, Tehran, 1999, pp. 13-30.

Idem, “Vaqti ke ḵābhāyat rā barāyam qeṣṣa mikoni,” review of Espahbod’s exhibit at Seyhoun Gallery 2001, for the occasion of Remembering Espahbod, at Youtube (,  uploaded 23 April 2011.

Moḥammad Šamḵani, “Ḥadiṯ-e biqarāri-e yek naqqāš,” Ruznāma-ye Iran, 7/1992, 20 Āḏar 1380 Š./11 December 2001, p.12.

Maʿṣuma Seyḥun, “Ensān-Alefbā: naqqāšihā-ye ʿAli-Reżā Espahbod be monāsebat-e panjāhomin sālruz-e tavalod-e honarmand,” Katalog-e Nemāyešgāh, Gāleri-e Seyḥun, Āḏar 1380 Š./December 2001.

(Hengameh Fouladvand)

Originally Published: September 14, 2012

Last Updated: September 14, 2012

Cite this entry:

Hengameh Fouladvand, “ESPAHBOD, ALI-REZA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at (accessed on 19 May 2016).