MOHASSESS, ARDESHIR (Ardešir Moḥaṣṣeṣṣ, b. Rasht, 18 Šahrivar 1317Š./9 September 1938; d. New York, 18 Mehr 1387 Š./9 October 2008) eminent cartoonist, illustrator, graphic satirist, and painter, who played a major role in the development of satirical cartoon in Iran (Figure 1, Figure 2).
The youngest of four children, Ardeshir was born to ʿAbbās-Qoli and Sorur Mahkāma Moḥaṣṣeṣṣ. His father was a judge and died when Ardeshir was an infant. His mother, an educator and the principal of the first school for girls in Rasht, was a poet and literary figure in her own right, and a close acquaintance of the noted contemporary Persian poet, Parvin Eʿteṣāmi. Her endless supply of funny stories helped to enrich Ardeshir’s imagination.
Ardeshir’s childhood coincided with the military occupation of Iran (1941-46) by the Allied Forces during World War II. He was only three years old, when after watching a film series called “Enemies of the Nazis,” he was asked to say something about the film. Instead of talking, however, he drew the scene he liked (Figure 3), and since then, in his own words, “it has been much easier for me to express my thoughts in my drawings than in any other form” (Banuazizi, 1989, p. 17). Ardeshir completed his primary education at ʿOnṣory School in Rasht and continued his secondary education at various schools, including Firuz Bahrām in Tehran.
In 1951, while still at Firuz Bahrām, he was encouraged by a classmate to submit his work to Towfiq, the leading satirical journal of the period with high circulation, which along with Bābā Šamal and Čelengar, a leftist weekly founded in 1949 by Moḥammad ʿAli Afrāšta, played instrumental roles in the flourishing of politically laden comic illustration in Iran. Most noted among the cartoonists who cooperated with the journals and achieved international acclaim were Ardeshir Mohassess and Kāmbiz Derambaḵš (Momayyez, pp. 189-93). The cooperation of Mohassess with Towfiq lasted eight years. During these years he followed Towfiq’s style of illustration, creating pictorial commentaries on Iranian daily life and satiric editorials on political figures. Exaggeration of face and body was the essence of the magazine’s visual style.
Mohassess never studied art formally. Although ranked first among all applicants to the Faculty of Fine Arts, he nevertheless opted to study political science. He graduated from Tehran University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science in 1962 and was hired that same year as a librarian in the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. He quit the position after a year and devoted his time to his artistic career.
In 1963 Ahmad Shamlu (Aḥmad Šāmlu; 1925-1999), the noted modernist poet and the editor of the weekly magazine Ketāb-e hafta (Book of the week), published an issue featuring a series of works by Ardeshir, named Šir-doḵtarān (Brave daughters). The publication of his drawings at Kayhān, a newspaper with mass daily circulation, introduced his unique visual language to a much larger audience and established his fame as a satirist with a unique personal style (Dabashi, p. 19).
His first solo exhibition was held at Qandriz Gallery (see Qandriz, Mansur) in 1967. The pieces shown in this exhibition were all created in the preceding five years and were mostly published in daily and weekly journals. The exhibition attracted a large audience and earned him the praise of Karim Emami as “Iran’s most eminent caricaturist” (Emami, 1967, p. 9).
A collection of Ardeshir’s work from 1961 to 1966, entitled Cāctus, was published in 1971 as a special issue of Daftarhā-ye zamāna, a periodical review of literature and art edited by Cyrus Ṭāhbāz, with an introduction by Karim Emami (Figure 4). Ardesir in this collection “pushed the art of cartoon to almost surrealist satire of his native land in work both popular and profound.” (Martin, p. A29) The publication of Bā Ardešir o ʿarusakhāyaš (With Ardeshir and his puppets) in 1971 was followed by the publication of Ardešir o havā-ye ṭufāni (Ardeshir and stormy winds) in 1973. As commented by ʿAli-Aṣḡar Ḥāj Sayyed-Javādi in his introduction to the collection, Ardeshir “senses a stormy wind and observes the creatures who tumble about in this wind: the one who flees and the one who stands; the one who lights a lamp for the victims of the storm, and the one who steals the light and leaves the rest to the darkness (Ḥāj Sayyed-Javādi, “Introduction,” 1973).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ardeshir became more and more familiar with, and influenced by, such Western contemporaries as the French illustrator and filmmaker Roland Topor (1938-1997), the British cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920-2011), the surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967), the American artist-cartoonist Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), and the American artist and illustrator best known for his caricatures, David Levine (1926-2009). Levine’s portraiture of Ardeshir (reproduced in Mohassess, Puppets, 1977, p. 2 ) earned him more recognition in Iran. Following their path, and in an attempt to promote his work, Ardeshir published eleven books of his drawings, created from 1971 to 1977, in book formats (see below). Noted among them are Tašrifāt (Ceremonies, 1972) and Vaqāyeʿ-ye ettefāqiya (Current event, 1973), with introductions by Aydin Aghdashlu (Āydin Āḡdāšlu) and Ahmad Shamlu, respectively.
In 1972 Ardeshir was invited to travel to Paris and collaborate for six months with Jeune Afrique, a weekly magazine founded in Tunisia and published in Paris. The trip not only established his status as an internationally acclaimed artist, but also marked the introduction of color into his drawings. “Paris influenced me in that I discovered color. Color in Paris is incredible. One can see at least twenty different colors in a Parisian’s dress (Mohassess, “Introduction,” Kāfar-nāma, 1975).
His drawings were published in several issues of Jeune Afrique (Figure 5) and earned him the praise of the journal’s art critic as an unsurpassed cartoonist from a Third World country (Jeune Afrique “Ni Béte, Ni Méchant,” no. 626, 6 January 1973, pp. 46-47). He was only 34 years old when a retrospective exhibition of his works was held from 15 November through 15 December 1973 in Jeune Afrique’s headquarter (Jeune Afrique, “Arts Jeune Afrique: A Selectioné,” no. 576, 1972, pp. 52-53).
Throughout these years Ardeshir’s standing as an artist soared. His drawings were featured in leading international graphic art magazines such as Graphis (Switzerland), Graphic Design (Japan), Idea (Japan), Graphic (West Germany), Opus International (Paris), and Communication Arts (USA). Although these drawings were made for specific articles in newspapers, they invited open interpretation and the shah’s regime clearly did not appreciate the work and its connotations (Reilly, p. 5). Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of Iran’s culture, history, and sociopolitical situation, he soon opted for a series of political drawings, which attracted not only the attention of intellectuals, poets, and writers of the time, but also that of SAVAK, Iran’s intelligence and security organization (Banuazizi, 1989, p. 20).
In 1973 Ardeshir started to illustrate a number of articles for the Op Ed page of the New York Times, which continued to the end of his life. (For an image of Ardeshir’s drawing for “US Policy, and Israel’s,” by Ghassan Tueni, New York Times, 19 August 1977, p. A21, see Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire in Iran, Asia Society, New York, 2008, p. 24). In 1974, on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition of his works, organized by Columbia University’s Center for Iranian Studies, Mohassess traveled to the U.S.A. The trip lasted four months. An exhibition of his works was held at New York’s Graham Gallery in 1975. He described the influence of New York City on his work in his introduction to Kāfar-nāma (The Heathen’s notebook, Figure 6, Figure 7), which was published in Tehran in 1975. “In New York I feel I am part of a huge comic strip. This city’s influence brought to my work shapes, lines and geometric figures that appeared in my work for the first time.” In this collection, reminiscent of the 19th-century Persian drawings, battle scenes, lovers’ stories, classical tales, religious stories, and myths all come together in the same drawing. Unlike his earlier drawings, which clearly aim at specific targets with sure and steady pen, the targets of satire in this collection are more diffuse (Bakhash, p. 6).
Drawing upon Persian folk art, miniatures, and 19th-century lithographic illustrations, which were practiced after the introduction of lithographic print to Iran in the 1850s (see LITHOGRAPHY i), Ardeshir produced an extraordinary volume of work portraying current events and everyday life of people. He often combined lithographic illustrations of Šāh-nāma, as well as religious lore and literary books, such as Reżāqoli Khan Hedāyat’s Riāż al-ʿārefin and Bidel Kermāšāhi’s Toḥfat-al ḏākerin (Marzolph, p. 142), and the lithographed text of Ketāb-e Āq-e wāledayn (see Āq-e wāledayn), among many others, and complemented them by his unique sense of humor. His illustrations, arguably the best in the style (Marzolph, p. 141), were often created for editorial pages of newspapers and periodicals. Influenced by multiple sources they were minutely detailed, heavily hatched and crosshatched (Figure 8, Figure 9).
Ardeshir also illustrated in color ʿObayd Zākāni’s most famous mock-epic, Manẓuma-ye muš o gorba. It narrates the cruel deeds and hypocrisy of a tyrant personified by a cat, which torments a community of gullible mice. The illustrations were published in Of Cats and Rats (Toronto, 2004), with the English translation of the poem by Esmāʿil Ḵoʾi, the noted Persian poet who lives in exile in London (Figure 10, Figure 11). Mention should also be made of his illustration of Vaḡ-vaḡ sāhāb by Sadeq Hedayat and Masʿud Farzād (Paris, 2002), which was published by Ketāb Češmandāz, founded by Nāṣer Pākdāman (Figure 12, Figure 13).
In 1976 Mohassess traveled to New York City again, where, with the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he lived for his remaining years. The years between 1978 and 1980, however, marked significant changes in Mohassess’ artistic style and are generally regarded as one of the most productive phases of his life. Pen and ink and a pad of paper, the materials he used, were his inseparable companions. He used them to articulate many subjects, and he developed a special skill for depicting his figures with only a few strokes and a ruthless economy of lines, which imbued his pieces with a dynamic energy. His technique came to fruition when he lived as an art-world outsider and immigrant in New York and followed issues of human rights and repression of social freedom by the revolutionary government of Iran. “It is ironic that his scabrous anti-government cartoons and exposés of official inhumanity are—with a mere switch of the Shah to Ayatollah—as applicable today as they were when first drawn” (Heller, p. 82).
A collection of his drawings in this period, acquired by the Library of Congress, was published in Washington D.C. by Mage publication as Life in Iran: The Library of Congress Drawings in 1994 (Figure 14, Figure 15). The compositional intricacy of these drawings illustrates a new phase in his artistic career. What is striking about these drawings is the depth of realism and craftsmanship unmatched even by his earlier work (Reilly, p. 6). The drawings are simple outlines and are executed with a cool detachment. Some drawings refer to and reflect on actual incidents that took place in the time leading to and during the 1979 Revolution—events such as the Rex Cinema fire in Abadan and the massacre that took place in Shiraz. The drawings, as noted by Mohassess, picture the Iranian culture and sociopolitical life through the eye of an artist-reporter (see Khoi, 2008). The individual pieces, however, are stylistically different from each other: some are heavily stroked, some are minimal in their treatment, and some are curvilinear drawings reminiscent of drawings by the famous 16th-century Persian miniature artist Reżā ʿAbbāsi (1565-1635).
As his work became stylistically more fluid—the result of a combination of factors including his illness and a widening circle of influences—Ardeshir experimented with color, collage, and abstract elements. Yet his primal urge to satirize and critique always remained at the heart of his practice. A collection of free sketches he did on streets and in coffee shops during the 1980s, some in colors, was published by Mage Publishers (Washington D.C., 1989), as Ardeshir Mohassess: Closed Circuit History, with introductions by Ramsey Clark, the 66th Attorney General of the United States (1967-69), and Ali Banuazizi (Figure 16). The collection also included collages showcasing the harsh realities of his time while drawing upon the 19th-century Qajar lithographs. “Mohassess quite literally dissects his characters with his pen and then peels away the conventional facade to expose the underlying reality of his world; a world of injustice and anguish, of domination and subjection, of pettiness, gluttony, and arrogance, and of tyranny and cruelty” (Banuazizi, 1989, p. 18). Ardeshir, as noted by Ramsey Clark in his introduction to the collection, “speaks sadly, serenely, with pity alleviated only by humor. It is in the purpose and power of Ardeshir’s art that we shall see the truth of the meaning of our universal closed circuit histories of war, famine, and injustice and grasp the ‘wheel of fortune’s sphere’ for a better tomorrow” (Clark, pp. 14-15).
As a young man Ardeshir suffered from poor vision to the point that ophthalmologists in Iran feared he might eventually go completely blind. However, in the early 1980s, he opted for laser vision correction surgery, and, to his delight, his vision was fully restored. In 1986 Ardeshir was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and due to the limitations caused by the disease he embarked on a new style of drawing characterized by the abundance of abstract and colorful images and an explosion of assemblage. He put together different elements of his past drawings, newspaper cutouts, photocopies of various images, especially erotic photographs that were enhanced with watercolor to create a single cohesive image (Figure 17). He managed to maintain the urgency and vitality of his drawings.
Ardeshir’s oil paintings are the most color-saturated of his works. A solo exhibition of his expressive and colorful portraits (Figure 18, Figure 19), often laden with an expressionistic touch, titled as Open Secret, was held by Westbeth Gallery in New York in 1993. Mention should also be made of a special issue of The Persian Book Review (Barresi-e ketāb), a literary and cultural periodical founded and published in Los Angeles by Majid Rošangar, in which a collection of Ardeshir’s drawings were published (The Persian Book Review 4/15, Fall 1993). The issue also includes several images of Ardeshir’s drawings for New York Times, Quest, and Playboy.
In 1997 Ardeshir underwent open-heart surgery in New York Hospital. His convalescence was followed by an accident while experimenting with painting portraits and landscapes in oil on canvas. It resulted in a deep burn to his right hand.
Throughout his career, Ardeshir had many solo and group exhibitions, starting with his participation in a group exhibition in the First Biennial Art Exhibition in Tehran (1958) and culminating in a major solo exhibition of his works at the Asia Society Museum in New York in May 2008, entitled Life and Satire in Iran. The show, co-organized by the internationally acclaimed Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, was centered on the Library of Congress collection Life in Iran and received wide coverage. The exhibition, in which, as held by a critic, “references to Daumier and the Qajar dynasty were equally at home” (Rosenberg, p. E 28), reflected the broad visual and historical literacy of Mohassess’s satire and earned rave reviews in such journals as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, ans well as The New Yorker magazine. “In its exquisite draftsmanship, macabre and beautiful, one detects Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, even Aubrey Beardsley” (Kaylan, p. D 7). His latest works became more simple and direct (Figure 20, Figure 21).
Ardeshir Mohassess’s career spanned over half a century, a century with decisive turns in Iran’s socio-political environment. Despite his illness and its resultant physical limitations he worked tirelessly. He was a sensitive, humble, and mild-mannered artist with a philosophic sense of humor that remained intact to the end. He seemed, as held by a critic and friend “so consumed by his work and oblivious to all that took place around him that one wondered how he could possibly manage the day-to-day chores of his life alone” (Banuazizi, 1984, p. 279). He did not marry and had no children. He died from a massive heart attack on 9 October 2008 at his home in New York City, and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (Martin).
To commemorate his life and legacy on the occasion of the second anniversary of his death, a two-day conference, entitled “Ardeshir Mohassess, Art, Politics, and Beyond,” was held at New York University from October 9 to October 10, 2010 (Figure 22). Several scholars and art critics participated in the conference and a selection of his drawings was displayed to high applause. The conference and the exhibition were organized by “Friends of Ardeshir” and sponsored by the Iranian Studies Initiative of New York University.
“Ardeshir Mohasses and his Caricatures” is a black-and-white documentary produced by the film critic and independent producer Bahman Maghsoudlou. The film was originally made in 1972 and has recently been revised as “Ardeshir: The Rebellious Artist” (2012). The fact that Ardeshir is silent throughout the film accentuates the artist’s eccentric persona. Interviews with critics and friends are arranged to show the nuances of his life and his progressive sociopolitical outlook. Samples of Ardeshir’s cartoons, illustrations, and works for the New York Times along with his avant-garde style are covered in the film (Maghsoudlou).
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
1967 Qandriz Gallery, Tehran
1969 Sayhoun Gallery, Tehran
1971 Municipal Club, Tehran
1971 Sayhoun Gallery, Tehran
1972 Iran-America Society Cultural Center, Tehran
1974 Columbia University, New York
1975 Graham Gallery, New York
1975 Litho Gallery, Tehran
1976 Zand Gallery, Tehran
1978 Zand Gallery, Tehran
1983 Studio 369, Boston
1986 Persian Arts Foundation, Los Angeles
1993 Westbeth Gallery, ‘Open Secret’, New York
2008 Asia Society Museum, Ardeshir Mohasses: Art and Satire in Iran, New York
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITION
1958 First Biennial Art Exhibit, Tehran
1960 Second Biennial Art Exhibit, Tehran
1962 Third Biennial Art Exhibit, Tehran
1964 Fourth Biennial Art Exhibit, Tehran
1971 Musee des Arts, Paris
1973 Drawings from The New York Times, Musee des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux
1974 Drawings from The New York Times, Louvre Museum, Paris
1976 Modern Iranian Arts, Iran-America Society, Tehran
1976 The International Arts Fair, Basel
1977 Hayden Zand Gallery, Washington, D.C
1980 Politics and Arts: Ten Years of Graphic Commentary, 1970-1980, The American Institute of Graphic Arts, New York
Cāctus, a special issue of Daftarhā-ye zamāna on Ardešir
Moḥaṣṣeṣṣ, ed. Cyrus Ṭāhbāz, introduction by Karim Emāmi, Tehran, 1971.
Bā Ardešir o ʿarusakhāyaš (With Ardeshir and his puppets), introduction by ʿAli-Aṣḡar Ḥāj Sayyed-Javādi, Tehran, 1971.
Instances, ed. Kambiz Farrokhi, Haarlem, Netherlands, 1972.
Vaqāyeʿ-ye ettefāqiya (Current events), introd. Aḥmad Sāmlu, Tehran, 1973.
Šenās-nāma (Identity card), Tehran, 1973.
Tašrifāt (Ceremonies), introd. Āydin Āḡdāšlu, Tehran, 1973.
Ardešir o havā-ye ṭufāni (Ardeshir and stormy winds), introd. ʿAli-Aṣḡar Ḥāj Sayyed-Javādi, Tehran, 1973.
Kāfar-nāma (Hedonist’s notebook), Tehran, 1975.
Tabrikāt (Congratulations), Tehran, 1976.
Puppets, introd. Wendy Coyle, San Francisco, 1977.
Closed Circuit History, foreword by Ramsey Clark, introd. Ali Banuazizi, Washington D.C., 1989.
Life in Iran, Washington D.C., 1994.
Ardeshir Mohasses: Art and Satire in Iran, ed. Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, New York, 2008.
Shaul Bakhash, in Kayhan International, 16 September 1975, p. 6.
Ali Banauazizi, “Ardeshir Mohasses and His Images Of Revolution,” Iranian Studies 17/ 2-3, Spring-Summer 1984, pp. 279-83.
Idem, “Introduction,” in Closed Circuit History, Washington D.C., 1989, pp. 17-21.
Ramsey Clark, “Foreword,” in Closed Circuit History, Washington D.C., 1989, pp. 7-16.
Hamid Dabashi, “Ardeshir Mohasses, Etcetera,” in Ardeshir Mohasses: Art and Satire in Iran, ed. Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, New York, 2008, pp. 19-30.
Karim Emami, “ART IN IRAN xi. POST-QAJAR, Encyclopaedia Iranica II, 1971a, pp. 640-46.
Idem, “Kārikāture be tizi-e tiḡ,” Ketāb-e nemuna 55: gozida-i az ān če dar bāra-ye Ardešir nevešta-and, Tehran, 1967, pp. 9-11.
Idem, “Introduction,” in Cāctus, a special issue of Daftarhā-ye zamāna on Ardešir Moḥaṣṣeṣṣ, ed. Cyrus Ṭāhbāz, Emāmi, Tehran, 1971b.
ʿAli Aṣḡar Ḥāj Sayyed Javādi, “Introduction,” in Ardešir o ʿarusakhāyaš, Tehran, 1971.
Steve Heller, “Ardeshir Mohassess: From Dream to Nightmare,” Graphis 38/220, July-August 1982, pp. 82-87.
Jeune Afrique, “Arts Jeune Afrique: A Selectioné,” no. 576, 1972, pp. 52-53.
Jeune Afrique “Ni Béte, Ni Méchant,” no. 626, 1973, pp. 46-47.
Melik Kaylan, in Wall Street Journal, Thursday, 19 June 2008, p. D 7.
Esmail Khoi, “A Conversation with Ardeshir Mohasses,” in Ardeshir Mohasses: Art and Satire in Iran, ed. Shirin Neshat and Nicky Nodjoumi, New York, 2008, pp. 31-38.
Esmāʿil Ḵoʾi, Šenāḵt-nāma-ye Ardešir Moḥaṣseṣ, Tehran, 1973.
Bahman Maghsoudlou, “Ardeshir Mohasses & His Caricatures,” IFVC International Film δ Video Center, http://www.ifvc.com/ardeshir-mohasses.htm.
Douglas Martin, “Ardeshir Mohasses, Iranian Cartoonist dies at 70,” The New York Times, Monday, 20 October 2008, p. A 29.
Ulrich Marzolph, “Taṣāvir-e čāp sangi-e ʿahd-e Qājār: Manbaʿ-e elhām-e honar-e moʿṣer-e Irān,” Herfa: Naqqāš, no. 13, Pāʾiz 1374 Š./ Autumn 2005, pp. 138-45.
Morteżā Momayyez, “GRAPHIC ARTS: IN THE QAJAR AND PAHLAVI PERIOD,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica XI, 2003, pp. 189-93.
Bernard F. Reilly, Jr., “Introduction,” Life in Iran, 1994, pp. 5-8.
Karen Rosenberg, “Life in Iran, Etched with Suspicion and Humor,”
The New York Times, Art Section, Friday 30 May 2008, p. E 28.
Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: June 6, 2013