Tehran residents—accustomed to seething at slow-moving traffic, sweltering in summer heat and suffocating in the smog—may be surprised to find a growing number of outdoor painters reveling in the Iranian capital’s historic charm.
The overcrowded metropolis may be dusty and in need of beautification, but the honeycomb of alleyways that make up old Tehran is drawing throngs of artists out of their cramped studios and into the open streets — a trend that accelerated during the lockdowns of the covid-19 pandemic.
These devotees aim not only to capture Tehran’s vanishing old neighborhoods, but also help preserve them. Many areas have been bulldozed. Cranes punctuate the skyline as storied 19th-century quarters make room for modern high-rises.
“The paintings link us to past designs and feelings that are disappearing,” says Morteza Rahimi, a 32-year-old carpenter, art aficionado and resident of downtown Tehran. “They help us remember...See how many old beautiful buildings have turned to rubble."
Beside him, painter Hassan Naderali uses loose brushstrokes and bright colors to capture the play of light and flicker of movement in an impressionist style. With a passion for painting en plein air, French for “in the open air,” Naderali seeks to depict the beauty in his dilapidated surroundings.
Tehran has transformed into a teeming city of over 10 million people from just 4.5 million at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The young theocracy’s population surge coincided with mass migration to Tehran after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion in the 1980s. As job and education opportunities lured even more people to the capital, the government responded to an emerging housing crisis with massive real estate developments.
Some of the city’s 19th-century gems, built by the Qajar kings, not long after they moved Iran’s capital to Tehran in 1796, have been lost to new apartment towers in the past few decades.
Through social media, however, artists and historians have sought to counter the cultural amnesia amid escalating demolitions.
“Social media has caused awareness among people about the risks that jeopardise historic, old buildings,” says art expert Mostafa Mirzaeian, referring to the decadent palaces of the Qajars, best known for their elaborate mirrored mosaics. “People are learning about the value of older places and paying attention to their cultural and artistic dimensions.”
For fans of open-air painting like Somayyeh Abedini, a government employee and resident of Tehran’s historic Oudlajan neighborhood, the conservationist thrust is personal. The arched horizons, leafy alleys and walled villas of Oudlajan serve as her muse, she said, evoking the spirit of her father who spent his entire life and died in the neighborhood.
“The old places in the neighbourhood are our roots, our heritage,” Abedini says. “It’s a pity many of them were destroyed.”
The practice of outdoor painting in Tehran thrived during the pandemic, artists say, as many found solace and inspiration under the open sky when galleries and museums shuttered for months and construction projects sputtered to a halt. The health crisis exacted a devastating toll on Iran, infecting over 7.2 million and killing over 141,000 people — the worst death toll in the Middle East.
As the chaos eased on Tehran's streets, 58-year-old Naderali set up his studio outside. Venturing out with brushes, pencils, paint, a portable easel and papers, he painted away where he felt most alive — under the sun, feeling the breeze.
“I went out every day. Outdoor places were not so crowded and I found more access to the places I liked to paint,” he says of his pandemic experience. Naderali sells dozens of his paintings, many depicting old Persian palaces and traditional Tehran homes, to domestic and foreign clients.
A yearning for bygone eras drives high demand among Iranian buyers abroad, he said — excitement about a time when Achaemenids carved bas-reliefs into the walls of Persepolis in 500 B.C. and Isfahan thrived as a blue-tiled jewel of Islamic culture in the 17th century.
That nostalgia has sharpened as Iran, devastated by sanctions and cut off from the world economy, seethes with public anger over rising prices and declining living standards.
Talks to revive Tehran’s nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump abandoned four years ago, have made no progress in the past year. The country's poverty has deepened. But in many ways, Iran’s contemporary art scene has flowered despite the challenges.
For years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the Western-backed monarchy and brought Shiite clerics to power, hard-liners outlawed modern art and even sought to ban painting. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s extensive collection, worth billions of dollars, sat in its vaults.
But the clerical establishment came to appreciate the art form during the grisly Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980. Paintings that paid tribute to the war-dead and lionized the leaders of the Islamic Revolution sprung up on the city’s drab walls.
Many of the contemporary art museum’s works — including Monets, Picassos and Jackson Pollocks bought during Iran’s oil boom under the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — have been brought out in recent decades as cultural restrictions eased.
Last summer, just days before the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric hostile to the cultural influence of the West, the museum reopened with a retrospective of American pop artist Andy Warhol.
Today, successful Iranian artists — including stars who exhibit abroad — have helped transform Tehran's once-staid art market into a dynamic scene. Auction houses across the city fetch high prices for homegrown painters. An auction last Friday recorded sales of more than $2.2 million for 120 works.
Iranian state TV regularly broadcasts paint-along lessons, including the late American painter Bob Ross’ beloved PBS show “The Joy of Painting,” inspiring amateurs to create their own masterpieces.
Iran’s art schools are flourishing, with a majority of female students. Although exhibits require government licenses, swanky Tehran galleries showing new work by Iranian painters bustle with young crowds.
“Once a passerby told me, ‘Art gives birth in poverty and dies in wealth,’” remarks Naderali.