Intermediate world of Lailee and Majnoon: The three-dimensional painting of Farshid Mesghali

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2, 2014

در ره منزل لیلی که خطرهاست درآن
شرط اول قدم ان است که مجنون باشی
حافظ

In the path to reach Lailee there are many dangers
The first step and condition is to be Majnoon
Hafez

Most Iranians know Lailee and Majnoon’s love story through Nezami Ganjavi’s book of poetry titled Khamseh ye Nezami (1192). In this story young Lailee and Qays (Majnoon) get to know each other and fall in love while studying at the same school. Qays asks Lailee to marry him but her father refuses and forces her to marry another man. The grief of separation from Lailee transforms Qays to a mad man (Majnoon) and he wanders in wilderness. Still in love with Qays (Majnoon), Lailee becomes ill and dies of heartbreak. Finally Majnoon finds Lailee’s grave and dies next to her.

In 2006 Farshid Mesghali was commissioned by KIT Museum in Amsterdam to create a sculpture portraying the final scene of Lailee and Majnoon’s story, in which Majnoon visits Lailee’s grave. Mesghali is one of the most eminent artists in Iran with an international reputation and remarkably innovative and influential artworks that remain unmatched specifically in the history of Iranian illustration. Saed Meshki, in an introduction to his interview with Mesghali in 2007[i], recalls his illustrations and states:  “When my generation was spending childhood and adolescent years, Farshid Mesghali imbued the realities of our life with dreams and brought our dreams into reality. The stories of the Little Black Fish, Little Wizard of My Room, Blue Eyed Boy, Arash the Bower, Champion, and Moonlight Secretes were the frontiers of our dreams and realities.”

“Mesghali was born in Isfahan in July 1943. While studying painting at Tehran University, he began his professional career as a graphic designer and illustrator in 1964. After his graduation, he joined The Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, in 1968. During years 1970-1978 he made many of his award winning animated films, posters for films and illustrations for children books for this institute. In 1979 Mesghali moved to Paris and for next four years produced paintings and sculptures, which were presented at Sammy King Gallery in Pairs. In 1986 he moved to Southern California, USA and established his graphic design studio, Desktop Studio in Los Angeles. During 1990-1994 he created a series of digital artworks based on snapshot photos, which were exhibited in a number of galleries and later in L.A. County Museum of Modern Arts. At present time he is creating sculptures and installation projects in his studio in Tehran.[ii]

Mesghali describes a specific series of his sculptures[iii] as “three-dimensional miniatures.” His reference to the traditional Persian miniature painting facilitates multiple ways of understanding his approach and style. To begin with, the term “three-dimensional miniature” is contradictory since Persian miniature is known for its two-dimensionality and the spiritual meaning of its depiction of space. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987) in his essay ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature explains:

“The Persian miniature succeeded in transforming the plane surface of miniature to a canvas depicting grades of reality, and was able to guide man from the horizon of material existence, and also profane and mundane consciousness, to a higher state of being and of consciousness, an intermediate world with its own space, time, movement, colours and forms, where events occur in a real but not necessarily physical manner. This world the Muslim philosophers of Persia have called the “imaginal world’ (mundus imaginalis) or the alam al-khayal [or alam al-mithal][iv]…The space of the Persian miniature is a recapitulation of this space and its forms and colours a replica of this world. The colours, especially the gold and lapis lazuli, are not just subjective whims of the imagination of the artist. Rather, they are the fruit of vision of an ‘objective’ which is that of the imaginal world. The space is depicted in such a way that the eye roves from one plane to another, moving always between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. But the miniature does not allow the eye to ‘fall’ into the three-dimensional pure and simple.”

Farshid Mesghali’s artwork resides in this visual intermediate world. This is a space that is neither completely two dimensionally painted nor three dimensionally sculpted. It possesses many qualities of a Persian miniature painting with its subject matter, atmosphere, linearity, framing and colors (gold, lapis lazuli, green, and red). On the other hand it is composed of many separate components, forms and solid elements that occupy their own place in the space and also in relationship to one another. This space invites the viewer to experience the artwork from many subjective and objective perspectives and imbues the figures with spirits.

The subtle physicality of figures is similar to forms of the characters in a rudimentary pop-up book which although seem two-dimensional yet they occupy actual space and the eye can roam around them. Mesghali’s Lailee and Majnoon are surrounded by red trees, which create an enclosed and private space for the lovers. Shapes of the trees are similar to drops of tears or blood (matching Majnoon’s feelings). He is standing above Lailee’s lifeless body that is floating slighting above the ground. She is peacefully resting with her hand on her chest with a black face and red headdress.  A bird is perching on the step behind Majnoon, a deer is standing close by and a butterfly is next to Lailee.

Mesghali (2006)[v] explains the process of creating Lailee and Majnoon’s sculpture,  “First I went to my favorite sources, the miniatures. What did they [painters] do with this subject? There aren’t a lot. There are a couple of Majnuns [Majnoons] at the grave of Layla [Lailee] mourning and also Majnun [Majnoon] in the desert sitting with the animals. So I decided to show them together. It is the only time that these two are together. It is the time that Layla [Lailee] is dead and he is at her tomb. The whole time they are separated, the whole story… I didn’t like to do the sad part, but the whole story is sad. Majnun [Majnoon] is suffering the whole time. Still I didn’t make the tomb. I didn’t put Layla [Lailee] in the tomb…She is in the air. I tried to give it a kind of transcendence feeling—she is raised… Just the hands of Majnun [Majnoon] are black and cover his face. He cannot look at the tomb, but he has to be present. It is a difficult situation. I made the steps: green and dark blue and then Layla [Lailee]… It is from life to death. Majnun [Majnoon] is in the middle step, between life and death, the moment and location that they could be together. The bird is a symbol of life and the trees. Later I added the deer, because Majnun [Majnoon] was all the time with the deer or the lions… The butterfly is connected with Layla [Lailee]. It is a kind of homage to Majnun’s [Majnoon’s] life with Layla [Lailee].”

In Mesghali’s sculpture sorrow and peace coexist in this moment and intermediate world, which floats between the physical world (mulk) and the world of imagination (khiyal).

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.  This essay can not be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Farshid Mesghali, Leili & Majnoon, 2006, Installation at KIT Museum Amsterdam, Height: 200 cm.

Farshid Mesghali: http://www.farshidmesghali.com


[i] Neshan Magazine #13, Spring 2007

[ii] http://www.farshidmesghali.com/bio.htm

[iii] Sculptures such as Farhad, Rostam and Div, River and Horse rider. http://www.farshidmesghali.com

[iv] The multiple states of being can be summarized in five principal states which the Sufis call the five ‘Divine Presences’ (hadarat al-ilahiyat), and which Islamic philosophers from Suhrawardi onward have accepted fully as the ground pattern and ‘plan’ of reality, although they have used other terminology to describe it. These worlds or presences include the physical world (mulk), the intermediate world (malakut), the archangelic world (jabarut), the world of the Devine Names and Qualities (lahut), and the divine Essence or Ipseity itself (dhat), which is sometimes called hahut. The jabrut and the states beyond it are above forms and formal manifestation, whereas the malakut, which corresponds to the world of imagination (alam al-khayal or mithal), possesses form but not matter in ordinary Peripatetic sense. That is why in fact this world is also called the world of ‘hanging forms’ (suwar al-mu’allaqh), … Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature in Islamic Art and Spirituality, 1987, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[v] Farshid Mesghali, Interview 8.5.2006, Tropenmuseum by Sadiah Boonstra & Mohammad Babazadeh
http://collectie.tropenmuseum.nl/othermedia/Document/TXT001667.pdf


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Facing the present: Two Iranian artists interpret the postmodern age

By Roshanak Keyghobadi | October 5, 2001

Farah Ossouli is a painter and Hadi Farahani is a caricaturist. Although their style, technique and medium of their choice are different from one another, they are tied together by their use of traditional miniature painting iconography and introduction of the contemporary issues and spaces in their frame of work.

Ossouli studied traditional miniature painting under Mahmoud Farshchian and her knowledge and mastery of traditional miniature painting techniques and color combinations are obvious in her paintings. What makes her work differ from traditional miniature paintings is how she creates and divides the format and visual spaces in a modernist style. Her style of positioning the elements and figures in relationship to created spaces, and the contrast between shapes, colors and textures produces the feeling of simultaneous presence of past and present, old and new in her work. She creates constant interaction between sharp and soft forms, dark and bright colors, textured and flat surfaces, decorative and minimalist compositions in her paintings.

Ossouli selects formats that mostly consist of stripes of rectangular spaces crowded with female or male figures, trees, birds and flowers that are in contrast to stripes or planes of empty spaces next to them. In this style, Ossouli puts congested against void and enclosed against open. She invites you inside and yet shows you the outside. The dark and muddy colors are sitting beside brilliant and radiant colors in her paintings as if she is drawing the attention of the viewer to life’s dual concepts.

Titles such as, Nest and Flight, Meeting Night, Beginning and End, Khosrow and Shirin, Yousef and Zolaykha indicates that Ossouli’s subject matters are mostly poetic or based on famous stories like Shahnameh-ye Ferdowsi, Divan-e Hafiz, and other classic writings . Her compositions and choice of colors create calm and quite. It is as if Ossouli’s miniature beings had accepted their place in this contrasting environment and are in harmony with their painted faith, although their stripes of rectangular lives are getting narrower and tighter and Ossouli is covering their surrounding with more void and dark planes.

Are Ossouli’s miniature people representing the past or the present? Why Ossouli selects this kind of format for her paintings? Are her contrasting spaces squeezing the colorful miniature beings and narrowing their windows of existence or broadening their landscape of vision? Are these people peeking through Ossuli’s windows to see and explore environment of present or are they inviting us into their world of past?

The visual binary codes of representation are working full force in Farahani’s pen and ink caricatures drawings where ornamental miniature men and women are in contrast with their erased traditional ornamental environment, space and existence. Farahani’s characters are not situated in traditional miniature scenes, participating in majestic garden parties or hunting scene or looking from balconies in to their lover’s eyes. The past lovers are involved in present daily chores of the real life and present time.

Outside the story books, the princess/lover/wife is washing her royal wash and hanging it from the cloth line or knitting clothes for her unborn child while the prince/lover/husband figure is enjoying his nap or smoking his water pipe high up in the veranda. Aside from his male and female figures and their humorous relationships to a totally modern life, Farahani depicts his ornamental miniature man in contrast to the visually minimal contemporary man.

Unlike Ossouli’s isolated and contained person, Hadi Farahani’s miniature person is busy and involved in present and is trying to blend in, understand, imitate, fight, liberate, escape, survive or recover from this world and its minimal mostly dominant and cruel people. The title of Farahani’s book of caricatures is Zir-O-Zebar (bottom & top or high & low in Persian) and his caricatures clearly represent the icons of the past or symbols that are associated with traditional Eastern person, which is a delicate miniature drawing, situated lower than the solid and powerful icons and symbols of the modern, contemporary Western beings who are higher up in status and power structure.

Unlike Ossouli’s paintings that encourages calm and quite, Farahani’s dark humor is reflected in his powerful caricatures that are packed with social, political and artistic statements and questions. By creating opposing situations and conditions in his drawings, he asks: how do one deals with technology, colonialization, westernization, contemporary art issues, mental isolation and depression, pollution, poverty, alienation and annihilation? Is Farahani depicting defeat or triumph? How is his miniature person dealing with his/her present situation? Is modern life with its highs and lows offering any hope and encouragement?

Ossouli and Farahani’s works are similar in the way they are responding to the Postmodern era and interpreting the past in relationship to present and how they blend together the elements of old and new in their art. Both artists are facing the present and the contemporary time, and portraying how humankind deals with the Postmodern life, age of anxiety and illusion, fragmentation and alienation. But what makes their artwork different is that Ossouli is making peace with present where Farahani is questioning it.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2001.

*This review was first published on http://www.Iranian.com in 2001. Since then both artists have created remarkable works which you can view at http://www.farahossouli.com and http://www.hadifarahani.com.
Images: (Left) Painting by Farah Ossouli, (Right) Caricature by Hadi Farahani.