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‘Modernisms’ reveals artistic responses to the 20th-century’s ‘crisis in humanity’

The Block Museum hosts rare look at Modernist art from Iran, Turkey, and India

View of the 'Modernisms' exhibition at The Block. Photo by Sean Su.
View of the 'Modernisms' exhibition at The Block. Photo by Sean Su.

Visitors to The Block Museum of Art have an unprecedented opportunity to view 114 artworks from global artists during a period of rapid modernization with the exhibition, “Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish, and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection.” It is part of the museum’s season of Global Modernisms, which expands Western perspectives of modern art by highlighting underrecognized art from beyond Europe and North America.

During the exhibition’s opening conversation on Jan. 22, four Northwestern graduate students offered insights into the exhibition from their areas of research.

Özge Karagöz linked the aesthetic interest in the forms of Anatolian folk cultures and archeological heritage, as seen in paintings by Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu and Füreya Koral, to the Blue Anatolia movement of the mid-1940s to 60s. Influential in this movement’s emergence were the Village Institutes, schools established in the countryside in early republican Turkey (1923-1945), which became mutually transformative sites of cultural exchange between intellectuals and rural people.

Providing a glimpse of how India became modern, Simran Bhalla previewed an excerpt from the 1967 experimental film “Through the Eyes of a Painter” by Maqbool Fida Husain, whose paintings are on view in the exhibition. The award-winning short will be screened during the film series “Morning Will Come: Modernity in Indian Cinema” at Block Cinema. Bhalla is curator of the series. Block Cinema was awarded an NEA grant in support of the series.

Maryam Athari presented examples of works by Bahman Mohassas, one of Iran’s most famous artists. Though not part of Grey’s collection, he was one of the most prominent Iranian modern painters. Moving away from the tropes of spirituality and religiosity, his paintings comment on the scarred terrain of worldly human existences. The cosmopolitan character of his paintings is manifest in canvases that he painted in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination and the massacres during the Vietnam wars. The intertwined masses of elongated and distorted figures in his canvases avoid direct reference yet convey a lyrical despair over the mercilessness of the modern world.  

Hamed Yousefi’s remarks focused on how Grey’s collection situates Iranian art in the context of the Cold War. He highlighted an image of Grey with Queen Farah of the Iranian Pahlavi Court. The photo captures a time of close diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran prior to the 1979 Revolution. Yousefi also focused on two abstract paintings from the Grey collection made by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic after the revolution.

During the opening celebration panel conversation, Block Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs Kathleen Bickford Berzock asked the scholars how they might define the global and the local in the Modernisms exhibition.

“This exhibition allows us to have a comparative view on modernism in the non-Western axis of Iran-India-Turkey, and this triangular ground of comparison will significantly contribute to our reconceptualization of modernism as global,” said Karagöz.

“Where is the local located -- is it urban or rural? These artists are navigating an uneven terrain,” Athari said. “You have to separate them from entities with political power or influence. Perhaps the best definition of local is ‘the human experience.’”
Graduate Students at Block Modernisms Opening

Pictured L to R:Michel Metzger, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Simran Bhalla, Hamad Yousefi, Ozgë Karagöz and Maryam Athari at the opening conversation. Photo by Sean Su.

Learn more about the exhibition on The Block Museum of Art’s website.

About Abby Weed Grey

It takes a seasoned diplomat to navigate between the complex spheres of U.S. governmental institutions, royal courts and world nations each holding a different attitude toward America.

Enter Abby Weed Grey, a Midwestern Army wife whose passion for art led her to travel extensively in the 1960s and 70s, at a time when U.S. diplomacy efforts were focused on easing Cold War tensions. Relying on her connections with U.S. government institutions, Grey travelled to Iran, Turkey, and India, countries on the fringes and exposed to the Soviet Union’s push to expand Communism.

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Left image: Period map indicating American perception of spread of Communist ideology; Right image: A map from Abby Weed Grey’s archive indicating her international travel during this same period.

In addition to collecting, she helped fund international art exhibitions, such as the first Indian Triennial in 1968, to highlight the work of global artists.

Rather than collecting works by nationally renowned artists, Grey followed her preference for cosmopolitan, nonsectarian works such as the Neo-Tantric style of The Progressive Arts Group in India, the Saqqakhaneh Movement in Iran and Turkey’s Group D artists.

The result is an unparalleled collection of paintings, collage and sculptures that provide a view of the rapidly modernizing society, in a part of the world that is being encroached upon by Communism from the East and consumerism from the West.

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