by Hans Christian Kirsch
The road taken by Akbar Behkalam is a long one. Expelled from Iran during the so called “White Revolution” under Shah Reza Pahlevi, he came to Berlin in 1976. His paintings from the late sixties are about political protest, realistic; many motifs are, despite all criticism, characterized by a certain classical elegance. The influence of Persian miniature painting is undeniable.
The seizure of power by Khomeini led to a break in the mid-eighties. The extent to which fundamentalist terror and infliction of human suffering on his people increased are reflected in Akbar Behkalam’s paintings in two ways: the formats became ever more gigantic, concrete and realistic points of reference increasingly gave way to abstraction. It was as if the painter suddenly not only saw the barbarity of the Khomeini system as nightmares before his eyes in which people were cut up like animal carcasses, crushed under torture, women raped before being executed.
There is a painting from this time that has always greatly moved me. Its title is Inability to comprehend (1982). Inability to comprehend the extent of brutality taking place in the world. The man depicted is drawing and shaking his head in disbelief, nightmare figures are emerging from the background. A portrait of a woman and one of Ayatollah Khomeini lie on the table in front of the painter. The print seems to be asking what decision the artist is to make. Is it in any way justifiable to concern oneself with personal and private interests at a time when the world is experiencing such inhumanity?
The gestures of this painting have an astounding similarity with a famous print by Goya, namely etching 43 in the Caprichos by Francisco Goya. Goya’s etching is entitled The sleep (or the vision) of reason creates monsters: A picture which at the beginning of European modernism was probably one of the first to cast doubt on liberation of human beings through the Enlightenment.
Let us cast our minds back: Beginning with the cycle Justice in Allah’s name (1984), the realistic elements of his paintings have increasingly given way to abstraction, formats have become larger and larger as if to indicate it is no longer just a question of a specific case of inhumanity in this or that country, in this or that town. Atrocities, brutality, the extent of destruction have assumed worldwide proportions. While the paintings dating from the nineteen eighties are reminiscent of the Goya etching, the large-scale paintings created between the start of the new millennium and 2002 would appear to be statements on the world condition. Anyone studying them carefully for a period of time is bound to be reminded of the IX thesis of Walter Benjamin on the philosophy of history which is worded as follows:
“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”
It could be objected that none of Akbar Behkalam’s paintings depict an angel, but, even so, they reflect the “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”. The global catastrophe in which even the apocalyptic hope of a small gateway through which the Messiah could enter – according to Benjamin! – has already largely been lost.
It is probably no coincidence that these paintings depicting a global condition were created after the periods Akbar Behkalam spent in Brazil, in a country with a society that bears traits of both the first and third worlds. The sketch books created in Brazil and more recently during a trip to Egypt show the intensity with which the painter has responded to these distant worlds that were initially unknown to him.
New colours – yellow and red come to mind – feature predominantly. An old theme, masses of people on the move, has now become a symbol with global significance. People fleeing, protesters, people in revolt, people facing persecution, the poor seeking a greater share, boat people. A mingling of races, which fortress Europe (and Germany in particular) is still resisting, has already taken place: It is depicted here as the most important sign of the present and the future. Sulphurous yellow, included in nearly all of these paintings, evokes an apocalyptic thunderstorm. All in all, they could be described as historical painting at the threshold between the 20th and 21st centuries as they reflect the decisive aspects of the global history of this epoch. Perhaps they are also projections of a private mythology whose iconography is gradually starting to emerge.
By expressing criticism of conditions in society in certain countries and places in his paintings, the artist came to conclusions about the hour that world history has reached, and so it is necessary to comment on the ever increasing degree of abstraction which naturally goes hand in hand with this development. Statements of the kind described above can no longer be expressed in paintings that are prescriptive and realistic in nature.
Or if they are, at most they ironically cite the post-modern, for example as in the painting of God the Father, whose fingertip no longer touches a human Adam but the figure of a robot. Far more suggestive and of more topical relevance are those paintings which address us entirely through the tension between forms – and what a diversity of forms there is! – and colours and, as abstract works, perfectly describe the hour in world history that has tolled. The character of the possibilities, the mystification of the scenes we see in them is entirely consistent as a reaction to the questionability of any supposedly direct reality today and the manifold possibilities of manipulation to which it is subjected and with which it is instrumentalised. Today’s paintings must as a necessity seek an entirely different reality than that of the allegedly documentary
images shown on television; by creating tension between colour and form, by scenarios disconcerting or open in their effect they must address and unlock the part of the beholder lying beyond consciousness in the sphere of dreams and nightmares, and visions.
The sensuous part of the artist himself increasingly provides inspiration for two personal and private themes: the constellation of persons under the aspect of eroticism and that of the landscape as an expressive area of projection for subjective psychological states of mind. I see the large number of medium-sized paintings being created in this area as a series of experiments aimed at achieving optimum expression of this theme.
Particularly because abstraction has also gained the upper hand here, such long processes of approach are necessary, especially as notions are touched which often are subject to censorship by the consciousness. They must – entirely comparable with a psychoanalytic process – first be set free gradually, in ever new attempts, until they are finally resolved in a sign which reseals them visually.
Large, important works by Akbar Behkalam are always successful when they merge global and personal aspects.
One example is the large, vertical-format painting portraying a person unrecognisable as an individual, who dissolves in a whirlwind. My recollection was of a doll-like fetish, a female figure, that I brought back from a tribe in Namibia. I would call this painting: first and last women. It seems like an additive abstraction of the female and at the same time like its dissolution.
Another example is an oil painting in horizontal format, about which only so much can be said: It would appear to portray two persons moving one behind the other. The one moving behind the other reaches out for his face, but all that is there is a circle with black lines flashing across, as if the face of this figure had been crossed out. The first thing I associated with this painting was the Orpheus scene – Orpheus and Eurydice leaving the underworld. At the same time, one might also think of the first humans fleeing from Paradise, or of the last human beings in a not too distant future fleeing from an Earth that has become uninhabitable.
A long road was mentioned at the beginning, one could also speak of a road through the hells of our present time, both in the global and private spheres. The glory of this art is probably that it does not abandon the search for truth. It is the disturbing depiction of the catastrophic present, whereby it does here and there reveal a shimmering glimpse of the paradisiac in the sense that hope was invented for those without hope.
[Taken from the Catalog "Crossing Borders"]