Lifting the Pardeh on Revolutionary Poster Art

Indiana University will be showcasing “Graphics of the Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts” until December 18. On loan from the University of Chicago Library, the exhibit features dozens of political posters disseminated during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

We are all familiar with political art, whether it be war-time state-sponsored propaganda or the work of independent street artists produced during moments of social upheaval. I have always been fascinated with political art because it challenges the famous bohemian concept, “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake). Unlike this 19th century romanticized understanding of art, political art is created for a moral and didactic purpose– it strives to instill feelings of nationalism, patriotism, solidarity, or revolution in order to mobilize society as the artist/distributor sees fit. During the course of my undergraduate study, I stumbled across Iranian revolutionary posters and saw that they were quite distinct from their Russian, Cuban, and German counterparts. I asked myself why certain visual motifs were used endemically in Iran; I came to understand that Iranian artists working during the 1979 Revolution effectively incorporated native symbols of resistance and struggle in order to better communicate with the Iranian populace.

While the tradition of Iranian poster art has its roots in the 1940’s, the circumstances of the 1970’s made the poster one of the most successful vehicles of ideology and revolutionary fervor to the public. Oppositional groups, taking advantage of printing technologies and the processes of modernization, used art as a weapon against the Pahlavi regime and soon bombarded the masses with revolutionary slogans and graphic motifs. During the war with Iraq, state-sanctioned artists weaponized cultural myths of resistance in order to transform the daily experiences of the viewer into elements of mobilizing conviction. Iranian poster art is remarkable not only for drawing upon symbols of resistance and sacrifice from third-worldist liberation movements, but also for incorporating themes deeply situated within traditional Iranian visual culture.

Traditional graphic arts such as the pardeh painting, a genre that dates back to the late Safavid Period (1501-1736), greatly influenced the style of several revolutionary-period political posters. Essential to the tradition are large oil paintings on canvas (often 5 by 12ft) and a pardeh-khan, the storyteller who orates the events depicted on the canvas. Though not necessarily religious in nature (pardeh paintings also featured stories from the Shahnameh), many of these paintings portrayed the Karbala tragedy, where the armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid martyred the grandson of the prophet Hussein ibn Ali. After the Iranian Revolution, regime-sponsored graphic media stressed the Shi’i aspects of the Revolution in order to claim religious authority and political legitimacy. Prominent pardeh painters like Hassan Ismailzadeh (b.1922), began applying pardeh motifs to contemporary politics, visually linking themes of resistance and martyrdom to the Iranian public’s present consciousness. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was portrayed as the Yazid of the time.

This poster, which illustrates Mohammad Reza Shah’s exile from Iran, imitates traditional Iranian pardeh paintings. As seen, the Shah flees across the Persian Gulf with his wealth towards Egypt and is accompanied by a black dog and red devil. In the upper right, Khomeini is shown holding a Qur’an as he hovers above various scenes that took place during the Revolution. In the background, the Eiffel tower and the Najaf shrine tell the story of Khomeini’s exile to Iraq and France before his triumphant return to Iran. Like pardeh paintings, the poster compresses time by depicting various moments and situations of the revolution, regardless of the chronology of events.

Following a consolidation of power and Saddam’s surprise offensive, the Islamic Republic began a immense visual campaign to mobilize public opinion and encourage military enlistment. The Islamic Republic hoped to depict the continuing war with Iraq as a sacred collective effort to protect not only Iran-zamin, but the memory and faith of the ahl al-bayt (family of the prophet). War-time posters strove to portray the Iran-Iraq war as an extension of the Karbala tragedy and glorified the act of sacrificing oneself for a just cause. Hussein became the chief symbol of struggle and resistance, to be emulated for his willingness to battle against all odds. Posters during this decade often depicted acts of martyrdom and the promise of salvation by referencing imagery from Karbala.

This poster is dedicated to the glorification of the martyrdom and is embedded with cultural symbols of sacrifice. In the center, a chadored-woman holds the body of a dead soldier as it transforms into a tulip. The flower has long been representative of death and sacrifice; numerous verses in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh compare the color of blood to that of the tulip. To the left there is a row of tulips sprouting future generations of soldiers while to the right youths march into battle, willingly ready to sacrifice themselves for the “Holy Defense” of Iran. Behind the woman stands rows of headless figures surrounding a white-robed Hussein on top his horse. The poster collapses time and space, bringing the plains of Karbala to the front lines and Iranian soldiers to the 7th century.

The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war saw the production of graphic art rich with traditional and religious symbols of resistance and sacrifice. Posters were instrumental in inciting anti-shah sentiment and mass mobilization. They relayed messages of revolution and struggle to the mass populous while remaining congruous to established Iranian visual culture.

For more info, check out:

“The Graphics of Revolution and War:  Iranian Poster Arts”

Indiana University Art Museum: Current Exhibitions

Staging A Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran by Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi

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