Nick Hackworth

Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar - Rebirth

Publications Mairie de Saint Jean Cap Ferrat

The Painting as a Garden: The Work of Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar
by Nick Hackworth

“Let's offer flowers, pour a cup of libation,
split open the skies and start anew on creation.

If the forces of grief invade our lovers' veins,
cupbearer and I will wash away this temptation.

With rose water we'll mellow crimson wine's bitter cup;
we'll sugar the fire to sweeten smoke's emanation.

Take this fine lyre, musician, strike up a love song;
let's dance, sing all night, go wild in celebration.

As dust, O West Wind, let us rise to the Heavens,
floating free in Creator's glow of elation.

If mind desires to return while heart cries to stay,
here's a quarrel for love's deliberation.

Alas, these words and songs go for naught in this land;
come, Hafez, let's create a new generation.”


I like talking to Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar about his work. He's refreshingly passionate and clear. When asked what his work is 'about', sometimes an awkward question to ask an artist, he talks about two big, interconnected, subjects, energy and nature.

"One of the messages of [my work] is the understanding that we are part of nature, and that we are all one. I'm made of the same things as you are and both of us are made of the same things as nature, which is energy, at the end of the day"

For Behnam-Bakhtiar his paintings are both images and embodiments of energy. The words ring true when you look at this show. Some of the more visually dense works like Love, Life and Energy and Jungle Love positively vibrate.

Behnam-Bakhtiar's signature painting style employs a form of peinture raclee. He covers the surface of each work by scraping and blending passages of thick, vibrantly hued, oil paint into one another. The paintings are covered in irregular lines, each marking the end of an individual scape. The paintings are often worked on for months on end. Sometimes a new scrape that blends two freshly applied colours, also picks up a semi-dry layer of paint beneath, so that every mark is a collaboration between design and chance.

Each painting becomes a mosaic of sorts, a pattern of irregular squares and rectangles formed by the intersecting, scrape-lines, an intense field of myriad contrasts and harmonies of colour and texture, flowing and clashing into each other. Each one is a world unto itself full of drama and beauty. Here a long streak of bright vermillion is scraped like a comet over a white sky, its trail fading into ever lighter pink behind it. There, among a field of red hues, a long, deep, band of black, flanked by bright yellows, like a Bumble Bee's warning, is broken into a series of long thin segments, becoming vaguely serpentine as you look along the length of its form.

To dive into the microcosms the paintings encompass, pick one, let's say Love, Life and Energy, and look at it up-close, imagining it's a landscape you are drawn into. Start in the bottom right hand corner and move along the diagonal, towards the centre. We start in a quiet, flat place. Muted shades of blue, yellow and terracotta sit side by side blending gentling into each other where they meet, punctuated by small outbreaks of red and gleaming white. Travelling inland, the terrain changes. On our right hand-side we pass a field of sun-bright, yellow. Hinterlands of green and turquoise suddenly and dramatically give way to steep, hills and mountains bright blue deep purple, alien and forbidding... Now stop and step back and zoom out till you see the whole painting. Now it's a piece of music. For me, Love, Life and Energy, with its pulsating, partially controlled chaos and its waves of moody blues and purples, has to be jazz. John Coltrane's Blue World perhaps. For you it will be another song by someone else. One of the great joys of looking at art is taking part in this infinite and never-ending play of imagination and association.

Thinking of Jazz, energy and painting conjures Piet Mondrian's Broadway, Boogie Woogie, painted between 1942 — 1943 in his apartment on 353 East 56th Street, where he looked out onto the grids of Manhattan traffic and listened to Jazz on his gramophone. There have been few better portraits of that frenetic, 24/7 city than Mondrian's bands and blocks of yellow and red, blue and grey, at once a formalist abstract painting, an urban plan, an early cybernetic diagram... Only a few years later and not too far away to the east, in his studio barn in East Hampton, Jackson Pollock lays out a large piece of canvas on the floor and, applying enamel and oil paint in drips, loops, splashes and sprays, makes one of his now seminal action paintings. The process of the work's making, flat on the floor of a barn, speaks to the vast plains of crops that span the continent-wide country, his looping, circular, hand movements echoing the cycle of the seasons.

The conservation law of physics states that energy never dies, it just changes forms. I think that's true of psychic energy too. Ideas and sentiments flow through us, from one into the other and so on. I like to think of these artists, each making their paintings about energy and rhythms, each work perfect for them, in that place, at that time.

Behnam-Bakhtiar made these works in St­Jean-Cap-Ferrat where, if you look out in most directions, you see sea and sky. Two of my favorite works in the exhibition are Paysage des Esprits and Love, Life and Energy (White). Calm, ethereal, full of colour harmonies and long like the horizon, it's hard, especially here, not to think of them as being seascapes. In them, soft colours blur into each other, as in the central passage of Paysage des Esprits, where yellow, light blue and white shimmer and meet like gentle sunlight reflected in water, or all across seductive, chromatic haziness of Paysage des Esprits. These works are at home here, at one with this beautiful place with its sea, sunlight and expansive skies. They bring to mind the depictions of sea and sky in J.M.W. Turner's late paintings, when he dispensed with painting what his buyers wanted and focused on his creative obsession — light.

One of Behnam-Bakhtiar's favorite poets is the famous 14th century mystical Persian poet Hafez, one of whose poems introduces this essay. One striking feature of the medieval Persian poetic tradition of which Hafez is a part, is its love of nature imagery and especially imagery relating to gardens. Gardens in both medieval Christian and Islamic thought, were reflections of Paradise, a memory of our once Edenic state, and as academic Julie Scott Meisami writes "a place wherein the soul might read the most profound spiritual lessons... as its design and constituent are seen as reflecting principles of cosmic order and beauty, the garden itself become an ideal place wherein such principles may be observed; garden poems, as well, function as places of learning and discovery as well as of recreation and delight."

The idea that poems and paintings can be sources of spiritual sustenance is an ancient one. After all the word 'culture' in most modern European languages derives ultimately from the Latin 'colere' which means to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivation and nurture. It is an idea however, that fell out favour in the modern Western art world. For Clement Greenberg, the dominant post-war Modernist art critic, art was about pure visual form, for others, including the C.I.A. who covertly funded exhibitions of post war American paintings as part of their anti-Soviet soft-power propaganda campaign (true story) Modern art was about celebrating personal freedom. In the more jaded, postmodern decades of twentieth century, celebrating personal freedom degenerated into celebrating consumer choice. Throughout all these periods however, art and spirit didn't really mix, at least not in public.

This moment of crisis however feels like a moment of global reckoning for humanity. This pandemic many warn, is a mild foretaste of the chaos that climate change will bring as it rapidly intensifies. How we rise to this challenge, personally and as a species, will determine if we have a future at all.

With that in mind I invite you to make a final imaginative transformation, pick one of the paintings in this exhibition or book if you are reading this at home and see it as a garden, a place of both 'recreation and delight' and a place of contemplation, renewal and rebirth. As Behnam-Bakhtiar writes in his essay The Age of Energy (published online: when describing a series of his depictions of trees:

"The trees painted in each painting in this study are a direct reminder of how our energy and their corresponding vibration can totally transform our existence. We need to manifest our dormant energies, expand our aura, push beyond boundaries set by our societies, ground ourselves and provide security and safety for ourselves and loved ones, as do these trees.”