Ardeshir Mohassess, Iranian Cartoonist, Is Dead at 70
Ardeshir Mohassess, an Iranian artist long resident in America who pushed the art of the cartoon to almost Surrealist satire of his native land in work both popular and profound — pulsating with slain and mutilated shahs, mullahs and ordinary citizens; sardonic captions; and stylistic references to ancient art forms — died on Oct. 9 in Manhattan. He was 70.
The cause was a heart attack, said his friend Nicky Nodjoumi.
Mr. Mohassess, whose name was sometimes transliterated from Farsi as Ardashir Mohases or Mohasses, defied easy definition. He was a caricaturist often compared with Saul Steinberg for the bite and style of his cartoons, but he also drew inspiration from masters like Daumier and Picasso, as well as from Iranian religious art of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Mr. Mohassess himself insisted he was most of all a reporter, Mr. Nodjoumi said. His reportage was directed at the most disquieting elements he saw in Iran’s identity — selfishness, tyranny, hypocrisy and injustice, not to mention gluttony and verbosity — and found first expression in the popular press. It later appeared in about a dozen books, many gallery shows and magazines and newspapers in Iran, the United States and Europe.
Mr. Mohassess’s target was broader than any single government, although he fled to New York in 1976, after Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran from 1941 to 1979, took exception to his work. His anti-shah cartoons used settings and costumes of the Qajar dynasty of 1794 to 1925 — a misdirection that fooled nobody.
After the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in the Islamic revolution of 1979, Mr. Mohassess took more direct aim from his American exile at the new religious government: a drawing from 2000 shows lines of decapitated corpses laid neatly before seated mullahs.
His images were preternaturally disturbing. The shah dangles from a noose over a sour-faced mob in turbans. A comically dilapidated aircraft strafes praying citizens. A turbaned figure draws a picture of his own amputated feet; they rest on pedestals created by his own surreally upturned lower legs.
Captions were acidly caustic: “The convict’s execution coincided with the king’s birthday ceremonies,” one said.
Stanley Mason wrote in the international design magazine Graphis, “There is not much laughter in his cartoons, and where it can be heard it is hard and dry as a bone.”
The effect, said Jeune Afrique, a weekly newsmagazine published in Paris, was “a world torn apart, dismembered, where the frontiers between man and beast have been abolished.”
Ardeshir Mohassess was born on Sept. 9, 1938, in Rasht, in northwest Iran. His mother was a poet and headmistress of the first school for women in Rasht; his father was a judge, and his maternal grandmother painted at home. At 3, he began drawing characters from his mother’s bedtime stories. He published his first cartoon in 1951, The Iran Bulletin (now named Iran Bulletin — Middle East Forum) reported.
Mr. Mohassess earned degrees in both political science and law from the University of Tehran, then worked as a librarian in the library of Iran’s housing ministry. He told The Bulletin he quit because he had read most of the books in the library and feared “becoming addicted to a monthly salary.”
He next began to draw cartoons for the daily newspaper Keyhan. He was at first unpaid, but made one demand, that the newspaper not make any modifications whatsoever in his work. He began to get good reviews and published his first anthology in 1971.
His popularity provoked interest by Savak, the shah’s secret police. When they saw a reference to tortured political prisoners in his headless and limbless figures, he responded by drawing figures with several heads and many limbs. The pressure worsened when the shah complained to the Keyshan editor that Mr. Mohassess was transmitting seditious messages in code. “Don’t print what you don’t understand,” the shah said, according to The Bulletin.
With his jobs drying up, Mr. Mohassess settled permanently in New York in 1977, where he was soon published in The New York Times, The Nation, Playboy and elsewhere. He also exhibited in galleries and drew the attention of critics fascinated by his eclectic influences, which included centuries-old Shiite art depicting eye-popping violence.
Despite having Parkinson’s disease, he worked almost until his death. Earlier this year the Asia Society had a major exhibition of his work. A gallery in Tehran showed his work in each of the last three years, with brisk sales each time.
Mr. Mohassess is survived by a sister, Irandoukht Mohassess, and a brother, Darush Mohassess, both of Tehran.
Mr. Mohassess had a knack for making controversial remarks, like his comment that the exploited must share responsibility for their plight with the exploiters. He once said there were limits to idealism.
“I do not believe in an ideal society,” he declared. “I do not need an ideal society either, as there is no need for me in such a society.”