Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > News Story and Obituary Archive

Ardeshir Mohassess, 1938-2008
posted October 12, 2008


The highly-regarded Iranian cartoonist and artist Ardeshir Mohassess, a practitioner of drawn satire in the tradition of William Hogarth and Saul Steinberg, died Thursday following a heart attack in his adopted home of New York City. He was 70 years old.

He was born to a middle-class family (his dad was a lawyer, his mother the head of an all-girls school) in Rasht, a large city on the Caspian sea in Iran's northwest province. After graduating from the University of Tehran in the early '60s with either a law degree or a degree in political science and spending some time employed as a librarian, he moved into cartooning full time, returning to a passion he held since early childhood and which had deepened in college. While he'd sold some drawings as a child to the satirical paper Towfigh, his first adult sales came to the paper Kayhan in 1963. In fact, they weren't sales at all, in that Mohassess did the initial work for free. They were an immediate hit, as well-respected critics and audiences reacted to his depiction of common people, the range of his influences and the modest self-image that came through the work. His first exhibition would come in 1967.

imageMohassess' move to New York in the 1970s was a not-uncommon experience for those of his generation, but his move have occurred for atypical reasons. His friend and fellow artist Fereydoun Ave said in a 2008 interview that Mohassess' move was prompted less by interest in his work by the Shah's secret police as had long been rumored and not at all because of the Revolution as many might think but because he liked the idea of moving to America and making books there, in addition to seeking some medical solutions to ongoing healthy problems. Many had believed that Mohassess was inspired to leave Iran of his own accord after a negative reaction to a popular group of 30 drawings he did set in Iran's 19th and early 20th Century Qajar dynasty that contained clear messages as to the severity of rule under the modern, current, decades-long rule of the Shah. While that interest was apparently real, it was not the primary motivation for his move. Mohassess established a home in New York in 1976 ahead of his permanent relocation three years later. He would marry an American.

The last days of the Shah and the growing Revolution had a severe effect on his art as was the case with nearly every living Iranian artist. The late '70s was a prolific period for the artist with those subjects close at hand and US policy as a target as well. He considered cartooning an act of reportage and a venue for personal expression even when they were not overtly intended to do those things. Drawing on Iranian and Western visual traditions, his painting included religious and political allusions that spoke in a powerful and complex manner to his fans. His collections included Cactus, Identity Card and Ardeshir and Stormy Winds. His most fruitful publishing period seems to have been the early 1970s, when a half-dozen titles were released in his native country. In the U.S. his drawings were published in the New York Times, the Nation and Playboy.

The articles on his passing note that Mohassess had suffered from Parkinson's disease in recent years. Mohassess switched to collage-style art in recent years, in addition to further pen and ink drawings. His 70th birthday was recognized in several arts articles this year, and there was an exhibition of his work at New York's Asia Society and Museum last Spring called "Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire In Iran." I believe he may have been part of a show in Dubai at the time of his death.

"Once can never change anything by art," Mohassess said in 1973. "The only thing one can say is that artists in each period of history leave a record, so that people in the future will know about their time."