Mehdi Darvishi | memento vivere
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 30 Jan 2019
“When you know death is your destination, you will try to make the way there as perfect as possible.”
Depending on how you choose to define it, the artistic tradition of memento mori (“remember death”) goes back to the classical period where in Plato's Phaedo he asserts that the practice of philosophy should be "about nothing else but dying and being dead". Certainly though, the unavoidable and omnipresent truth of our finite nature is something that has been the subject of mental gymnastics since languages first developed their future tenses. Truly it is the great unifier, as Tom Waits so achingly sings in The Fall of Troy, “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs, nothing wants to die.”
However, it is truly what gives our life meaning. Our choices, where we put our energy, who we choose to love and listen to only has significance because our time is limited. If we had endless days our decisions would carry no weight. Scarcity is essential for preciousness and this appreciation of the birds in the sky or the keyboards under our fingers which comes so brilliantly into focus when face to face with memento mori is our one stolen gem of comfort while facing all that darkness and all that foreverness.
In Western history, printmaking has a special place in the memento mori tradition. Since printmaking’s inception it has been a vehicle for the distribution of knowledge. Of course, one could make this statement about any means of communication, but with printmaking it was the first time that ideas, in text or image, could be reproduced relatively quickly and cheaply, and spread faster than ever before. So it naturally became to the go-to choice for those looking to distribute propaganda of all sorts. Like all the totems of our world, along with sex and money, death has been used as a means of control and manipulation and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries The Church had plenty of motivation to remind folks that they were going to die, and that one certainly couldn’t predict when. The Church commissioned series of ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) woodcuts or engravings that could be used as a how-to guide when it came to death. Spoiler alert: a good death means getting right with God. Having these images in the form of multiples meant that they could reach many people and be understood by those with limited literacy, ideally scaring some more sheep back to the flock. Memento mori continued to appear in visual culture through the Renaissance, which is where it meets up with Mehdi Darvishi in the pages of an art history book he borrowed from his high school art teacher in a small town in Iran.
Darvishi was born in Dorud, a city of around 100,000, located in the Lorestan Province in western Iran. Dorud is about four and half hours to Tehran, and only a day’s drive from Baghdad. Art was hardly present in his hometown, there was no museum, no art school, and his first introduction to art came through books his high school art teacher let him borrow. Art history tomes, filled with paintings from Renaissance masters to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Darvishi was immediately taken with them all, and began copying the figures, textiles and landscapes with pencil and paper, that is when he wasn’t reproducing the caricatures from the daily newspaper. This early self taught training, later refined by attending the College of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran, in both classical and contemporary forms is still present in his images.
Darvishi found mezzotint seven years ago, and taught himself the technique by watching videos on YouTube created by Guy Langevin. Mezzotint is unlike most other forms of printmaking or even art making. Rather than adding darkness to a white page to create forms, mezzotint artists are artists of light. (Eat your heart out, Kinkade.) They begin with the blackness of a fully textured or “rocked” copper plate, and by burnishing and scraping they create smooth places where the ink does not stick. It was this pulling the light from the darkness that intrigued him. It matched his philosophy and his subject matter. He threw himself into the practice devotedly, and only four years in was included in the International Mezzotint Festival, a spectacular biennial that takes place in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Only a few years later, in 2017, he was a finalist for the grand prize. Mezzotint also allows him to work and rework his plates in a way the drawing never could. He burnishes out figures, places, clouds and replaces them to create series where the image builds on itself thematically and physically. He can return to his images in different ways, he calls it killing his plate as well as his subject. As anyone who has had the pleasure of knowing a mezzotint artist can attest, the medium allows one to indulge in perfectionistic tendencies. He can make and remake the image until he is finally satisfied with the image. Sometimes this means working on a piece from 9 in the morning to 9 at night every day for 8 weeks. “The technique is like an alphabet... Everyone can know it, but only a few people can write a poem,” he says.
Technique, history, poetry, philosophy, and subject are all interwoven in Darvishi’s practice. It is like a tightly wrapped ball of string, to start unravelling it one must begin at the end. Death is the the most prominent theme running through all of his mezzotints. Bodies lie on tables covered by white sheets, the masterful handling of drapery harkening back to hours spent studying Renaissance paintings. The bodies lie in empty rooms with raking light, float in graveyards, or are watched over by hooded figures. The use of death so prominently is something that he comes by honestly. It is something that is often present in Darvishi’s mind as well as his art. It informs the way he lives and the way he sees the world. “When you know death is your destination, you will try to make the way there as perfect as possible,” he says.
His mezzotints have taken him around the world. When we spoke, he was approaching the tail end of a residency in Canberra, New South Wales at Megalo Press while looking forward to an upcoming trip to the China Printmaking Museum for another. He tells me that obtaining visas as an Iranian is very difficult. He knows billionaires in Tehran who would like to travel, but who cannot get the proper paperwork granted to them. Darvishi’s art opens doors for him that all the money in the world could not. As we talk, it’s impossible not to be taken with his calm and measured way of speaking. He picks his words carefully. Words that can unexpectedly blossom into poetic turns of phrase.
I get the impression that most things in his life are like this: chosen with conscious thought and deliberation. Such as his decision to fully live the life of an artist. He has no side hustle, but has instead thrown himself into the tumultuous world of being a working artist. He comes from a solidly middle class family, who all work regular jobs with regular paycheques. They do not understand his choice, and he has never taken support from them. Thus, his life is made of the ups and downs one would expect. His works sell quite well, but even the best selling art is reliant on the cycle of exhibitions. This is true despite the fact that when he first started taking his work to the galleries of Tehran, he was told that no one would be interested in such a bitter subject, but he kept working with death because that is what moved him. He certainly has the technical skills to create classical landscapes or interiors which would fly off the walls, but he says, “Anyone can create beautiful paintings and sell them. It is like baking bread, but you will not have longevity. You will rise and fall like [a] wave unless you are making something from the heart.” He’s not interested in living life any other way. The uncertainty keeps him working. It keeps him sharp. It keeps him present.
With Mehdi Darvishi I tried something I haven’t done before. Everyone else I’ve invited on to the podcast I’ve known, or at least had an extended conversation with before. With Darvishi, I’d only ever seen his work, and before I spent three hours talking to him. I was under the impression that his mezzotints were something like modern day memento mori. However, after coming to know him better, I realise that’s not exactly what they are at all. If anything they are memento vivere: “remember to live.” He takes on his living and his artmaking whole heartedly, and his mezzotints can stand as a powerful reminder for us to do the same. He tells me he doesn’t know how long he will continue to make work about death. “It is the subject that rules me at the moment, but I never know what tomorrow will bring.”