Lilit Teryan: The Doyen of Iran’s Modern Sculpture

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan

After 20 years of teaching, everything changed for Lilit Teryan overnight. When the 1979 revolution took place, she was a prominent sculpture professor at Iran’s most important art school, the faculty of fine arts at the University of Tehran. Despite her fame in the circuits of Iran’s art scene, she—like many other local artists—was forced to stop training students due to a ban on teaching sculpture. However, being sacked from her job did not end her teaching career, nor did it stop her from creating art.

That year, when the revolution changed all aspects of life in Iran, Teryan turned her father’s house in central Tehran into a sculpture workshop. There, she continued creating sculptures and teaching a handful of young artists who braved the post-revolutionary restrictions. “They put us all away,” she said in an interview about the time she and her colleagues were fired from the university. “Then, I was confined to my home, but I continued to work,” she added.

But, was it possible to tuck her away? How could art schools and young artists in Iran discard a prominent figure who had introduced academic sculpture into the country’s educational system? 

The authorities had dismissed her, but Iran’s art scene could not forget her. Even the government’s pretense that they did not need her experience and knowledge did not last long. In the mid-1980s, the administration of the University of Tehran invited Teryan to resume teaching, an invitation which the artist rejected because of her earlier dismissal. Then, in 1992, she was asked to teach sculpture at Azad University’s art faculty. Teryan agreed and resumed teaching until the end of the 1990s. 

More than a decade after the revolution, Teryan was not only back as a mentor to young artists, she also became widely celebrated as the “Mother of Iran’s Modern Sculpture”. The artist, who was known for “talking little and working a lot,” was again at the center of attention for the profound impact she already had on Iran’s art scene. Before her death in 2019, Iran’s Ministry of Culture organized several major events to honor her art and legacy. 

The students that Teryan trained, the works that she created and installed in every corner of Tehran, and the pedagogy she introduced to Iranian art academies, have bestowed upon her a unique status in the history of modern Iranian art. Teryan’s influence in this field began in the mid-1950s and evolved over the following six decades.

From Tehran to Paris

Teryan was born on December 31, 1930, in Tehran. Her ancestors were among the Armenians forced to leave the Ararat Plateau by Shah Abbas Safavid in the 17th century and resettle in the Iranian city of Jolfa.

When Lilit was born, the Teryans lived in Naderi, the hip Tehran neighborhood, whose cafés were frequented by Iranian intellectuals, writers, and artists. The Teryan family had a long-held interest in art. Lilit’s mother, Parandzem Hovanesyan, was an art lover who had studied painting in France. Hayk Teryan’s father was a high-ranking official at Iran’s state bank, Bank Meli. However, his interest in literature and archaeology also pushed him to become an amateur painter.

This family legacy made it easy for young Lilit to focus on the study of art from an early age. As soon as she started school, her parents hired a painter to give their daughter private lessons at home. As Lilit developed her interest in and knowledge of art, another field simultaneously attracted her attention: medicine.

“I truly loved medicine, but my parents encouraged me to study art. When I look back, I’m happy that I studied art because I always felt so sad when one of my students had a bad grade at art school. That made me think how I would have felt if I had become a doctor, and my patients would die” she recalled years later.

After graduating from high school, Teryan decided to study painting at the University of Tehran, but she did not pass the entrance exam. Before attempting to take the exam a second time, she decided to take art courses as a non-registered student. After diligent training, she was accepted to the university’s fine arts faculty, one of the most prestigious art schools in the Middle East in the 1950s.

Around the same time, the aspiring artist saw an advertisement in the Iranian-Armenian Alik daily newspaper about an organization in France that assisted Armenians wishing to study in Paris. In 1952, after just one year at the University of Tehran, Teryan moved to Paris and began to prepare for the entrance exam at one of the most prestigious art schools in the world – the Paris Beaux-Arts.

Teryan still wanted to apply for a major in painting, but to pass the entrance exam she needed to also gain some knowledge of sculpting. She took a sculpting course at Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, where she discovered her passion for creating art in three dimensions for the first time. “I started to like sculpture more because it has volume, is more vivid, and is visible from different sides,” she explained. Following this new revelation, Teryan decided to choose a new path and applied for a major in sculpture.

A Teacher for All Times

At the Beaux-Arts, Teryan did not merely focus on perfecting the academic technique of sculpture, she also used that opportunity to absorb the most recent practices of art instruction. In Paris, she became a firm believer in the vital role that the observation of nature plays in creating art.

“One day at the Beaux-Arts, we were asked to work on drawings and sculptures based on Rodin’s The Walking Man,” she recalled. “But I was strongly affected by the magnificence of that sculpture and could not work at all. Finally, my professor told me to leave the workshop and observe the flowers in the garden. There, I drew the flowers… and like this, I could get back to work on Rodin’s sculpture.”

In 1960, Teryan returned to Iran with ambitions to share her knowledge with the next generation. Explaining her reasons for devoting her life to education in an interview she gave in her late 1980s, she claimed that “there were so many artists like me in the West, but in Iran, I was the only person who could provide sculpture students the Western education.”

She began teaching art in Tehran’s high schools. After three years, she met a group of Iranian artists who had studied in Europe and were determined to establish a modern art academy for university students. By then, Teryan had already gained fame in Iran for her teaching methods. Houshang Kazemi, a prominent Iranian graphic designer who had also studied at the Paris Beaux-Arts, urged Teryan to manage the sculpture department at the University of Tehran Faculty of Decorative Arts.

Teryan focused on the energy and experience she had acquired in France to teach young Iranian artists. “One of the assignments I gave to my students was drawing flowers and then making sculptures based on their drawings. Or sometimes I took them to the zoo or the royal stables to draw animals.” When she began her teaching career, these methods were extremely uncommon in Iran.

Teaching consumed most of Teryan’s time and during the 20 years of her career there, she focused on constantly developing and adding to her methodology of sculptural training. In 1969, she went back to the Beaux-Arts again to enrich her artistic expertise, and in 1975, she used her sabbatical leave to go to the U.S. and visit sculpture academies. She returned from that trip with the bold idea of establishing a foundry workshop at her faculty. That workshop became the first metal casting workshop for art students in Iran.

Iranian art historians, artists, and art critics have written at length about Teryan’s impact on different generations of sculptors in Iran and her influence on academic methods of teaching art. Those who took her classes have also acclaimed her power in showing new horizons to young artists. 

Abbas Mashhadizadeh, a well-known Iranian artist and Teryan’s student at the University of Tehran, once said: “Teryan never married, but she gave birth to many children. All her students were like her children. The next generations of Iranian artists will be proud of having someone like Teryan in this country. [Proud of] a teacher who trained internationally acclaimed artists such as Hossein Zenderoudi, Faramarz Pilaram, Mansoor Ghandriz, Massoud Arabshahi, and many others.”

A House Not to Be Forgotten

While Teryan is primarily known for establishing an academic center for sculpture in Iran, her legacy is more profound. When she was a member of the board that chose monuments for the Iranian capital and other major cities, several important statues became part of Iran’s rapidly-developing urban space.

Moreover, a number of her sculptures are also installed in Tehran’s public spaces. One of her famous works is the statue of Yeprem Khan, an Iranian-Armenian revolutionary and one of the leading military commanders of the revolutionary army that captured Tehran during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1905-11). Although critics and artists warmly praised her works, she created very few commissioned pieces. “I don’t accept commissions because the commissioners want to impose their viewpoint on me, and I don’t like it,” she explained years later when she was restlessly working on plaster sculptures in her workshop.

Teryan’s art is best known in Iran for the plaster works she created in this workshop. Her sculptures based on human figures were mostly inspired by people she met in real life. During this period of her artistic journey, the artist used expressive language to create figures with very rough surfaces.

This was in sharp contrast with the technique Teryan used during the early stages of her work when she created sculptures from stone with perfectly polished surfaces. For the plaster sculptures, Teryan made the armature of her works from metal wires and thick cotton threads, and then she shaped the plaster around this framework.

Teryan belonged to the second generation of Iranian artists who formed the modern art movement in Iran. The movement began in the 1940s when pioneers such as Ahmad Esfandiari, Javad Hamidi, and Jalil Ziapour made the first attempts to break down the boundaries set by classical traditions of Iranian art. A decade later, when a new generation of Iranian artists returned home after graduating from European art schools, the movement developed further and was internationally acclaimed.

At the same time when avant-garde artists such as Bahman Mohasses, Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, and Parviz Tanavoli gave new meaning to modern Iranian sculpture, Teryan was at the forefront of teaching that new concept to the younger generation. Finally, after the 1979 revolution, when many prominent modernist artists left the country, Teryan stayed, continuing this mission from the privacy of her own home. 

That home still stands among newly-built highrises in central Tehran. This precious trace of  Teryan’s life and legacy is located on a side street close to the Bahar neighborhood, which is one of the major Armenian quarters in the Iranian capital. The sculptures that Teryan created are the silent residents of that house, waiting for a decision by Iranian state organizations to turn that home into a museum dedicated to the Mother of Iran’s Modern Sculpture. 

The idea of turning the artist’s home into a museum was hatched soon after she passed, in the mid-2010s. However, this project hasn’t yet been implemented. Today, Iranian artists and sculptors are worried that the archives, sculptures, drawings, and batik prints in Teryan’s house could be damaged and lost without proper attention. The house is Teryan’s last great creation. A few years before her death, in response to a question about the most important thing for her, the retired artist mentioned her garden and said that “more than anything else, I love my flowers.”

By Changiz M. Varzi EVN Report

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