Decades before Marjane Satrapi drew the first frame of her celebrated comic book memoir “Persepolis,” the Iranian satirist Ardeshir Mohassess, now 69, was making black-and-white drawings whose blend of humor and reportage made him a cult figure for artists and intellectuals in his country. With rich allusions to Persian miniatures, Western artists like Goya and episodes in Iranian history, Mr. Mohassess has depicted life in Iran before, during and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The drawings have a fanciful yet descriptive line quality, comically exaggerating facial expressions while giving full weight to bullet holes and severed limbs. Some of the meanings may be lost on American viewers, but the artist’s deep suspicion of religious and political authority comes across clearly…

Unlike a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammed, Mr. Mohassess’s drawings have not inspired any riots. But they did attract the attention of the shah’s dreaded secret police in the 1970s. After receiving several warnings from the Iranian authorities Mr. Mohassess relocated to New York in 1976. The move was intended to be temporary, but the revolution of 1979 prompted a change of plans…

Artists, writers, teachers and free thinkers are among the oppressed. Ironic captions — “The convict’s execution coincided with the king’s birthday ceremonies,” for example, or “Members of a birth control seminar take a memorial picture” — pick up where Mr. Mohassess’s pen leaves off.

In one of the largest and most powerful works, a wedding has been interrupted by an oil truck crashing through the wall. The guests, some in chadors and others in Western clothing, seem to have been immobilized by this turn of events. The scene is farcical except for the bodies of the toppled bride and groom and the nooses dangling overhead.

Mr. Mohassess often works from photographs, lending his scenes of executions and “accidents” a grim authenticity. In an interview in the small exhibition catalog he admits to collecting “photographs of murderers and murdered people, a habit I have had since I was 7 or 8 years old.” He also collects images from the Qajar period, a source for the feathered and jeweled headdresses and embroidered tunics worn by the loutish royals and lackeys in his art.

Several drawings that Mr. Mohassess made after the revolution imbue single figures with disturbing symbolism. In “A Letter From Shiraz” (1982) a turbaned figure draws a picture of his own amputated feet; the upturned stumps of his legs serve as pedestals for them. The garden setting signifies “paradise on earth” in traditional Persian miniature painting; here it unites creation with self-mutilation…

Given that his work is found in newspapers and magazines as well as on gallery walls, Westerners might tend to think of Mr. Mohassess, in the simplest terms, as Iran’s answer to Saul Steinberg. His drawings have been published in The New York Times as well as in the Nation and Playboy. Yet they are more ambiguous than typical op-ed illustrations and more subtle than most political cartoons. In Mr. Mohassess’s works, the coded beauty of traditional Persian art comes face to face with the ugliness of successive autocratic regimes.

Karen Rosenberg
New York Times