‘O rose thou art sick
The invisible worm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy’
– The Sick Rose, William Blake, 1794
What does the state of contemporary Iran and eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and France have in common? Persian artist, Azadeh Razaghdoost, was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857 and William Blake’s The Sick Rose, 1794 in the paintings that form her current exhibition at Sophia Contemporary, which has been given the title Recipe for a Poem.
Razaghdoost’s show has been filled with paintings of flower buds, trees and farsi script. Her colour palette is predominantly comprised of soft shades of blue and pastel pinks with the odd addition of gold. These colours serve as a backdrop to intense reds that have been applied to the canvas in what appear to be moments of passion. The artist has allowed her crimson tones to drip down the page. They could be described as tears. However, to me, they look like blood.
The press release provided by Sophia Contemporary would suggest that Razaghdoost’s verse is a love poem. While from a distance her soft-hued canvases look gentle, when up close and personal, it is clear to see that there is something in the work that is potentially quite painful. In Blake’s poem, the rose is unaware that it is unwell. The worm has unknowingly encroached on the flower and ruined it. Blake’s words hint at corruption. I don’t know enough about Iranian politics to comment, and perhaps the gallery itself is also being careful about this. However, maybe the Tehran based artist is making an observation on her surroundings. It is also likely that I am reading into Blake’s words far too literally and that Razaghdoost is, as the text accompanying the exhibition suggests, drawing on real romantic experiences.
Baudelaire’s poetry makes a slightly different comment on his society. The French poet writes in response to a new Paris, as redesigned by Haussmann: ‘…A swan escaped its cage…Fumbled for water in the perching street.’ Baudelaire felt estranged from his newly modernised city. Unlike Blake’s verse, his poem is not written in reference to romantic love but heartbreak triggered by changes to his urban surroundings. It may be worth considering whether Razaghdoost is echoing a similar sentiment.
Unfortunately I can’t read or speak farsi to attempt to interpret the inscriptions that Razaghdoost has left across her paintings. What I can say is that while the presence of pain is obvious, there is something beguiling about the way that these bleeding roses have been pasted against dusty pink backgrounds. The images are attractive although one gets the sense that they really ought not to be.
To those western viewers like me, with a very narrow knowledge of contemporary Iran, the true meanings and contexts toward the works may always be a mystery. However, I must concur with the exhibitions title. With the dream like pinks and blues, the intense reds and the mysterious scribbles, Razaghdoost’s paintings have all the necessary ingredients for an engrossing poem.