Two monkeys


Bruegel’s smallest picture (only 19,8 × 23,3 cm, 1562, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) depicts two monkeys. They are sitting in the window of a thick-walled building, chained to the windowsill, and beyond the window you see the port city of Antwerp. Next to them, on the windowsill, the empty shell of a crushed hazelnut.

If someone who usually expresses himself with two hundred figures, in one picture unexpectedly uses only two, that must mean something. But what?

According to some authors, the painting, like Bruegel’s many other small pictures, is an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “to go to court for a nut”. Whoever goes to court, should not be surprised for being arrested there. And if he went for nothing, then he himself was looking for trouble. The two free birds flying in the sky over the city form a sharp counterpoint to the two monkeys chained next to the hazelnut shell.

Andrea Alciato also imagines the courtier in chains, with freely flying birds above him. Los emblemas de Alciato traducidos en rimas españolas, Lyon: Roville-Bonhomme, 1549, «In aulicos» (on courtiers), p. 146.

In other opinions, the painting is only a study, in which the master depicted for later use two of the exotic animals regularly brought to Antwerp. However, we do not know any other similar sketch from Bruegel, and the detailed elaboration of the small painting also suggests a finished picture.

At the same time, it is a fact that Bruegel also produced two other pictures in the same year, where he used the lessons of this study. One is the painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, Amsterdam, Museum van den Bergh, inv. no. 788). In the picture, an uprooted, helmeted woman runs swiftly with a sword, with female soldiers behind her, who seem to want to lay siege on Hell. This hell is populated with the monster figures of Bosch, which Bruegel had imitated so many times; but this is the first time he also includes monkeys, and the two monkeys looking out of the round window of the castle are very similar to the two in the small painting. The interpretation of the picture is uncertain, but it might be an example of the carnivalesque swap of roles, so popular among Renaissance authors: here, women take on the role of warrior men. The monkeys emphasize this role change by playing a human role in the hellish castle.


griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet

The other picture is the print The monkeys rob the sleeping pedlar, made by Bruegel for the publisher To the four winds of his regular companion, Hieronymus Cock. In this, the monkeys take on the goods pulled out of the pedlar’s basket, and the human roles associated with them. The great number of small figures amounts to a complete study of simian movement. The monkeys’ round dance in the middle evokes a similar motif from Dulle Griet.



We do not know what piqued Bruegel’s interest in monkeys that year, and why it abated later. He may have found some inspiration in the unexpectedly seen exotic monkeys, and he painted them with the exclamation this will be good for something, but then one of his humanist friends begged for the painting for his curiosity cabinet. He may have wanted to dominate the genre of exotic animals sought by the Kunst- und Wunderkammers and encyclopedias, similarly to the other contemporary themes, such as landscapes, peasant scenes or Bosch’s devilries, that he tried and succeeded in, but this time it somehow did not come in. Nevertheless, the master never discarded anything he had created, so he also used the motif of the Two monkeys in the later painting and print.

And just as Bruegel created the genre of modern landscapes and peasant scenes, so these few monkey representations also had an impact on later art. In 1575, his popular monkey print inspired Pieter van der Borcht to publish a whole print series, where monkeys behave like human beings, thus emphasizing the comicality of a situation. With this series starts the genre of singerie, the monkey scenes parodying human society, which holds its popularity from the late Renaissance to the 20th century. Bruegel’s son and grandson, the Elder and Younger Jan Brueghel also took part in the early dissemination of this genre.

Pieter van der Borcht the Elder, The Quack, 1575

Pieter Feddes Harlingen’s version on Bruegel’s print, early 17th c

Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, Monkey feast, c. 1620

Abraham Teniers, Monkeys arresting a cat, mid-17th. c

But the genre’s most touching representative is not a painter, but a poet, the Nobel Prize winner Wysława Szymborska, who wrote her ekphrasis on Bruegel’s painting shortly after 1981, the ban on Solidarność and the introduction of martial law in Poland.

Dwie małpy Brueghla

Tak wygląda mój wielki maturalny sen:
siedzą w oknie dwie małpy przykute łańcuchem,
za oknem fruwa niebo
i kąpie się morze.

Zdaję z historii ludzi.
Jąkam się i brnę.

Małpa, wpatrzona we mnie, ironicznie słucha,
druga niby to drzemie --
a kiedy po pytaniu nastaje milczenie,
podpowiada mi
cichym brząkaniem łańcucha.
Bruegel’s two monkeys

This is my great dream about final exam:
two monkeys in chains sit in the window,
behind them, the sky is flying
and the sea taking its bath.

The exam is in the history of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares at me sardonically, silently,
the other naps,
but when the question is followed by silence,
he prompts me with a gentle
clicking of his chain.


Gracias por el pescado


¿Qué quedaría de esta imagen si elimináramos el enorme pez? Apenas nada: una pobre cabaña de pescador a la izquierda y una ciudad portuaria en el horizonte, una bahía abierta al mar entre ambos y una playa de arena vagamente definida. El paisaje parece limitado a ejercer de marco a la presa sin par, ese Gran Pez cuyo vientre saja un hombre como liliputiense, embistiéndole con un cuchillo más grande que él. Del tajo en el estómago y de la boca del animal varado se derraman grandes peces-matrioshka: los que había engullido el pez y que justo antes, o ya en su estómago, tragan a su vez peces menores. Las piezas de la presa que se escurren al mar son devoradas inmediatamente por otros peces (como hacían las focas en la lonja de Puerto Ayora), y hasta vemos un pez volador que con las fauces abiertas llega reclamando su parte del festín. El paroxismo de este frenesí de engullimiento llega al punto de que los mejillones intentan atrapar los peces. En el bote de la parte inferior de la imagen, un remero señala el espectáculo a su hijo: ECCE, y en la inscripción en cursiva en lengua flamenca, comparte con él la experiencia básica de su vida: «Mira, hijo mío, he sabido desde hace mucho tiempo que los peces grandes se comen a los pequeños». Lo mismo dice el hexámetro de las mayúsculas latinas: «GRANDIBUS EXIGUI SUNT PISCES PISCIBUS ESCA»: Los peces pequeños son alimento para los peces grandes. Y una versión bastante posterior de esta de 1557, publicada por Jan Galle, activo en Amberes entre 1620 y 1670, que agrega además una explicación trilingüe de la imagen para que nadie pueda malinterpretar ni un ápice la metáfora: «La opresión de los pobres. Los ricos te aniquilan con su poder». Epístola de Santiago, 2: 6».


Si el Pez —con los menores peces que ha tragado— ilustra esta injusticia básica, entonces es posible que el cuchillo que le abre el estómago, con la representación del orbe en forma de una insignia real en la hoja, como la que usualmente sostiene Cristo en las escenas del Juicio Final, represente la justicia suprema.


¿Quién es el autor de la imagen? La inscripción muestra dos firmas. A la izquierda: «Hieronymus Bos. inventor», y bajo esta: «PAME», mientras que a la derecha vemos: «COCK EXCU[DIT], 1557». Es decir, el dibujo es de Hieronymus Bosch y la impresión fue realizada por Cock en 1557. Nada de esto es verdad. Que Cock no fue el grabador lo prueba el monograma PAME, que señala a Pieter van der Heyden: uno de los grabadores habituales de Hieronymus Cock, el mejor editor de grabados de Amberes. Por lo tanto, Cock se jactaba de la ejecución de la impresión no como autor, sino como editor. Pero tampoco se puede atribuir el dibujo original a El Bosco. Es similar en estilo, ciertamente, pero carece de la profusión de monstruos compuestos que lo caracteriza (excepto por ese pez bípedo que trata de escapar con su presa cerca de la choza).

El Albertina de Viena, sin embargo, conserva el dibujo original que sirvió como modelo para la impresión (inv. no. 7875). Y este en lugar de la firma de Bosch lleva la de Pieter Bruegel el Viejo. Aquí aún escribe su nombre con una h, pero pronto la eliminará, y solo sus hijos Pieter el Joven y Jan recuperarán la forma Brueghel.



Y Bruegel también usa este motivo para una de las escenas de sus Proverbios neerlandeses de 1559.


En 1556, el joven —quizás de unos treinta años— Pieter Bruegel el Viejo acababa de regresar a casa tras su viaje de estudios en Italia, donde mejoró sus habilidades de dibujante y realizó una gran cantidad de bocetos, especialmente de los paisajes montañosos, desconocidos y atractivos para el público de los Países Bajos. Quería hacerse un hueco en Amberes, que era el centro no solo comercial sino especialmente del mercado de arte por entonces. En 1540 se abrió aquí la primera galería europea permanente de pintura y grabados, donde trescientos maestros de la ciudad colocaban sus obras, y desde aquí alcanzaban lugares tan lejanos como, por ejemplo, la catedral armenia en Isfahan, donde las paredes se decoraron con frescos hechos a partir de grabados bíblicos producidos en Amberes. Uno de los comerciantes de arte de más éxito en la ciudad, Hieronymus Cock, abrió en 1548 su casa editora A los cuatro vientos (In de Vier Winden), donde imprimió grabados muy codiciados. Y para ello necesitaba dibujantes de talento. Así, cuando el joven Bruegel volvió de Italia, lo contrató de inmediato (y quizás ya le había financiado el viaje), y desde ese momento colaboraron en multitud de exitosas series de grabados, desde los Grandes paisajes hasta Los siete pecados capitales y las siete virtudes, que aumentaron la fama de ambos.

Hans Vredemann de Vries, Vista de calle de Amberes, con la editorial de Hieronymus Cock en la esquina derecha, donde también se imprimió este mismo grabado en 1560, y con el propio Hieronymus Cock a la puerta

En el mercado de arte de Amberes, un joven y prometedor principiante podía prosperar promocionándose como maestro en aquellos temas populares que habían cobrado vida en décadas anteriores. Hasta principios de la década de 1500, había un solo tema comercial: el retablo, ya fuera para la iglesia o particular. Sin embargo, al asentarse el mercado de arte y el coleccionismo privado —con el auge de las Kunst- und Wunderkammer— en el siglo XVI, aparecieron nuevos temas de especialización: paisajes, asuntos exóticos, escenas campesinas, etc. Entre los nuevos temas, las réplicas de El Bosco llegaron a ser un sector independiente. Las sorprendentes criaturas fantásticas de Hieronymus Bosch eran extremadamente populares. Su obra original había sido recogida principalmente por Felipe II para su colección y el mercado reclamaba sucedáneos. Muchos pintores se especializaron en ello: copias de sus pinturas y nuevas creaciones siguiendo su estilo. Entre ellos se encontraba Bruegel, que hizo varios dibujos de monstruos a imitación de El Bosco y Cock los publicó con gran éxito.

Bruegel, La tentación de san Antonio, 1554. Esta escena fue uno de los temas principales de los imitadores de El Bosco, porque los demonios que acosaban al santo ermitaño ofrecían un generoso pretexto para la representación de seres monstruosos similares a los del maestro.

Una de las piezas de más éxito de la colaboración entre Bruegel y Cock fue la serie de grabados que representan los siete pecados mortales, las siete virtudes y el Juicio Final, entre 1557-60. El éxito se atribuyó en gran parte a las diablerías de El Bosco, que inundaron casi todas las planchas de la serie: las de los pecados, naturalmente, pero también las de las virtudes, llenas por igual de demonios aquí derrotados.

Bruegel, Ira, 1558

Bruegel, Fortitudo, 1560

En 1572, el humanista Dominicus Lampsonius de Brujas publicó con Cock una colección de retratos de grandes artistas holandeses. Para entonces, la reputación de Bruegel como imitador de El Bosco era tan notoria que Lampsonius podía escribir sobre él: «Es el nuevo Hieronymus Bosch, quien con su pincel imita y pone ante nuestros ojos los ingeniosos sueños del Maestro y reproduce su estilo tan eficazmente, que así al mismo tiempo lo supera». De aquí viene la apelación de Bruegel como «segundo Bosco» que, gracias a la descripción de los Países Bajos de Lodovico Guicciardini, se extendió también por todo el sur de Europa.

En el grabado de los peces de 1557, que hemos visto arriba, Bruegel todavía no usaba aquellos monstruos típicos de El Bosco. Pero para el espectador contemporáneo, los peces que se devoran entre sí ya eran marca registrada de este autor, quien a menudo representaba sus demonios de igual modo. Curiosamente, el motivo aparece repetidamente en la película Ruben Brandt, el coleccionista (2018), que trabaja con numerosas referencias a la historia del arte e imágenes absurdas. Si no la habéis visto aún, hacedlo (y si lo habéis hecho, volved a verla) y contad los peces.

El Bosco, La tentación de san Antonio, c. 1501, detalle

El Bosco, Adoración de los Magos, c. 1485-1500, detalle

El Bosco, El jardín de las delicias, c. 1490-1510, detalle

El Bosco, El carro de heno, 1516, detalle. A la derecha, el pez bípedo del grabado de Bruegel

Bruegel, El Juicio Final, 1558, detalle

Milorad Krstić, Ruben Brandt, el coleccionista, 2018. Detalle del episodio sobre la exposición de arte pop en Tokio

En 1556, cuando Bruegel dibujó y firmó el modelo del grabado de los peces, era todavía un joven talento desconocido, que se buscaba la vida en casa de Cock (y Cock se enriquecía gracias a Bruegel). El Bosco, por su parte, era ya toda una marca. Quizás sea por eso que Cock decidió poner a El Bosco como el «inventor» del dibujo. En aquel momento, esto no significaba necesariamente engañar al consumidor. Se trataba claramente de una obra de género: esto es «un Bosco», o, con mayor precisión: «diseñado a partir de El Bosco por un miembro de nuestra editorial». Y el aficionado que lo comprara y lo conservara durante al menos quince años, momento en el que Bruegel también se convirtió en una marca de referencia, podía presumir de tener un Bosco que, en realidad, finalmente resultó ser un Bruegel. No está mal.

Para ilustrar el recorrido de esta imagen entre los consumidores de los Países Bajos, veamos este ejemplo de sesenta años después.


Claramente se copió de la impresión original de Cock. Sin embargo, la crítica social de tipo general se agudiza aquí alrededor del debate político. El pez lleva la inscripción «Barnevelsche Monster», de la cual, y de otros detalles, se infiere que el panfleto celebra la ejecución de Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, canciller de las Provincias Unidas de los Países Bajos, en 1619. El canciller, que había sido el juez supremo de los Países Bajos Libres durante treinta años, finalmente entró en conflicto con los Estados de los Países Bajos como partidario de la rama arminiana del calvinismo, y estos convencieron al gobernador príncipe Mauricio de Nassau para que lo condenara y ejecutara en un juicio sumario, al igual que en el grabado el príncipe abre el estómago del «monstruo» con «el cuchillo de la justicia». El «monstruo» es rematado por el arpón de la «Oude Leer», es decir, la enseñanza calvinista ortodoxa, y la ciudad del horizonte se perfila con las características particulares de Utrecht, el último refugio de Oldenbarnevelt. La posteridad considera a Oldenbarnevelt como un gran estadista, pero en el transcurso de treinta años pudo haber perjudicado a algunos: sus nombres pueden leerse en los peces que escapan de su estómago y garganta. La verdad triunfó, desde el punto de vista de alguien. La pregunta es, tal como un pez grande le preguntó al chico antes de tragárselo: ¿qué es la verdad?

Thanks for All the Fish


What would there be left in the picture if we took the big fish out of it? Basically nothing: the poor fishing hut on the left and the harbor town on the horizon, as well as the open sea bay between them, with a large, formless sandy beach. The landscape apparently was created to be a worthy frame for the matchless prey, the Great Fish, which is being cut open by a Liliputian man with a knife far greater than himself. From the stomach and mouth of the Fish, as if the blade of the knife also cut its throat, big fish-matrioshki are pouring out, those that had been swallowed by the Fish, and which immediately before that, or already in its stomach, tried to swallow further fishes. The pieces of the prey falling into the sea are awaited and immediately swallowed by other fishes, as by the seals on the fish market, and there is even a fish that come flying in for its share. The paroxysm of this gobbling frenzy grew to the point that even the mussels try to swallow fishes, even though they would think twice at this in their natural habitat. At the bottom of the picture, in a fishing boat, an oarsman points to the spectacle to his son: ECCE, and in the Flemish-language Italic inscription at the very bottom he shares with him the basic experience of his life: Look, my son, I have known for a long time that big fish eat small fish. The same is said by the Latin legend, in hexameter: “GRANDIBUS EXIGUI SUNT PISCES PISCIBUS ESCA” – small fishes serve as food for big fishes. And a much later version of this 1557 print, published by Jan Galle, active in Antwerp between 1620 and 1670, who even adds a trilingual explanation over the image, so that nobody can misunderstand the metaphor: “OPPRESSION OF THE POOR. The rich suppress you with their power. Letter of James, 2:6.”


If the Fish – and the large fishes swallowed by it – illustrate this basic injustice, then it is possible that the Knife ripping its stomach, with its representation of the world in the form of a royal insignia on its blade, like the one usually held by Christ on the scenes of the Last Judgment, represents the ultimate justice.


Who is the author of the picture? The inscription gives two signatures. To the left: “Hieronymus Bos. inventor”, and under it: “PAME”, while to the right: “COCK EXCU[DIT], 1557”. This means that the design is by Hieronymus Bosch, and the print was made by Cock in 1557. Neither of which is true. That Cock was not the engraver is proved by the monogram PAME, which indicates Pieter van der Heyden: he was one of the permanent engravers of Hieronymus Cock, the greatest print publisher of Antwerp. Thus, Cock boasted with the authorship of the print not as its master, but as its publisher. But neither can the original drawing be attributed to Bosch. It is akin to his style, but the usual composite monsters are missing (except for the fish next to the hut, which tries to get away with its prey on two legs).

The Albertina in Vienna, however, preserves the original drawing which served as a model for the print (inv. no. 7875). And this, rather than the signature of Bosch, bears that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Here he writes his name with an h, but soon he will drop it, and only his sons Pieter the Younger and Jan will return to the form Brueghel.



And Bruegel also uses this motif for one of the scenes in his “Netherlandish proverbs” of 1559.


In 1556, the young – perhaps thirty years old – Pieter Bruegel the Elder just recently returned home from his Italian study trip, where he improved his draughtmanship and made a lot of sketches, especially of the mountainous landscapes, which were unknown and attractive to the public in the Netherlands. He was looking for a living in Antwerp, which was the center not only of trade, but also of the art market of the contemporary world. In 1540 the first European permanent painting and print gallery was opened here, to which three hundred masters of the city delivered their products, and these reached such far away places as, for example, the Armenian cathedral in Isfahan, where the walls were decorated with frescoes made after biblical prints from Antwerp. One of the city’s best-selling art dealers, Hieronymus Cock, opened in 1548 his publishing house At the Four Winds (In de Vier Winden), where highly sought-after prints were printed on the device, and for this, he sorely needed talented draughtsmen. As the young Bruegel arrived from Italy, he immediately contracted with him (and perhaps he already supported his Italian trip), and from then on they produced together a multitude of successful series of prints, from the Large Landscapes to The Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues, which promoted the reputation of both of them.

Hans Vredemann de Vries, Antwerpen Street View, with Hieronymus Cock’s publisher in the right corner, where this engraving was also printed in 1560, and with Hieronymus Cock himself in the door

In the Antwerp art market, a promising young beginner might prevail by positioning himself as a master of the popular themes that had come to life in the previous decades. Until the early 1500s, there was one single marketable theme: the altarpiece, whether for the church or private. At the establishment of the art market and collections – Kunst- und Wunderkammer – in the 16th century, however, new themes appeared in which collectors specialized: landscapes, exotic topics, peasant scenes, and so on. Among the new themes, Bosch replicas were an independent sector. Bosch’s thrilling fantasy creatures were extremely popular, but his original paintings were mainly accumulated by Philip II of Spain for his private collection, and the market cried for substitutes. A lot of painters specialized in this, the production of copies after Bosch and new creations in his style. Among them was Bruegel, who made several drawings of Boschian monsters, and they were published in print by Cock for great profit.

Bruegel, The temptation of St. Anthony, 1554. This scene was one of the main themes of the imitators of Bosch, because the demons tempting the holy hermit offered a generous pretext to the representation of Bosch’s typical monsters.

One of the most successful pieces of the collaboration of Bruegel and Cock was the series of prints representing the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, and the Last Judgment, in 1557-60. The success was largely attributed to the Boschian devileries, which flooded almost every sheet of the series: those of the sins naturally, but also those of the virtues, in the form of the demons defeated by them.

Bruegel, Ira (Anger), 1558

Bruegel, Fortitudo (Strength), 1560

In 1572, the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius from Bruges published at Cock’s a portrait collection of great Netherlandish artists. By that time, Bruegel’s reputation as a Bosch imitator was so great, that Lampsonius could write about him: “He is the new Hieronymus Bosch, who with his brush imitates and sets in front of our eyes the clever dreams of the Master, and mimics his style so greatly, that at the same time he surpasses him.” From here comes the attribution of Bruegel as the “second Bosch”, which, thanks to the description of the Netherlands by Lodovico Guicciardini, was also spread through Southern Europe.

In the fish print of 1557, Bruegel did not yet use such typical Boschian monsters. But to the contemporary viewer, the fishes swallowing each other were already a trademark of Bosch, who often depicted his demons likewise. Interestingly, the motif is repeatedly featured in the film Ruben Brandt, the collector (2018), which works with numerous references of art history and absurd images. If you have not seen it yet, do so (and if you have, watch it again) and count the fishes.

Bosch, The temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1501, detail

Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-1500, detail

Bosch, The garden of earthly delights, c. 1490-1510, detail

Bosch, The Haywain, 1516, detail. To the right, the fish on two legs from Bruegel’s fish print

Bruegel, The Last Judgment, 1558, detail

Milorad Krstić, Ruben Brandt, the collector, 2018. A detail of the episode about the Tokyo pop art exhibition

In 1556, when Bruegel drew and signed the model of the fish print, he was still an unknown young talent, who might have a future thanks to Cock (and Cock a profit thanks to Bruegel). Bosch, however, was a brand. Perhaps this is why Cock decided to name Bosch as the “inventor” of the print. At that time, this did not necessary mean deceiving the consumer. It was merely a genre: this is “a bosch”, or, in greater detail: “designed after Bosch by a fellow of our publisher”. And the consumer who bought it and kept it for at least fifteen years, by which time Bruegel had also become a brand, well, he could boast of having a bosch, that was actually a bruegel.

To illustrate the career of the picture among the consumers in the Netherlands, let us see this example sixty years later.


The facing page image shows that it was copied from Cock’s original print. However, the general social criticism is sharpened here into a political debate. The Fish bears the label “Barnevelsche Monster”, from which – and from other details – it can be inferred that the pamphlet celebrates the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the Chancellor of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1619. The Chancellor, who had been the supreme judge of the Free Netherlands for thirty years, finally came into conflict with the States of the Netherlands as a supporter of the Arminian branch of Calvinism, and they convinced Governor-Prince Maurice of Nassau to condemn and execute him in a kangaroo court, just as in the print the Prince cuts open the stomach of the “monster” with “the knife of righteousness”. The “monster” is killed by the harpoon of the “Oude Leer”, that is, orthodox Calvinist teaching, and the city on the horizon rises up and gains independent features as Utrecht, Oldenbarnevelt’s last refuge. Posterity considers Oldenbarnevelt as a great statesman, but in the course of thirty years he may have injured some: their names can be read on the fishes slipping from its stomach and throat. Truth triumphed, from someone’s point of view. The question is – just as a big fish once asked a small fish before swallowing it –: what is truth?

Faces of Tehran


The revolution has devoured downtown Tehran. The governmental quarter, built by the old Pahlavi Shah in the 1930s with French and German architects in art déco style, was taken over by the regime of the ayatollahs, but they did not like it, and left it to its fate. The bourgeoisie living here perished, emigrated, or moved to the northern part of the city, to the foot of the mountains, founding there the so-called “Republic of North Tehran”, which markedly differs from the rest of the country. And the old city center was overwhelmed by the millions coming from the countryside in search of luck. In the neighborhood of the National Museum and the Shah Palace, at the ground floor of the ministries, in the lobbies of the former cinemas and theaters, there are spare auto part and hardware shops; the aristocratic-style tea houses work as daytime warming places, and the first floor windows of the palaces of the old bourgeoisie yawn empty, because only their ground floor is used for shops, but nobody lives there any more. The beautiful, colorful, Shiraz-type late 18th and early 19th century tiles are freely drilled and chiseled to serve new functions.


Peyman Hooshamadze, today a classical master of Iranian photography, photographed this world, the new population seeking its place in the old scenery, at the end of the 1990s. In his recent album “100” he publishes a hundred portraits from those years, grouped by scenes. He starts at the old railway station, like the newcomers did, and passes among those who have succeeded as clothiers or retailers, and those who were waiting for their luck or simply killing time in a decaying tea house. But he also notes the remnants of the former civilian world: he whiles a lot of time in Shouka Café, which, exceptionally, was preserved as a haunt for publishers, intellectuals and artists, and also visits the zurkhânân, the traditional gymnasiums.


These faces, photographed by Hooshamadze, are not held at arm’s length, regarding them as “others”, but with a real attention and empathy, are not unknown to us. Similar faces were photographed with similar attention during similar social changes in the 70s and 80s in Hungary by Endre Lábass and Péter Korniss, and by others in other countries of the East. Looking at the Persian faces, we can almost tell their stories, or what they are saying to the photographer.


At the time of these photos, as much time had passed since the revolution as the time of their publication. This means that Hooshamadze was already recording a fragile, but established new world. And also that you can still find this world and these figures in downtown Tehran, in the alleys, eateries and shops. Soon I will write about some such encounters.


Persian tea houses were once the gathering places of wealthy citizens, merchants and officials, and often intellectual workshops. Their former rank is indicated by the surviving furniture, the traditional colored tiles, and the enormous scenes and heroes from the Book of Kings, also modeled in tiles. In the Tehran of the 1990s, however, this is all past. Tea houses are visited by the assistants of the nearby cheap shops and those who have nowhere else to go. At that time, there were still a number of wandering singers with long-necked lutes, the aşiks, who nowadays still sometimes play in the Tehran metro, and who today, in the age of nostalgia for the ancient tea houses, are sometimes hired for night-time performance by one or another revitalized and fashionable tea house.


Morteza Ahmadi: شاطر علی ممد Shater Ali Mammad. The characteristic “rap” of old Tehran from the CD صدای طهرون قدیمی Sedâye Tehrûn-e ghadimi (Sounds of old Tehran, 2012).

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To the north of the railway station unfolded Tehran’s red-light district Shahr-e No – about which Kaveh Golestan made a shattering photo series –, and its gate, the Gomrok quarter, Tehran’s jumble sale, the world of old-clothes-men, pimps and fences. The end of the nineties was the last moment it could be photographed – of course, only after proper integration –, because later both districts were swept away by the city administration.

“I was lifting weight in prison when they razed my house.” Ahmad Soltani, 46, from Qorveh, arrived at Tehran 4 days ago, the 43rd time

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“I have nine children, all of them Tehranis.” Esmail Elhami, 60, from around Ardabil, illiterate

Today Shouka Café has a reputation and a patina as one of the few old cafés which has lived through the “difficult times”. At the end of the 90s, however, they were just living them through. Playwright Yar-Ali Pourmoghaddam found it as a kind of Noah’s Ark, which provided shelter and company for the editors and artists from near and far. Some of the young faces photographed by Hooshamadze at that time are today influential Persian intellectuals at home or abroad.


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Another important community venue to survive the revolution are the zurkhânes, the “strength houses”, the traditional bodybuilding clubs. Their history reaches back to pre-Islamic times, and their rituals and customs evidence Zoroastrian traditions. From the late 19th century on it was particularly fashionable to visit such clubs, either as a wrestler or as a fan of the most prominent athletes. The Islamic regime initially tried to suppress the zurkhânes as a pre-Islamic tradition – it is in this period that these photos were taken in the small strength houses scattered between the railway station and the Shah Park –, but since then they have been incorporated in the official culture, and are again an element of Iranian identity.


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