Seeing Warhol In Tehran? The Saga Of Iran's Modern Art Museum

Iran built itself a lavish modern art museum in the late 1970s, only to end up stowing away a priceless collection after the Islamic revolution. Signs of reform could open up Iranians to Giacometti, Picasso, Warhol and Pollock.

Looking at Giacometti 'In Cage' at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art
Looking at Giacometti "In Cage" at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art
Roxana Azimi

PARIS — It may be the best modern art collection you've never heard of. Inaugurated in 1977, the same year as Paris' Pompidou Center, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art houses a collection of more than 200 works that would move many an art lover, if they could ever see it: fabulous pieces by Gauguin, Monet and Picasso, but also the best of post-war American art — including abstract expressionists, pop art and some sharp conceptual art by the likes of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Until recently, few could visit this elegant building set in a Tehran park. When the 1979 revolution replaced Iran's secular monarchy with an Islamic Republic, the museum's Western collection was sent into storage, and could be viewed only by individuals duly approved by the authorities. Tourists were allowed to see only modern Iranian works, hung in a seemingly haphazard fashion in a décor of loud green carpet and under brutal lighting. A recent exhibit featuring Francis Bacon could be seen at the museum in Tehran, but plans for it to travel to Berlin and Rome were shelved.

The institution has been but partially visible in spite of its exceptional collection, mainly because its works highlight so prominently the art of Western and particularly American artists, which clash with the dogmas of Iran's ruling clerics. But the museum's reduced status is also because it remains as a glimmer of the last years of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and symbolic of his, and Iran's, forceful march toward Western-style modernity.

The initial idea for a contemporary art museum in Tehran came long before globalization and notions of cultural dialogue, not to mention the clash of civilizations. The aim then was to liven up the local scene by exposing it to foreign influences, and place Iran squarely on the international culture map.

tehran museum contemporary art archive

Archive picture of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art — Source: KamranDiba/Wikimedia Commons

"I used to tell government offices to buy art instead of ugly furniture," the country's former Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah's third wife, recalls today, receiving us in her Paris apartment on the banks of the Seine. "I would push my wealthy friends to take an interest in Iranian creators, which they did, to please me."

Taking advantage of sharply rising oil prices as Iran was then the world's No. 2 producer, the empress launched a plan to build several museums on land in central Tehran that would later become a park, but was then a terrain used for army parades. This produced a traditional carpets museum, a museum for paintings from the 19th century Qajar dynasty, and a third for contemporary art.

The empress's cousin, the architect Kamran Diba, who lives today between France and Spain, insists on taking credit for creating this museum. Anyone, he says, could "recommend building a museum. Farah Diba has her story, and I have mine," he says referring to the empress' birthname. His begins in 1967, upon returning from the United States, when he opened an artists' club in 29 Rasht Street, not far from the museum's eventual location. Together with the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, Diba helped turn the club into a meeting place of local intellectuals and foreigners in need of a night life, but also a haven for hippies heading for Kathmandu — Iran having become a stopping point on the road to India.

We had more power than Qatar today, because we were the only ones.

Tanavoli says of those days, "One day we were in my workshop and Kamran asked me, "could you pass a message onto the queen?" He was campaigning then for a museum and wanted my backing, as I saw the empress intermittently and she bought art from me."

Diba also saw his imperial cousin at tennis matches and family gatherings where he would raise the issue, time and again. His persistence paid off. Construction began in 1974, as did purchases of works by Iranian and foreign artists. The Shah's widow today admits she has classical tastes, and likes the impressionists and modern art in particular, but also offbeat artists like César, the sculptor from Nice whom she met in France.

Diba set to work on the contemporary part of the collection, showing his admiration for American art, ranging from New York abstract artists to pop and conceptual art. Farah Pahlavi's private office and Iran's former ambassador at the UN were tasked informally with negotiating purchases of Gauguins, Monets and Toulouse-Lautrecs that remain in the collection today. The world's greatest dealers became their suppliers: Ernst Beyeler of Marlborough Art to Leo Castelli in New York and Ileana Sonnabend, but also the auctioneers Sotheby's and Christie's. Another opportunist who came to claim a stake in the history of the museum was the New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, of Iranian ancestry. For six months he was a go-between for the museum and New York galleries.

In total, the museum bought more than 200 works including masterpieces such as a Jackson Pollock dripping painting from 1950, and a triptych by Francis Bacon. "We were the biggest buyer in the world," says Diba. "We had more power than Qatar today, because we were the only ones."

In this effervescent context, the pope of pop art Andy Warhol visited Iran in 1976 to carry out a portrait of the empress. "I had met him at a dinner President Gerald Ford gave at the White House," she recalls. "He was shy. His friend Bob Colacello told me later he was afraid I might ask him to dance." Evasive or not, a portrait by Warhol was a must then for jetsetters and celebrities.

Warhol's portrait of Farah Diba Pahlavi Source: Tony Shafrazi Gallery/artnet

It was summer, and the man in a white wig did not like the heat ... But Warhol adored the extravagant servings of caviar, the comfort of the Hilton, the room service and the deference shown him. All the city's notables seemed to be at his beck and call, though Warhol did not meet any artists. Colacello, who worked with him and wrote his biography, resumed this partial view of Tehran when he told a New York conference in 2013 that it reminded him of Beverly Hills, only with Persian carpets by the pools.

A museum for whom and for what?

Yet Iran then was not just a glittering venue. Its apparent aim to carve itself a place on the international scene hid another reality, of a land of gaping inequalities where censorship was the norm and a feared security police locked up opponents. Just these were enough the pave the way for the Islamist revolution that triumphed in 1979.

Thus the museum's opening on Oct. 13, 1977, came when the opposition was increasingly restless and tensions were about to explode. Yet it was a grand affair, with guests including former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and the heads of the Guggenheim and Cooper Hewitt museums in New York and Amsterdam's Stedeljik. The sculptor Tanavoli recalls today, with audible emotion, three days of celebrations of Versaille-like proportions. "I have never in my life seen such a fabulous inauguration. There were horses outside, music and modern dance, performances everywhere in the building. The grass was green and the weather mild, with balloons and banners above our heads," he says.

The foreign art press was less impressed. "A museum for whom and for what?" Le Monde"s art critic André Fermigier asked. Where was the link between an Iranian child and a Picasso or a Pollock, he queried? Forty years later, the former empress calmly observes that "they told us Iranians could not understand contemporary art, which was condescending. I am not saying people living in a remote village were ready for that museum. But did French villagers like Picasso in his time?"

The Bacon triptych was shown for just a few hours

When the Shah fled Iran in January 1979, few of the original team remained. Kamran Diba had already left for Paris, while museum staff hid the pictures lest they be vandalized by the revolutionaries burning American flags every day. For 30 years, this collection, which the new authorities considered subversive, sat quietly in storage.

The mullahs still don't know what to do with them. The idea bandied about at times to sell the works (which the Swiss review Bilan has valued at around at least $2.5 billion) has been shelved.

The museum began to crack open its doors in the early 2000s under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Its director at the time, Alireza Sami Azar, reinstalled part of the collection and organized some benign exhibitions. When the collection returned to full display in 2004, the Bacon triptych was shown for just a few hours. The central panel, representing a male couple, was withdrawn as it was seen to be vulgar and offensive to Islamic morals.

A year later, the election of the very conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president prompted Sami Azar's resignation and ushered in another dormant spell at the museum.

Photo: Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art's Facebook page

But when another reformist, Hassan Rouhani, was elected Iran's president in 2013, the country reopened to the world, which held out new opportunity for the museum. The traveling exhibition planned for Berlin then at Rome's MAXXI followed this logic of this détente, and German daily Die Welt reported that Germany paid the Iranian government three million euros to show the collection — before it was eventually put on hold.

MAXXI's director, Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, says the works will not be traveling anytime before Iran's May 19 presidential election. "The museum really wanted this project but the government opposed it," he explained. "The project is suspended while we wait for the election."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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