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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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