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Tehran: Iranians flock to Western art exhibition

Suzanne Cords
August 26, 2022

For the first time in decades, contemporary Western artworks, from Donald Judd to Christo, are on public display in the Iranian capital. They had long been locked away so as not to offend Islamic values.

woman with a mobile phone in a darkened museum room with a bright artwork of neon tubes
Young people are flocking to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art: Here, a conceptual artwork by US artist Dan FlavinImage: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture alliance

A transparent mural by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, minimalist art by Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, and works by packaging artist Christo are just some of the more than 130 works by 34 world-famous artists from the West that currently have Iranians flocking to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition has seen about 20,000 visitors since it opened in June — twice as many as previous shows at the venue.

"The reception has been marvelous," said museum director Ebadreza Eslami. Speaking to news agency AFP, he attributed the great interest to the fact that 38 masterpieces from the "Minimalism and Conceptual Art" exhibition are being exhibited for the first time ever. Museum spokesman Hasan Noferesti added it is simply exciting to see long-hidden modern masterpieces.

Person looking at artwork
The artworks are on display in Iran for the first time in decades Image: Fatemeh Bahrami/AA/picture alliance

Presenting Western works to the public is not a given in the Islamic Republic. Shiite President Ebrahim Raisi, a devout cleric, regularly rages against Western influence. Local artists who deviate from Iran's "revolutionary culture" face harsh penalties. Western contemporary art was long kept locked up, including the collection now on show.

Biggest collection of modern art outside of US, Europe

It was put together in the 1970s by Farah Diba Pahlavi, the wife of the then Shah Reza Pahlavi. Worth millions, the collection is considered legendary. It is also the largest modernist collection outside Europe and the USA.

Woman looking at art
A woman observes a work by US artist Sol LeWittImage: Vahid Salemi/AP/picture alliance

In 2017, the former empress told DW that she had discovered various Iranian painters and sculptors during the biennial organized by the Iranian Ministry of Culture in the early 1960s, which gave her the idea for a contemporary art museum in Tehran. The collection was to include Western works of art, too. And why shouldn't it, she argued — "the whole world has our art in its museums, too."

When the museum opened in 1977, works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Paul Jackson Pollock, Rene Magritte and other big names hung on the walls alongside paintings by local artists.

Removed for representing 'Western depravity' 

Just two years later, the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah from the throne. The new head of state, Ayatollah Khomeini, lamented the moral and sexual depravity of the West, which he believed had infected the Islamic world. Considered "un-Islamic" and "corrupt," the Western art collection was moved to the museum's depot.

Peopek in a museum, looking at artwork hung on the walls
34 western artists are on displayImage: Fatemeh Bahrami/AA/picture alliance

Farah Diba recalls she was very worried at first about the fate of the artworks, and that they might even be destroyed. "Fortunately the collection is still relatively complete — except for a portrait of me by Andy Warhol that was in the foyer of the museum. That was completely destroyed, and so were some sculptures by sculptor Bahman Mohasses."

Back into the spotlight

For a long time, the collection lay dormant in the museum depot. Few of the works were showcased in the West, until they gradually began to reappear in 2005, during the political thaw in Iran, including paintings by Andy Warhol, Vincent van Gogh, Jack Pollock and other artists from the West. Nudes however stayed hidden in the basement.

Woman looks at warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe
A glimpse of Andy Warhol's work: portrait of Marilyn MonroeImage: Vahid Salemi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Young Iranians in particular show great interest in international art, often resorting to social media. The fact that works so long under lock are now being shown prompts some people to go see the exhibition more than just once.

"Setting up a show with such a theme and such works is a bold move that takes a lot of courage," said Babak Bahari, who went to marvel at the artworks four times. "Even in the West these works are at the heart of discussions and dialogue," he told The Guardian newspaper.



This article was originally written in German.