New Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Teheran

Unusual Images for the Islamic Republic

For years they wasted away in the basement of the Teheran Museum for Contemporary Art: The paintings of well-known artists had long ago been deemed "Western works of the devil" by the Mullahs. Now they have been recovered from their hiding place and put on display at the museum

For years they wasted away in the basement of the Teheran Museum for Contemporary Art. The paintings of well-known artists of the twentieth century had long ago been deemed "Western works of the devil" by the Mullahs. Now they have been recovered from their hiding place and put on display at the museum. Martin Ebbing reports from Teheran

Exhibition poster, &copy Teheran Museum for Contemporary Art
What was long considered "decadent Western art" is now being exhibited at a Teheran museum.

​​A visit to the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Teheran is an unusual experience. In the background cosmic music drones, frequently interrupted by a shrill siren issuing from the alarm system.

For no apparent reason, the alarm keeps going off. The hyper-sensitive security system was installed especially for this exhibition to protect the valuable, highly insured paintings.

From Dali to Warhol

But what is really unusual for Iranian eyes is the art itself: a ​​colorful medley of modernity, from French Impressionism to American Neo-Realism, from Renoir and Matisse to Picasso, Braque, Miro, Dali, Francis Bacon, followed by Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and the indispensable Andy Warhol.

Some of these works serve as a key to understanding the entire oeuvre of a given artist, but overall it is also a smartly curated collection that doesn't leave out a single important element of modernity. Farah Diba, the wife of the last Shah and founder of the museum, put the collection together.

A thorn in the eye of the virtue police

After the revolution, the new rulers had a severe distaste for what they considered "decadent Western art." They tried—unsuccessfully—to sell a few pieces. Then the collection disappeared into the basement.

Individual paintings were seen in recent years in select exhibitions on a certain theme, and others were lent to museums outside Iran. This is the first time that the museum is showing almost all of its own collection of modern art. Only three of the 188 works in the collection are missing, including Renoir's "Gabriel."

Too much naked female skin is still a taboo in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Cultural and political changes

​​But there may be reason to fear for the future of the collection, given that political relations in Iran have undergone recent change. In August Mohammad Khatami, who was striving to open up the society and create more tolerance, was replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who counts among the archconservatives in his country. It is still unclear what to expects from him in terms of cultural politics, but the omen is not good.

Museum director Ali-Reza Samiazar, who took up his post when the reform-minded Khatami came into office, has already accepted the consequences of the recent political changes. He will be stepping down any day now.

"I resigned because I understand that the time of my kind of cultural politics is over," says Samiazar. "Instead of waiting to be fired by the new minister of culture, I handed in my resignation. I don't see a way to carry on with my mandate here."

Despite his frustration, however, Samiazar is not pessimistic. He doesn't necessarily see a new ice age coming for art in Iran: "The thirst for modern art will only grow in the future, given that the number of artists and art students has been rapidly increasing. I don't think there will be a backlash in the future where the collection would be locked up again."

Society is moving in the direction of modernization, says Samiazar, and part of this process will be greater interest in this collection—perhaps it will even be expanded.

Once this art has seen the light of day—so the idea—it will not be easily banished from the minds of the public, and those who have gotten a taste of it will want more.

Martin Ebbing

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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