Modern masters ... an Iranian woman looks at a Francis Bacon painting displayed at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty
Lifting the veil
Friday October 7, 2005
The finest collection of 20th-century western art outside Europe and America has been gathering dust in storage. Why? Because it's owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran. But now, Christopher de Bellaigue reports, these spectacular works are finally being displayed in Tehran
It is hard to decide what to marvel at - the Picasso,
or the fact that it hangs here, in the capital of the Islamic Republic
of Iran, part of a big show of modern western art. In Tehran, any
big exhibition is scrutinised before it begins, by censors from the
Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. What, you wonder, did they
make of the Picasso? Are the model's breasts too removed from conventional
anatomy and her genitalia, paraphrased by an inky sliver, too figurative
for her to be considered a proper (and therefore impermissible) nude?
Perhaps they were flummoxed by the phallic limb protruding from her
side? Whatever the reason, they let the Picasso through but acted
decisively when they came to Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on
a Bed with Attendant, a few rooms further on. The censors have shorn
this triptych, whose gorgeous passages of paint evoke a terrible solitude,
of its central panel. That panel - as visitors to Tate Britain, where
it was on loan until the summer, will recall - depicts two naked men
lying on a bed. It was deemed too gay for the Islamic Republic. (A
little bit gay is too gay for the Islamic republic). The Bacon is
now a diptych partitioned by a phantasmal smudge.
The fact that it is being staged at all owes much to the cultural glasnost that was pursued by the man who was president until this summer, Muhammad Khatami, and by the outgoing museum director, Ali-Reza Sami-Azar. Iran's conservatives delight in showing that even broken taboos can be revived, and now, after eight years of reformist government, they are back in power. Khatami's successor as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected in June, is an Islamic hardliner who shows little appreciation for western culture. The new museum director is an unknown quantity. To be sure of seeing these remarkable pieces, art enthusiasts should hotfoot it to Tehran before the show ends on October 22. For Iran's hardliners, these works are an unwelcome reminder of a morally corrupt, monarchical past; they may shrink at bringing them out of the vaults again soon and fears are already being raised that some of the best pieces may be sold off.
In the exhibition catalogue, Sami-Azar alludes to the collection's origins by thanking Kamran Diba, the museum's architect and first director, who negotiated the purchase of many of the works on display. (Diba left Iran when the revolution started; he now lives in France and Spain.) This may be Sami-Azar's elliptical way of thanking Farah Diba, Kamran's cousin and the wife of the former shah. While her husband poured money into buying the latest military hardware, Farah thought of preserving, and developing, Iran's artistic heritage. She set up several museums, which survive today, and started Iran's equivalent of the National Trust. She bought collections of Iranian art that had been in western hands and put them on public display. And she persuaded the shah that it would be a good idea, commercially and culturally, to build a collection of modern western art and put it in the museum that Kamran was building (again, at her behest).
The times were propitious. Iran was swimming in foreign money after the oil price hike of the early 1970s. For the same reason, the western art market was suffering, and masterpieces were going relatively cheap. According to Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran's most distinguished sculptors and a former cultural adviser to the queen, the collection was amassed for "tens, not hundreds, of millions of dollars" - from dealers such as Ernst Beyeler in Basel and Leo Castelli in New York. At the time, the queen used to joke that the collection cost less than one of the shah's beloved Tomcats. A few years ago, it was valued at $2bn (£1.1bn).
Most Iranians interested in modern western art will never make it to New York's MoMA, or the Pompidou Centre in Paris. MoCA (the wannabe acronym for Museum of Contemporary Art was Sami-Azar's idea) is the next best thing. The thrill of cultural exchange, of finding yourself among artists who speak a different visual language, is palpable when you enter the very first gallery, filled with impressionists and pointillists, not least from the chorus of beeps triggered by excited students as they cross infrared barriers installed to keep visitors and works apart.
Iran's traditional pictorial art, miniature painting, inclines to formalism, rigid convention and the respectful portrayal of kings - how different to a shimmering Pissarro depiction of peasant homes, and a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph of a jockey dominated by a horse's posterior. A tour group gathers before a Gauguin still life that contains a Japanese print and a carved Tahitian head. As a riposte to the Islamic Republic's official distrust of foreigners, and to the equation of contact with contamination, it could hardly be bettered.
The show takes you through Kamran Diba's varied spaces, past a rare Leger from 1913 and Picasso's synthetic cubist masterpiece, Fenêtre Ouverte sur la Rue de Penthièvre, to a marvellously inventive late bronze by the same artist, of a baboon and her young. The curators have given deserved prominence to a trio of circus performers by the fauvist George Rouault; its robust central figure, with her striking arrangement of Mesopotamian wedge nose and saucer eyes, might have been unearthed at Ur.
Every room has its own ironies. Particularly striking is a watercolour by the German Dadaist George Grosz, called The Unexpected Guest. It shows a gluttonous burgher gorging himself, surrounded by the cracks and tumours of his own ruin, while Death appears at the door. Grosz painted this picture as a communist in the 20s, but it could just as easily represent the perception that Iran's revolutionaries had, half a century later, of the elite they were supplanting.
There are three big omissions from the European part of the collection up to 1939: Cezanne, Matisse (bar one lithograph) and Mondrian. But such absenses seem trifling when you enter the large, well-lit gallery that is devoted to abstract expressionism, the movement that proclaimed America's cultural primacy after the second world war.
Far away at the United Nations, the US and Iran trade insults; Iran's nuclear dossier edges closer to the Security Council. But here, art shouts louder than politics. Visitors contemplate two trembling Rothkos and a magnificently vivid Pollock drip painting (Mural on an Indian Red Ground) that seems to unite the balletic and the calligraphic. (The dealer Ernst Beyeler considers this Pollock to be one of the finest works that has passed through his hands.) The collection's sole De Kooning, a dark and vehement abstract work called Light in August, reminds us of one that got away. In 1994, before Sami-Azar's directorship, the museum swapped a painting from De Kooning's monumental Woman series for a rare volume of illuminated Persian miniatures, then part of an American collection. That series marked De Kooning's apostasy from abstraction, and a split in the movement; the chance of seeing Light in August and Woman side by side is gone.
Several rooms of exuberant pop art mark another high point in the show. Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg are ill served by these small spaces, but there is no denying the pedigree of the art - or its relevance. Iran's new consumer culture, an unstoppable reaction to 15 years of revolutionary austerity, means that Tehran is a good place to revisit pop art's mixture of celebration and irony, of childlike appetites and social blindness. What a shame that Sami- Azar never managed to rescue the silkscreen that Warhol executed of Farah while on a visit to Tehran. It entered the queen's modest private collection, and now languishes in a damp basement underneath one of the former royal palaces.
Everyone agrees that the collection's later works are not its best. For every luscious Bacon (the collection has two, though one is currently on loan) or teeming Dubuffet, there are half a dozen modish duds. The collection takes us up to 1977. And then there is silence - a silence that is, for all Iranians, filled with screaming, convulsive politics. The 1979 revolution and the shah's flight; the US embassy hostage crisis; eight years of war with Saddam and his backers in Europe and America; for many Iranians, these events seemed to augur permanent conflict between them and the west. And this was reflected in attitudes towards western art and its champions. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the deposed queen - who had fled into exile - symbolised a kind of moral sickness, masquerading as culture.
That so much of Farah remains, even today, is testament to the humane good sense that underpinned many of her public endeavours. As queen, she was charitable, progressive and (unlike so many at court) uncorrupt. Nevertheless, she was prone to bad lapses of judgment. Farah was the shah's willing accomplice in a grotesquely vainglorious commemoration of Iran's monarchy, staged in the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient Achaemenid shrine city, in 1971. (She and her husband played host to some 60 potentates and presidents. The shindig cost tens of millions of dollars, at a time when a shameful number of Iranians had no electricity or running water.) Equally damaging was her patronage of an arts festival whose most notorious performances featured nudity and live pigs. Pious Iranians did not forget these affronts. After the revolution, fanatics set out to tear down Persepolis. (They were stopped.) Royal palaces were thrown open as examples of degenerate living. And there were rumours that the nation's modern art collection would be sold, lock stock and barrel, to Kuwait.
The art was saved, probably for commercial reasons, but it remained mostly unseen, while the museum put on edifying shows of religious and revolutionary art. Acquisitions were out. Only under Sami-Azar's directorship were these trends challenged. Sami-Azar helped to reduce artistic censorship and he promoted Iranian artists abroad. His tenure was marked by increased foreign contacts and loans; in 2004, the museum collaborated with the British Council to stage an ambitious exhibition of 20th-century British sculpture. But the conservatives needled him. An appointed upper house vetoed a parliamentary bill that would have enabled the museum to purchase works from abroad. (Sami-Azar wanted to fill those pre-1939 gaps and invest in Brit Art). The hardliners prevented him from sending works from the museum's western collection, along with examples of contemporary Iranian art, to an ambitious festival of Iranian culture that was being planned by the Swiss dealer Beyeler. The festival never happened.
If you hurry, you will catch some wonderful art in Tehran, and a shy nostalgia in its concrete corridors. Picture the museum rising in the 1970s - at a time, in Tanavoli's words, when Tehran was "an international capital" and the streets teemed with foreigners. Imagine the inauguration, on a sweltering night in 1977, when Iran's beau monde gathered to celebrate the queen's birthday and view parallel shows of modern western and Iranian art. Amid performance and music, the shah and Farah were feted by some of the world's most important curators, among them Nelson Rockefeller and the director of the Guggenheim. Amid the glittering company and self-congratulation, who could have imagined that revolution was less than two years away? But that's not the story of an art collection. It's the universal story of an elite too busy gorging itself to notice the Unexpected Guest, standing at the door.