Some of the most prominent paintings at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art might still be the obligatory glares of Iranian leaders Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, and Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini, whose twin stare looks down over public spaces across Iran.
But from this month British visitors to the Islamic Republic will be also able to see works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and Rene Magritte that have been stashed in basements for nearly 40 years.
A new exhibition at the Tehran museum will display paintings by western artists that were hidden after the 1979 revolution, when they were banned as symbols of decadence and excess by Islamic leaders.
Portraits of Iranian leaders Khamenei and Khomeini are on display in the contemporary art museum - but they are now being joined by 42 works by western artists such as Alexander Calder (Alamy) Photo: Alamy
Among the most notable works now on display is Jackson Pollock’sMural on Indian Red Ground, which was valued at $250 million by Christie’s five years ago, Andy Warhol’s 1963 acrylic Suicide, and Francis Bacon's Reclining Man with Sculpture.
Jackson Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground has been valued at $250 million and is on display in Iran's Museum of Contemporary Art (Atta Kennare/AFP/Getty) Photo: Atta Kenare
"Farideh Lashai: Towards the Ineffable" features works by the Iranian artist alongside paintings by western artists that influenced her, and also include pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss sculptor and painter, and Mark Rothko.
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Some of the 42 western paintings in the display have not left the underground vaults since they were hidden in 1979, but the exhibition will now see Iranian and western paintings hung opposite each other on white and grey walls.
The exhibition could add to the allure of Iran for foreign visitors, who have been arriving in growing numbers following this summer’s nuclear deal and the Foreign Office’s decision to relax its travel advice. Tourism to Iran is really on the up, and this is just another reason to visit this culturally fascinating country.
Jonny Bealby, Wild Frontiers
"Tourism to Iran is really on the up, and this is just another reason to visit this culturally fascinating country,” said Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers. The adventure tour operator has offered tours to Iran for over 10 years, but has seen demand increase sharply in the last two years.
At a preview of the new exhibition last week, Iran's Culture Minister Ali Jannati said he hoped the displays would be part of Iran’s increasing openness to the outside world. He told AFP news agency: “This is a first step and we hope to have more mutual cooperation to showcase outstanding Iranian artists as well as displaying more works from our foreign art collection."
The collection at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, with an estimated worth of $3 billion, contains many other pieces dating from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, including 30 Picassos, a dozen Jasper Joneses, and at least 15 Andy Warhols.
We hope to showcase outstanding Iranian artists as well as displaying more works from our foreign art collection.
Ali Jannati, Iranian Culture Minister
The museum will add to Tehran’s collection of attractions for visitors, which currently include the jewel-encrusted Golestan Palace and the National Carpet Museum, featuring astonishing examples of Iran’s most famous export. More off-beat attractions include innovative street art and graffiti - including that covering the US Embassy - secret bazaars and teahouses, and some of the world’s best kebab restaurants.
Signs of willingness to display American and European art appeared in Tehran earlier this year, when billboards were covered with versions of paintings such as Matisse's Blue Window and Mvnch's Scream as part of a drive by the city mayor to encourage visitors to the city.
The Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1977 by Farah Pahlavi, wife of the former Shah, who developed a taste for European and American art following study in Paris. She worked with dealers to amass the Museum’s collection in the 1970s, but staff were forced to hide the multi-million pound oeuvre in underground rooms as revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini railed against "Westoxification" in the 1979 revolution.
During the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the museum was used for displays of propaganda and memorials to soldiers who died in the conflict, and the treasure trove of works below stairs was shunned, according to Bloomberg Business. But institutions around the country still made requests for the works. The museum’s keeper, Firouz Shabazi Moghadam, who has worked at the institution since it opened, told Bloomberg that after the revolution he would receive loan demands from Iranian cultural centres, but that he turned down requests for fear that works would never be returned: “Only God knows where I got this courage from—I who am normally so afraid,” he said. “With this vault, with this museum, I am like a lion.”
Paintings from the collection were not put on display until 20 years after Khomeini’s death, in 1999, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami was in power. The pop art show included works by David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Warhol.
Since then, sporadic displays for a couple of weeks a year have allowed the public access to some of the collection’s works – although exhibits are conservative and curators are careful not to highlight American artists or works that could be considered sexually alluring. Public mention of Farah Pahlavi’s involvement in founding the collection is reportedly banned.
Indeed, some paintings hidden in the basement will never see the light of day either. Nudes in the collection, such as Andre Derain’s Golden Age and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse are not acceptable for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to whom the museum’s directors report.