D.AYS BEFORE Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric, won the presidential election in Iran in June, and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has reopened to the public after a long renovation. It made for a strange juxtaposition. Mr. Raisi celebrates the decline in American influence; his minister of culture railed against “the deviation and secularism” of the Iranian art scene. But the museum welcomed visitors with a retrospective of the American pop artist Andy Warhol. Fashionable men and chador-clothed women looked at portraits of Marilyn Monroe, the blonde temptress, and a mocking depiction of Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator (picture from an old exhibition).
Warhol was a favorite of Farah Pahlavi, the wife of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah. The old regime built the museum in part to improve Iran‘s reputation. When it opened in 1977, it featured works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko bought under the supervision of Ms. Pahlavi during the Iranian oil boom.
After the Shah was ousted by the clergy in 1979, the multi-billion dollar collection lay in his vaults for years. Most of the paintings were neither damaged nor sold, although a portrait of Mrs. Pahlavi was slit open with a knife by Warhol. And the museum exchanged “Woman IIIâBy Willem de Kooning for a rare volume of theâ Shahnameh â, an old Persian volume of poetry. The painting, too risky for the authorities, was later sold for $ 138 million.
Many of the museum’s works have not emerged undisputedly in recent decades. A panel from Francis Bacon’s “Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants” with gay undertones was classified as offensive and removed. Apart from the museum files (such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Gabrielle With Open Blouse”) and Warhol’s portraits of the Pahlavis, everything is allowed today, says a museum official. In the sculpture park there are two works by Henry Moore and an exhibition by Alexander Calder, which coincided with an exhibition by the American sculptor in Israel.
Culture minister Mohammad Esmaili did not blink an eyelid at the Warhol retrospective, says the official. Newspapers loyal to the regime have even praised it. Some observers say the government has no time for such trivialities in the face of Covid-19 and a troubled economy. Others say they want to prove that the cultural life in Iran is on a par with that of its Gulf neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), which builds world-class art and cultural institutions.
In Iran, art and architecture schools are flourishing with predominantly female students. New private galleries in Tehran inspire young people. But exhibits require licenses; Curators are often summoned for interviews. When the Tehran Museum opened 44 years ago, “Iran was the most progressive country in Asia and Dubai” [part of the UAE] only had two supermarkets – owned by Iranians, âsays Kamran Diba, the exiled architect and founding director of the museum. “Take a look at them now – and look at Iran.”
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Andy Warhol and the Ayatollahs”