Relations with the West at stake in Tehran exhibit

Friday 11/12/2015
Visitors look at a painting titled Girl with lovelock by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec during the opening ceremony of an exhibition of modern art at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) in the Iranian capital, on November 20th.

London - The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is run­ning an exhibition includ­ing some of its remark­able foreign collection, acquired in the 1970s by Queen Fa­rah, wife of Mohammad Reza Shah, who fled into exile during the 1979 revolution.
Many of the works — including by Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte and Andy Warhol — have been stored underground since then, with cu­rators wary of their Western origin and sometimes risqué nature.
While not all the art has been stashed — Tehranis have long glanced from the street at Henry Moore sculptures in the museum’s garden — the current emergence of so many works has been linked to July’s nuclear agreement with world powers.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani has talked not just of further dip­lomatic cooperation but of a wider interchange with the West. At the exhibition preview, Culture Minis­ter Ali Jannati spoke of a “first step” in what he hoped would be “more mutual cooperation to showcase outstanding Iranian artists as well as displaying more works from our foreign art collection”.
There have long been people who believe art can sometimes build firmer bridges than diplomacy, the thinking behind the two exhibitions of Iranian art in the United States in 2001 and 2007 organised by Nancy Matthews for the government-fi­nanced Meridian International.
The exhibition in Tehran is joint­ly curated with Italy’s Germano Celant, a man with vast experience in the international art scene who has expressed astonishment at the range of works held by the muse­um.
Among those on show, which have been chosen to lend context to exhibited items by the late Irani­an painter Farideh Lashai, are Jack­son Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground, valued a few years ago by Christie’s at $250 million, Warhol’s Suicide and Francis Bacon’s Reclin­ing Man with Sculpture.
But unlikely to emerge from the basement anytime soon is Pierre- Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle with Open Blouse or Bacon’s Triptych, which includes two naked men (strangely Iran reportedly once turned down a $100 million-plus offer for the Bacon from a founda­tion in Monaco). The danger for the exhibition is not as simple as offending sensibilities, which are easily identified, but becoming caught up in factional battles that have intensified since the July 14th nuclear agreement and probably explain the recent arrests of jour­nalists, poets and rights campaign­ers.
Fundamentalists in the judici­ary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are looking for ways to embarrass Rohani and create a public sense Iran is facing attack and they are not known for their love of modern art.
Alarm over Western cultural influence is genuine, especially among clerics. Back in the 1970s when Queen Farah was assembling her collection of modern art, many intellectuals used the term ghar­bzadegi (“westoxification”) to lam­bast those supposedly undermin­ing Iranian culture in pursuit of all things Western.
The word had been coined in the early 1960s by Jalal al-e Ahmad, a writer who while effectively secu­lar saw Islam as an inspiration for the struggle against the shah’s dic­tatorship and supposed subservi­ence to the West. Ahmad’s ideas influenced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revo­lution and the early years of the Is­lamic Republic brought the restruc­turing of higher education as well as a push to “Islamise” the arts.
Under Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president of 1997-2005, official attitudes relaxed. There were more art shows, a growth in the variety of newspapers, and talks with the European Union over Iran’s fledgling nuclear pro­gramme. Under Khatami’s succes­sor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the arts and media felt a heavier gov­ernment hand while the nuclear talks reached a stand-off. Funda­mentalists have long feared that a nuclear agreement would both encourage the reformists and in­crease Western influence. But their efforts to obstruct July’s deal have foundered with parliament giving approval in October. On November 18th, the International Atomic En­ergy Agency reported Iran was in compliance with its commitments by dismantling 4,530 centrifuges — used for enriching uranium — of the 13,500 due for removal under the deal.
According to Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, Iran could meet all the terms of the agree­ment, and see the most punishing sanctions lifted, in January, at least a month ahead of what most ob­servers have been expecting.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s leader, has remained largely aloof. Without his backing there would have been no nuclear agreement but he has expressed only tepid public support and has stepped up warnings of the dangers of Western “infiltration”.
Khamenei said on November 25th that vigilance against infiltra­tion should not be exploited for factional advantage — apparently echoing Rohani’s charge that fun­damentalist critics were doing ex­actly this by arresting dissidents.
But Khamenei also suggested the United States would use “money and secular attractions” to “change ideals, beliefs and consequently the lifestyle” of Iranians. The ex­hibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is not funded by the United States but the curators know that when it comes to the likes of Warhol and Pollock, there are those who see only red.