Relations with the West at stake in Tehran exhibit
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.