DAYS BEFORE Ebrahim Raisi, a die-hard cleric, won the Iranian presidential election in June, Tehran’s Contemporary Art Museum reopened to the public after a lengthy renovation. It created a strange juxtaposition. Mr. Raisi celebrates the decline of American influence; his Minister of Culture denounces “the deviation and secularism” of the Iranian artistic scene. Yet the museum once again welcomed visitors with a retrospective of Andy Warhol, the American pop artist. Fashionable men and chador-clothed women looked at portraits of Marilyn Monroe, the blonde seductress, and a mocking interpretation of Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator (photo, from an old exhibit).
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Warhol was a favorite of Farah Pahlavi, wife of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the late shah. The old regime built the museum in part to enhance Iran’s stature. When it opened in 1977, it featured works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko, purchased under the supervision of Ms. Pahlavi during the Iranian oil boom.
For years after the shah was ousted by the clerics in 1979, the multibillion-dollar collection remained in its coffers. Most of the paintings were neither damaged nor sold, although a portrait of Mrs. Pahlavi by Warhol was slashed with a knife. And the museum exchanged “Woman III“, By Willem de Kooning, for a rare volume of” Shahnameh “, an ancient book of Persian poetry. The painting, too daring for the authorities, was then sold for 138 million dollars.
Many of the museum’s works have been exhibited over the past decades, not without controversy. A panel of “Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants” by Francis Bacon, with gay accents, was deemed offensive and withdrawn. Today, apart from the museum’s nudes (like “Gabrielle in the open blouse” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir) and the portraits of the Pahlavis by Warhol, anything goes, explains a museum official. There are two works by Henry Moore in the sculpture park and an exhibition by Alexander Calder, which coincided with an exhibition of the American sculptor’s work in Israel.
Culture Minister Mohammad Esmaili did not bat an eyelid at the Warhol retrospective, the official said. Newspapers loyal to the regime have even praised it. Some observers say the government, faced with covid-19 and a struggling economy, has no time for such trifles. Others say he wants to prove that cultural life in Iran is comparable to that of its Gulf neighbors, like the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), which builds world-class artistic and cultural institutions.
Schools of art and architecture are flourishing in Iran, with mostly female students. New private galleries in Tehran are buzzing with young crowds. But exhibitions require licenses; curators are often summoned for questioning. When the Tehran Museum opened its doors 44 years ago, “Iran was the most progressive country in Asia and Dubai [part of the UAE] only had two Iranian-owned supermarkets, ”says Kamran Diba, the architect in exile and founding director of the museum. “Look at them now and look at Iran. “
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Andy Warhol and the Ayatollahs”