Some of the world’s most valuable contemporary works western art were unveiled for the first time in decades – in Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a strict cleric, railed against Western influence. Authorities have been cracking down on “deviant” artists over “assault”. Iran revolutionary culture.” And the Islamic Republic has plunged further into confrontation with the United States and Europe as it rapidly accelerates its nuclear program and its diplomatic efforts falter.
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But contradictions abound in the Iranian capital, where thousands of well-heeled men and hijab-clad women marveled at 19th- and 20th-century Americans and Europeans minimalist and conceptual masterpieces making their debut at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art this summer.
On an August afternoon, art critics and students alike were enthralled by Marcel Duchamp’s see-through 1915 mural“The Large Glass”, long interpreted as an exploration of erotic frustration.
They marveled at a rare 4 meters (13 feet) untitled sculpture by American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and one of Sol Lewitt’s best known serial pieces, Open Cube, among other important works. Composed of a horizontal array of lacquered brass and aluminum panels, the Judd sculpture is likely worth millions of dollars.
“Putting on an exhibition with such a theme and works like this is a bold step that takes a lot of courage,” said Babak Bahari, 62, who was viewing the exhibition of 130 works for the fourth time since it opened in late June. “These works are also at the center of discussions and dialogues in the West.”
The government of Western-backed Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife, former Empress Farah Pahlavi, established the museum and acquired the multi-billion dollar collection in the late 1970s, when the oil boom was booming and Western economies were stagnating. When opened, it showed sensational works by Pablo PicassoMark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock and other heavyweights who are boosting Iran’s cultural standing on the world stage.
But just two years later, in 1979, Shia clerics ousted the Shah and packed the art into the museum’s vault. Some painting – Cubist, Surrealist, Impressionist, even Pop Art – remained untouched for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and catering to Western sensibilities.
But during a thaw in Iran’s hard-line politics, the art reemerged. While Andy Warhol’s paintings of the Pahlavis and a few select nudes are still hidden in the basement, much of the museum’s collection has been brought out with great fanfare as Iran’s cultural restrictions have eased.
The ongoing minimalism exhibition with 34 western artists attracted particular attention. Over 17,000 people have taken the trip since it opened, the museum said — nearly double the number of visitors to previous shows.
Curator Behrang credits Samadzadegan with a recent resurgence of interest in conceptual art that first shocked audiences in the 1960s by drawing and taking on political themes art out of traditional galleries and into the big wide world.
Museum spokesman Hasan Noferesti said the size of the crowds flocking to the exhibition, which runs until mid-September, shows the thrill of witnessing long-hidden modern masterpieces.
It also bears witness to the ongoing hunger for art among Iran’s younger generation. Over 50% of the country’s approximately 85 million inhabitants are under 30 years old.
Young Iranians are increasingly exploring the international art world on social media, despite their country’s increasing global isolation and fears that their already limited social and cultural freedoms could be further curtailed under the hard-line government elected a year ago. New galleries are buzzing. Art and architecture schools are thriving.
“These are good works of art that you don’t want to imitate,” says Mohammad Shahsavari, a 20-year-old architecture student, standing in front of Lewitt’s cube. “Rather, you let yourself be inspired by them.”
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