TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Some of the most valuable works of contemporary Western art are being shown to the public for the first time in decades… in Tehran.
The country’s president, Ibrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric, is critical of Western influence. The authorities criticized the “deviant” artists for “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture”. The Islamic Republic plunged further into its confrontation with the United States and Europe as it rapidly ramped up its nuclear program in the face of stalled diplomatic efforts.
But contrasts abound in the Iranian capital, where thousands of wealthy men and women – all in headscarves – marveled at the masterpieces of American and European art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and conceptual minimalism, on display for the first time this summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.
On an August afternoon, critics and art students celebrated Marcel Duchamp’s 1915 translucent mural, The Big Glass, which has been interpreted as an exploration of sexual frustration.
They saw a rare untitled 13-foot (4 m) sculpture of American minimalism pioneer, Donald Judd, and one of Sol Lewitt’s most famous serial pieces, “Open Cube,” among other important works. Judd’s sculpture, made up of a horizontal array of lacquered copper and aluminum plates, could be worth millions of dollars.
“Putting together an exhibition with this theme and works like this is a brave step that requires a lot of courage,” said Babak Bahari, 62, who has been visiting the gallery of 130 works for the fourth time since it opened in late June. In the West, these works are the focus of debates and dialogue.
The Western-backed government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife, former emperor Farah Pahlavi, built the museum and acquired the multi-million dollar collection in the late 1970s, when oil was booming and economies were booming, and Westerners stagnated. After its opening, stunts by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, and other big names were displayed on its walls, cementing Iran’s cultural standing on the world stage.
But just two years later, in 1979, the Shiite clergy overthrew the Shah and closed the works in the museum’s basement. Some – Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism and even Pop Art – have remained the same for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and grumbling about Western sensibilities.
But during the thaw in conservative Iranian politics, art began to make a comeback. Although works by Andy Warhol of a Pahlavi portrait and some nudes are still hidden in the basement, much of Warhol’s collection has been shown with great fanfare as cultural restrictions have been lifted.
The current show on minimalism, featuring 34 Western artists, has aroused particular interest. The museum said more than 17,000 people have visited it since it opened. That’s nearly double the attendance at previous shows.
Curator Behrang Samadzadegan attributes this to a renewed interest in conceptual art, which actually surprised residents in the 1960s by addressing political issues and taking art out of traditional museums for transmission around the world.
Hassan Noversti, a spokesman for the museum, said the influx of the exhibition, which will be removed in mid-September, shows the enthusiasm of being able to see modern masterpieces that have long been hidden.
It is also an example of the artistic interest of the younger generation of Iranians. More than 50% of the country’s 85 million people are under the age of 30.
Despite the nation’s increasing global isolation and fears that their already limited social and cultural freedoms will be curtailed by the conservative government elected a year ago, Iranian youth are increasingly exploring the international art world on social media. Showrooms in full swing. The schools of art and architecture are bustling with activity.
“These are good works of art, you don’t want to imitate them. They inspire you,” said Muhammad Shahsafari, a 20-year-old architecture student, standing in front of Lewitt’s piece.
Associated Press writer Isabel Depree in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.