Some of the world’s most prized contemporary Western art has been unveiled for the first time in decades – in Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, denounces the influence of the West.
Authorities have castigated “deviant” artists for “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture”.
And the Islamic Republic has plunged further into confrontation with the United States and Europe as it rapidly ramps up its nuclear program and its diplomatic efforts stall.
But contradictions abound in the Iranian capital, where thousands of well-heeled men and hijab-clad women marveled at the minimalist and conceptual American and European masterpieces of the 19th and 20th centuries on display for the first time this been to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. .
On a recent August afternoon, art critics and students raved about Marcel Duchamp’s 1915 transparent mural, “The Large Glass,” long interpreted as an exploration of erotic frustration.
They gazed at a rare, untitled 4-meter sculpture by American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and one of Sol Lewitt’s best-known serial pieces, “Open Cube,” among other important works.
Judd’s sculpture, comprised of a horizontal array of lacquered brass and aluminum panels, is likely worth millions of dollars.
“Mounting an exhibition with such a theme and such works is a bold decision that requires a lot of courage,” said Babak Bahari, 62, who was visiting the 130-work exhibition for the fourth time since it opened in late June.
“Even in the West, these works are at the heart of discussions and dialogue. The government of Iran’s Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife, former Empress Farah Pahlavi, built the museum and acquired the multibillion-dollar collection in the late 1970s when oil was exploding and that Western economies were stagnating.
When it opened, it showed sensational works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock and other heavyweights, boosting Iran’s cultural position on the world stage.
But just two years later, in 1979, Shiite clerics ousted the shah and stowed the art in the museum vault.
Some paintings – cubist, surrealist, impressionist, even pop art – remained untouched for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and cater to Western sensibilities.
But during a thaw in radical Iranian politics, the art began to resurface. While Andy Warhol’s paintings of the Pahlavis and a few choice nudes are still hidden in the basement, much of the Warhol collection has been unveiled with great fanfare as Iran’s cultural restrictions have eased. .
The ongoing exhibition on minimalism, featuring 34 Western artists, has received particular attention. More than 17,000 people have made the trip since it opened, the museum said, nearly double the attendance at past shows.
Curator Behrang Samadzadegan credits a recent resurgence of interest in conceptual art, which first shocked audiences in the 1960s by drawing on political themes and pushing art out of traditional galleries and into the world entire.
Museum spokesman Hasan Noferesti said the sheer size of the crowds coming to the exhibition, which lasts until mid-September, shows the thrill of discovering long-hidden modern masterpieces.
It also testifies to the persistent appetite for art of the young Iranian generation. More than 50% of the approximately 85 million inhabitants of the country are under 30 years old.
Despite their country’s growing global isolation and fear that their already limited social and cultural freedoms will be further curtailed under the radical government elected a year ago, young Iranians are increasingly exploring the world of international art. on social networks.
New galleries are buzzing. Schools of art and architecture are flourishing.
“These are good works of art, you don’t want to imitate them,” said Mohammad Shahsavari, a 20-year-old architecture student, standing in front of Lewitt’s cubic structure. “On the contrary, you take inspiration from them.”
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