Tehran museum unveils western art masterpieces hidden for decades

Some of the world’s most prized works of contemporary western art have been unveiled for the first time in decades – in Tehran.

The Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, rails against the influence of the west. Authorities have condemned “deviant” artists for “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture”. And the Islamic Republic has plunged further into confrontation with the US and Europe as it rapidly accelerates its nuclear programme and diplomatic efforts stall.

But contradictions abound in the Iranian capital, where thousands of well-heeled men and women looked at 19th- and 20th-century American and European minimalist and conceptual masterpieces on display this summer for the first time at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

On a recent August afternoon, art critics and students looked at at Marcel Duchamp’s see-through 1915 mural The Large Glass,” long interpreted as an exploration of erotic frustration.

Also on display was a rare 4-metre (13ft) untitled sculpture by the American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and one of Sol Lewitt’s best-known serial pieces Open Cube, among other important works. The Judd sculpture, a horizontal array of lacquered brass and aluminum panels, is estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

Works by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

“Setting up a show with such a theme and such works is a bold move that takes a lot of courage,” said Babak Bahari, who was viewing the exhibit of 130 works for the fourth time since it opened in 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, the former empress Farah Pahlavi, built the museum and acquired the multibillion-dollar collection in the late 1970s, when oil boomed and western economies stagnated.

Upon opening, it showed works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock and other big names, enhancing Iran’s cultural standing on the world stage.

A Marilyn Monroe portrait by the US artist Andy Warhol, on display at the museum.
A Marilyn Monroe portrait by the US artist Andy Warhol, on display at the museum. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

But just two years later, in 1979, Shia clerics ousted the shah and packed away the art in the museum’s vault. Some paintings – cubist, surrealist, impressionist, pop art – were unseen for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and catering to western sensibilities.

But during a thaw in Iran’s politics, the art started to resurface. While Andy Warhol’s paintings of the Pahlavis and some nudes are still hidden in the basement, much of the artist’s collection has been brought out to great fanfare as Iran’s cultural restrictions have eased.

The ongoing exhibition on minimalism, featuring 34 western artists, has captured particular attention. More than 17,000 people have viewed the works since the launch, the museum said, nearly double the footfall of previous shows.

Frank Stella’s Sinjerli Variations No 1-5 (1977) on display for the first time in the Iranian capital.
Frank Stella’s Sinjerli Variations No 1-5 (1977) on display for the first time in the Iranian capital. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

The curator Behrang Samadzadegan credits a recent renewed interest in conceptual art, which first shocked audiences in the 1960s by drawing on political themes and taking art out of traditional galleries and into the wider world.

The museum’s spokesperson, Hasan Noferesti, said the size of the crowds coming to the exhibition, which ends in mid-September, showed the thrill of experiencing long-hidden modern masterpieces.

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It also attests to the enduring appetite for art among Iran’s young generation. More than 50% of the country’s 85 million people are under 30 years old.

Despite their country’s deepening global isolation, and fears that their already limited social and cultural freedoms may be further curtailed under the government elected a year ago, young Iranians are increasingly exploring the international art world on social media. New galleries are buzzing. Art and architecture schools are thriving.

“These are good works of art, you don’t want to imitate them,” said Mohammad Shahsavari, a 20-year-old architecture student standing before Lewitt’s cube structure. “Rather, you get inspiration from them.”

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