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April 7, 2021

Long before Art Dubai or Louvre Abu Dhabi, one of the finest collections of Western art was assembled in the capital of a country now famous for its anti-West standing.


It is early 1979. While the world is wild with 1970s passion, in Tehran—considered the New York of Middle East—another kind of mania is reaching its peak. The revolution that began a year ago with Marxist and Islamic ideologies (imagine the combination!) is delivering its final blows to the fragile body of Iran’s last dynasty. The streets are in chaos. Statues are tumbling down, official buildings are under attack. Fire and fury are everywhere. The revolutionaries leave nothing untouched.

Meanwhile, at the heart of Tehran, where history is taking place, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is waiting. The doors are closed and the museum accepts no visitors—not that anyone is much in the mood for a museum visit in the midst of a revolution. But behind the iron barricades, the inside is far from tranquil. As with collections in Dresden during World War II, the newly appointed director, Mehdi Kosar, anxiously supervises as staff members frantically transport world masterpieces to concrete underground vaults. Kosar dreads that the extremists who consider such art degenerate, against Islamic beliefs, would destroy a collection worth an estimated $2.5 to $5 billion.

Ultimately, the collection will not see the light of day until 1999. But such a fate is a low price to pay, considering that some artworks never survive the revolution, including an Andy Warhol print depicting the former Empress Farah Pahlavi.

The story of TMoCA was not always this dark. But it was always black and sticky.

The tale ironically begins with the death of an artist. Kamal-ol-molk, the last prominent Iranian old master, passes in 1940, taking the classical style of painting with him to the grave. Rapid industrialization has already begun, and fresh graduates from European universities return and join the front line of modernization. The same year marks the establishment of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran University, a citadel for modern academic art training. Iran has gone from veiled women in the 1920s to miniskirts in the 1960s.

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977

The turning point for TMoCA happens in 1971, strangely at an OPEC meeting, where member states agree to increase oil prices. But hip cafés, fancy bars, trendy nightclubs, and drive-in cinemas are not all Iran wants with this unprecedented cash flow. The empress herself is the great supporter of the arts. From ballet to wild, avant-garde installations, artists will have the state’s support as long as they do not criticize the monarchy.

But they take the resources and criticize the monarchy anyway. Such is the nature of art, one might say.

This situation prompts the empress to set in motion a plan that has long been discussed with society elites—namely, that the state supports any plan that makes Iran look progressive. Thus the National Oil Company supplies funds for a sensational contemporary art museum, an investment criticized by many, then and now, for pointing to social gaps and inequalities. Architect Kamran Diba is assigned to design it. And in consultation with figures such as novelist-curator David Galloway, the empress sets out on a mission to create a collection controversial in its glory.

TMoCA, Back Garden, 2020

Something American from the 1950s. How about a Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko? Something less eccentric but equally colorful. Are Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe or Mick Jagger prints to your taste? Something with less color and more comics? Perhaps an array of works by Roy Lichtenstein, or Robert Indiana? How about something dark and twisted? A Robert Motherwell would do—or would you prefer a Francis Bacon triptych? Something Cubist, like Pablo Picasso? Something surreal, like René Magritte? TMoCA has it all.

Even without the finest collection of Western art outside the United States and Europe, TMoCA would still be unique. Nelson Rockefeller once called it one of the most beautiful museums in the world. It oozes with silent elegance, and its authentic references to local architecture and materials constantly snap the visitor back to the present time and place. Visitors come in through a modest entrance. The intensity of light is immediately lowered in the atrium, reminding you to be polite and respectful, as in a temple. Slightly inclined corridors lead to a circular underground route, with galleries branching out in the same fashion as the New York Guggenheim. Then a spiral ramp in the middle leads you back up, like a snake or the tail of a dragon.

Concrete and glass are raw and the epitome of simplicity. Yet despite its modernism, the design’s inclusion of pre-Islamic Iranian architectural elements is immediately perceptible, the most prominent element being the badgir (literary “wind catcher”), a tall tower that creates natural ventilation and cools indoor temperatures in the boiling-hot desert summer. Diba not only uses this component as a formal reference, but also shrewdly alters its function to catch natural light from the windows on one end, lead it through shafts, and cast it, diffused, on certain underground walls on which artworks are hung.

This design juxtaposing modernism with the glories of the past is well received, for it is the reflection of the ancient societies themselves. An Iranian teenager boasting of Cyrus the Great while gulping Coca-Cola is nothing out of the ordinary.

A site-specific artwork commissioned from the Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi is a pool of oil, the sarcasm of which is lost on absolutely no one. TMoCA opens with a ceremonial visit by the Shah and the empress, during which, not believing the substance is truly oil, the Shah sticks his hand into the pool to prove his point, only to have his fingers covered in the sticky blackness. An awkward moment, indeed. A flurry of handkerchiefs are passed around, and security seizes every camera present. Saving the king’s dignity is far more crucial than documenting the opening day of the country’s most important art institution.

The reaction of the Western media is amusing. The French are particularly harsh. With a schoolgirl’s epic bitterness, Le Monde writes, “A Museum for Whom and What For?” in which it questions the link between a Picasso and an Iranian child. One might question the same link between the entire collection of the Louvre and a child on the streets of Porte de la Chapelle.

Funny that during the restoration of Haraguchi’s artwork, hundreds of coins were fished out of the oil. Visitors treated the artwork as any other pool in a Persian garden: drop a coin and make a wish. Global is local, after all.

TMoCA, Great Hall (with Alexander Calder, Orange Fish, 1946), 2020

By 1979 almost all of the the original board of TMoCA have fled Iran. Clerics ban Western art. Exhibitions about the revolution and propaganda regarding the long war with Iraq are the only purposes the museum serves for almost two decades. A valuable Willem de Kooning (Woman III, 1953) is secretly swapped for folios of Shahnameh in a European airport, like in some heist movie, and this is only one highlight among many instances of poor handling on TMoCA’s part during these years. The original dream seems to be forgotten, just like the collection.

TMoCA remains a sleeping dragon, guarding its priceless treasures, until 1999, when a new generation rediscovers it. With a reformist government in office, the new director battles local censorship and promotes the museum and its collection internationally. Once again it more or less functions as a normal space for contemporary art, featuring exhibitions of international artists. Previously banned Iranian artists reconcile with it.

TMoCA, Outdoor Sculpture Garden (with Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man, 1961), 2020

All is not a bed of roses, though. The return of conservatives to power in the last decade has once again marked a new period of stagnation for TMoCA. Nearby Farah Park (named after the empress) is now Laleh (“tulip,” a symbol of the martyrs) and Amir-Abad Street (“city of kings”) is now Kargar (worker). The 1977 TMoCA seems to belong to a previous lifetime, far away and long ago.

After 44 years of political turbulence TMoCA seems forever woven into the urban fabric of Tehran. Its origins may have lain in easy money, but modernism came at an oily price for Iranians. The post-revolution generation has rediscovered its inheritance. Iranians have learned from experience that in the end, all that remains through conflicts, politics, and wars are culture and arts, and their museum has loads of that. An Iranian fond of carpets can indeed connect with a modernist painting in ways that may seem unexplainable or absurd to a Westerner. Long before the concept of a globalized world, perhaps the idea of a cultural melting pot started right here.

After all, what is a Picasso to an Iranian child?!

Shabrang Behzad is an artist, author and translator based in Tehran.


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