Tehran, Iran — Some of the world’s most prized works of contemporary Western art have been unveiled for the first time in decades – in Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-hearted cleric, protests against the influence of the West. Authorities have lashed out at “deviant” artists for “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture”.
But there are many contradictions in the Iranian capital, where thousands of wealthy men and women in hijabs marveled at 19th- and 20th-century American and European minimalist and conceptual masterpieces first seen this summer at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. .
On a recent August afternoon, art critics and students alike raved about Marcel Duchamp’s 1915 see-through mural, “The Large Glass,” long interpreted as an exploration of erotic frustration.
They stared at a rare, untitled 4-foot-tall sculpture by American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and one of Sol Lewitt’s best-known series pieces, “Open Cube,” among other significant works. The Judd sculpture, made up of a horizontal array of lacquered copper and aluminum panels, is likely worth millions of dollars.
“Setting up an exhibition with such a theme and such works is a bold move 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. “Even in the West, these works are at the heart of discussions and dialogue.”
The government of the western-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, the former Empress Farah Pahlavi, built the museum and acquired the multi-billion dollar collection in the late 1970s, when oil production boomed. took off and western economies stagnated. At its opening, it showcased sensational works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock and other heavyweights, cementing Iran’s cultural status on the world stage.
But just two years later, in 1979, Shia clerics expelled the shah and put the art in the museum vault. Some paintings — Cubist, Surreal, Impressionist, even Pop Art — were left untouched for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and catering to Western sensibilities.
But during a thaw in Iran’s harsh politics, the art began to resurface. While Andy Warhol’s paintings of the Pahlavis and some 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 been eased.
The ongoing exhibition on minimalism, featuring 34 western artists, has attracted particular attention. More than 17,000 people have made the trip since it opened, the museum said — nearly double the attendance at previous shows.
Curator Behrang Samadzadegan attributes a recent revival of interest in conceptual art, which first shocked the public in the 1960s by drawing on political themes and bringing art from traditional galleries to the wider world.
Museum spokesman Hasan Noferesti said the sheer size of the crowd flocking to the exhibition, which will last until mid-September, shows how exciting it is to experience long-hidden modern masterpieces.
It also testifies to the enduring appetite for art among Iran’s young generation. More than 50% of the approximately 85 million people in the country are under the age of 30.
Despite their country’s increasing isolation from the world and fears that their already limited social and cultural freedoms will be further curtailed by the harsh government elected a year ago, young Iranians are increasingly exploring the international art scene through social media. New galleries are buzzing. Art and architecture schools 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 cube structure. “You rather get inspiration from it.”
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.
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