Art critic Alastair Sooke tells the story of the most valuable collection of modern western art outside Europe and the US and how it comes to be in a museum basement in Iran.
In the decade leading up to the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Shah’s wife, Farah Pahlavi spent much of her time encouraging the building of museums and institutions intended to celebrate the art and craft of the country. But alongside buildings housing priceless carpets and glassware, she was also keen to use the country’s oil wealth to bring examples of modern western art to the capital, Tehran. The result was the collection of works by Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, Picasso, Bacon, Chagall and Renoir. It remains one of the most valuable collections outside Europe and the US. She even commissioned a portrait by Andy Warhol.
The ambition was to house these very expensive works alongside the modern art of Iran in the newly designed and proudly modernist Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
But in 1979, Her Royal Highness had to flee Iran with her husband and the Islamic revolution had little time or appetite for Western art. Through a mix of bravery on the part of local curators, and good luck, the collection survived.
Alastair Sooke talks to Her Royal Highness Farah Pahlavi about the collection and discovers why the popular press coverage suggesting that it was her vanity project was so wrong. He also speaks to Joachim Jaeger, the German Art Director who so nearly managed to organise an exhibition of part of the collection in the west a few years ago. It was to be seen in Berlin and Rome before returning home. The exhibition planners in both Germany, Italy and Iran, had got as far as printing a catalogue when the political authorities in Iran decided it wouldn’t be going ahead.
And Alastair hears from those who remember the pre-revolutionary days when the ambition to bring the arts of East and West together in Iran seemed, not only possible, but inevitable. The Empress even kept a memoir in which she explained her vision for the culture of her country, in spite of the turmoil going on outside the palace gates.
Will this extraordinary collection, some of which is now being shown in Tehran for the first time in years, be a force for change in cultural mood? Or will the challenge of works by Francis Bacon and Henry Moore stay safe, but out of the public gaze?
Maziyar MTom Alban