Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric, currently serving as president of Iran, frequently rails against Western influence. For “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture,” authorities have retaliated against “deviant” artists. And as it swiftly advances its nuclear programme and diplomatic efforts stall, the Islamic Republic has further pushed toward conflict with the United States and Europe.
In Tehran, however, tens of thousands of well-heeled men and hijab-clad women appreciated 19th and 20th century American and European minimalist and conceptual works on show for the first time this summer at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Art critics and students alike were enthralled by Marcel Duchamp’s transparent 1915 mural, “The Large Glass,” which has long been seen as an investigation of erotic frustration.
Among other significant works, they observed a rare 4-meter (13-foot) untitled sculpture by American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and “Open Cube,” one of Sol Lewitt’s most well-known serial works. Millions of dollars are probably invested in the Judd sculpture, which consists of a horizontal arrangement of lacquered brass and aluminium panels.
The museum was built by the Western-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, the former Empress Farah Pahlavi, during the late 1970s, a time of oil boom and stagnant Western economies. When it first opened, it featured stunning pieces by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, and other major artists, raising Iran’s cultural profile on the international stage.
However, the shah was overthrown by Shiite clerics in 1979, just two years later, and the artwork was stored in the museum’s vault. For decades, some works of art, including cubist, surrealist, impressionist, and even pop art, sat unfinished to respect Islamic sensibilities and avoid offending them.
However, the art began reappearing as Iran’s hardline politics started to soften. While some choice nudes and paintings by Andy Warhol depicting the Pahlavis are still tucked away in the museum’s cellar, a large portion of its collection has been displayed amid much fanfare as Iran’s cultural restrictions have loosened.
Particular interest has been drawn to the ongoing minimalism exhibition, which features 34 artists from the West. The museum reported that over 17,000 visitors have come since it opened, which is almost twice as many as previous exhibits.
The curator Behrang Samadzadegan attributes a recent resurgence in interest in conceptual art, which initially startled audiences in the 1960s by incorporating political themes and bringing art outside of conventional galleries and into a wider audience.