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What lies behind the failed collaboration between Tehran and Berlin?

15 December 2016

We shouldn’t be surprised that the collaboration between the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has been indefinitely postponed, but it also wouldn’t be quite right to say that nobody expected the collection to reach Berlin. Anyone accustomed to the cycle of frustration and hope that constitutes an emotional relationship with Iran in the age of the Islamic Republic knows how progress inches on gradually and crabwise.

The collection was amassed in the 1970s by Farah Diba, the second wife of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Her intention was to supplement the ambitious nationalist programme begun by her husband a decade earlier through establishing a Museum for Contemporary Art in Tehran, to which end she dispatched a cadre of art specialists and practised negotiators across Europe and the United States for bargains. In the often murky field of Cold War-era cultural diplomacy, it remains an impressive achievement, not least because of the Empress’s insistence on the importance of contemporary Iranian art to a collection that included Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground and works by Bacon, Warhol and Monet.

To some extent, the collection cannot help but symbolise so much that went wrong in the years preceding the Islamic Revolution, redolent as it is of a time when a remote governing elite neglected its people in pursuit of the appropriate way to announce Iran as a presence on the global stage. I think this would be a mistake. Set beside the vulgarly atavistic celebration of Iranian monarchy that was staged by the Shah outside of Persepolis in 1971, it feels quaint, even noble in its modesty.

In 2012, Farah Pahlavi explained how she worked for the museum’s location to be accessible, and for this project, despite the international attention it was drawing, to be seen primarily as a part of Iranian cultural life: ‘I remember that some of the reporters [attending the opening of the museum] were thinking that Iranians don’t deserve to have these paintings, it was insulting, but they were not only foreign works, we had Iranian art, films photography too. I am happy they are still there.’

The collection has become a source of both domestic and diasporic controversy in recent years. Willem de Kooning’s Woman III was exchanged for a Safavid-era edition of the national epic The Shahnameh that had been owned by the American collector Arthur Houghton, a gesture that offended many Iranians. The clomping irony of a royal collection being broken up by a republican government for the sake of an artefact that commemorates and incarnates an ideal of monarchy was, presumably, lost on nobody.

What did this collaboration between Tehran and Berlin represent? Perhaps it’s the last gambit of an optimistic stripe of European diplomacy, one that emphasises openness and recognises the importance of cultural bridge building. I hope not. Within Iran itself, there is a growing curiosity about the collection, one that is inflected by a cautious national pride, as well as an acknowledgement from the Islamic Republic of how it represents both a former Iranian internationalism and a future liberalisation for the Iranian public that is perpetually just around the corner. In 2012, tentative steps were taken to exhibit some items in the Tehran Museum for Contemporary Art, but there were glaring omissions, particularly of nudes and of work with homoerotic content.

But one cannot underestimate the cultural and historical reckoning that the collection makes necessary. What is at stake for the Islamic Republic and the Iranian public alike is an acknowledgement of the Pahlavi era’s absurdities and brutalities, its blind spots and achievements – and not quite in the sense of revisionism, although one can never entirely ignore what contortions the strain of avoiding this kind of project might produce. Instead, the collection’s return to the world stage advertises what an earlier attempt at Iranian internationalism made possible as well as the distance that has been travelled since the Revolution.

If it feels decadent to magnify the significance of an art collection at a time when climate change and the mass displacement of peoples has stirred a new era of violent reaction into being, there is the countervailing sense that a little more thoughtfulness and willingness to relax old proscriptions might be exactly what we need right now. That the simplest explanation for the collaboration’s failure – a missing signature on some paperwork that nobody is ever going to see – is also likely to be true hardly inspires one with confidence that what we need will form even a part of what we eventually get.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 4.0)