Hired by the Empress of Art at the Tehran Hidden Museum

On the edge of a spacious park in Tehran is a newly brutalist building the color of sand. Inside is one of the finest collections of modern Western art in the world.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is entered through an atrium that spirals downward like a reverse version of the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim Museum. Photographs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded him as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, shine in you.

A number of underground galleries await you. There’s nothing like feeling like you’re facing your most sensational masterpiece face-to-face for the first time: 1950s Jackson Pollock. “Mural on Indian Red Field,” a 6 by 8 foot canvas, created from rusty red and layered swirls of thick, dripping color, and is considered one of his best works from his most important period.

Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Magritte, Dali, Miró, Johns, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Bacon, Duchamp , Rothko, Man Ray – they ‘re all here.

The museum was conceived by Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, the wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and opened for international recognition in 1977. Only 15 months later, in the face of a mass popular uprising, the couple left the country on what was officially called a holiday. “The revolution replaced the monarchy with Islamic Republic a few weeks later.The new regime could have sold or destroyed Western art masterpieces.Instead, the museum was closed, slightly hidden in a concrete basement, and the chess palaces were preserved and eventually turned into museums.For years, the art collection, purchased for less than $ 100 million, was protected but unseen, and by some estimates is now worth as much as $ 3 billion.

Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and played a small but important role in compiling the collection, wrote memoirs, “The Empress and I: How the Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected, and Rediscovered Modern Art.”

It tells two interconnected stories: one about a hierarchical, often dysfunctional, rule-driven bureaucracy that bought Western art at surprisingly affordable prices for a monarchy depleted of oil money; another of the daily lives of an unmarried young American woman from the old Tehran regime.

This is the job of calculating results. Stein, 78, a retired deputy director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, makes it clear that he feels deprived of the merit he deserves.

“Since I was a foreigner who mostly worked in secret, my leading role in the formation of the National Collection was never fully recognized,” she wrote in the preface. Her male superiors, she added, “bravely took credit for my aesthetic choice.” Therefore, “I finally wrote ‘The Empress and I’ to correct the record.”

Farah Diba Pahlavi has chosen a cousin of Kamran Dibu as the architect and director of the establishment of a new museum that will fill with modern Iranian and Western art. Stein worked behind the scenes as a researcher and advisor for Karim Pasha Bahadori, the project’s chief of staff and the Empress’s childhood friend.

Stein started small – writing a procurement policy, building a library, and identifying drawings, photographs, and prints for purchase by studying auctions and sales catalogs in private galleries.

She soon organized scout expeditions and compiled detailed notes on the major works she hoped to procure for the collection. She helped create relationships with merchants, collectors and curators and became a link between them and her superiors.

“I was a filter for quality and I used it a lot,” she said in a phone interview from Altadena, Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband Henry James Korn, a retired art management specialist. “In order to create a statement about history and context and about quality and rarity, those were the criteria, not how much something cost. In that respect, it was a dream job. “

But her role remained extremely limited. She was never a witness nor did she participate in the negotiations and did not know the prices for the works. Without this first-hand information, she cannot fill in any gaps in her memoirs.

Stein started the business while still living in New York. During a whirlwind ten-day shopping spree in May 1975, the museum’s acquisition team returned home with 125 works she said she had identified for shopping. They included important Picasso pieces: the cubist painting “Open Window on Rue de Penthièvre in Paris”, the tapestry “Secrets (Confidentiality or Inspiration”) and the bronze sculpture “Baboon and the Young”. She loved sculpture because, Stein said, “I was looking for things that would be available to an uneducated audience. It was enchanting. ”

During that trip, she spotted Calder’s cell phone, “The Orange Fish,” thanks to a conversation with Klaus Perls, owner of the Perls Gallery and Calder’s major dealer in the United States. Stein and her colleagues also visited the attic of SoHo curator of the Museum of Modern Art William Rubin to study Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Red Ground” before its purchase. “I wasn’t the one who found the picture, but I really liked it,” she said.

In Iran, she reported to Bahadoriya, whom she described as “remote”; it could take months without seeing him. After the incident in which he progressed, and she refused, “he couldn’t look me in the eye,” she wrote. In addition, she claims he knew nothing about art. “Whenever I had meetings with him, I felt it was my job to teach him art history,” she said.

Eventually she gained his trust and persuaded him to boldly buy: sculptures, including Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Woman I” and “Walking Man I”; Mark Rothko’s “Sienna, Orange and Black on Dark Brown” and “No. 2 (Yellow Center) ”; Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil”; and graphics like Edward Munch’s “Self-Portrait”. She advocated for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Lying Man with a Sculpture” and “The Last Object,” a unique sculpture of Dada, by Man Ray from his series of metronomes, when they went up for auction.

But Bahadori was the public face of the team; Stein was forced to stay in the shadows. Her suspicion that he “stole credit for my hard work increased over time,” Stein wrote. Her position in the museum deteriorated when Diba was appointed director. “I became central to everyone’s efforts for power and in the end I had no role to play,” she said.

She was even accused of accepting bribes. “Bribery was a way of working in Iran, and people who knew that accused me of not taking bribes,” she said.

She left Iran in mid-1977, returning for a brief visit when the museum opened that October.

In his memoirs, Stein also tells the story of his decision to leave the job of assistant curator at MoMA to live in Iran. “I was completely unprepared for the shock of the intense heat, as well as the complexity that life in the Third World would awaken.”

She found a one-bedroom apartment with central heating, air conditioning and a shopping center on the lower levels. She was allowed to travel freely around the country, even to distant places like Rasht in the north and Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf.

In an era when SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, spied on, arrested, tortured and killed his political opponents, she said: “I lived regularly. I didn’t worry about talking on the phone. “

She had Iranian friends, but she also embraced the large American community of expatriates. (Describes a July 4 party for 1,000 guests hosted by Richard Helms, a U.S. ambassador and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a large embassy complex, long before militants took it and held US diplomats hostage for 444 days.)

Alcohol was legal and plentiful at the time. An all-night party hosted by a wealthy young Qajar prince at his Hollywood-style playboy villa in Isfahan “proved to be an unexpected exercise of debauchery”, where some guests drank alcohol, smoked opium or hashish and used cocaine, she wrote.

Although she decided to frame the book around Farah Diba Pahlavi, whom she calls a “confidant” in the book, Stein said she had only three brief encounters with the Empress in Iran; her only face-to-face encounter with her after that was a 1991 interview in New York.

Answering written questions by e-mail, Farah Diba Pahlavi said: “Donna Stein was a professional, diligent person who achieved results. I trusted her opinion. We are on friendly terms and communicate by phone, although not too often. ”

She added that “Mrs. Stein established a significant group of acquisitions in all media as the basis for a serious national collection of modern and contemporary art. “

A completely different view of the history of the museum and its works of art can be found in the limited edition of the book about club tables for 2018, “Iran Modern: Empress of Art”. Foreword Farah Diba Pahlavi tells the story from her point of view, including her personal encounters with artists such as Chagall, Moore, Dali and Warhol. “We couldn’t afford the old foreign masterpieces, but we could afford modern art,” she wrote. She started safely – with the French Impressionists – and moved forward over time. The book is generously illustrated, protected in a case for the presentation of a linen shell

white gloves and a signature canvas bag. It costs $ 895.

As for the museum, his Western art collection remains intact, except for Warhol’s portrait of Farah Dibe Pahlavi – which was vandalized long ago in one of the former palaces – and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III” sold by the museum in 1994 for the remains of a 16 century, known as Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings, which contains miniatures. (Iranians bought it for less than a million dollars, according to Stein, “Woman III” was sold privately in 2006 to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $ 137.5 million.) The first comprehensive exhibition of the Western art collection in the Islamic Republic was 2005, and some works, such as Pollock, are constantly on display. Others, including Renoir’s “Gabrielle with Open Blouse” (1907), which features a woman with bare breasts, have never been shown in public.

After a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened in late January with an exhibition of conceptual photographs and a selection of 700 works of art donated by the estate of a famous Iranian collector. The museum will publish its own study of the collection – it will take six volumes to tell the story.

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