Tehran, Iran – Iranian hardliners, now back in charge, may regularly speak out against the poisoning of Islamic society by Western culture, but in Tehran, Iranians flock to the art museum contemporary to marvel at the American pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans.
The circular floors of the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Iranian capital display a vast collection of 18 classic works by Warhol, recognizable at first glance: screen-printed portraits of the founding leader of Communist China Mao Zedong and Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, and a vintage print of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
“I love this painting,” exclaimed Fatemeh Rezaee, 46, soaking up the colorful ink on Marilyn Monroe’s face, which Warhol made in 1962 shortly after the actress committed suicide. “Looking at it, I visualized the story of Marilyn Monroe’s life in my head. It makes the concept of death really tangible to me.
Rezaee, a retired teacher in a loose silk hijab, was so captivated by the exhibit that she flew from her home in the southern town of Shiraz to see it – twice.
She continued, “Her selection of colors is exceptional and for me conveys a combination of feelings such as melancholy and mortality.”
Warhol’s works are part of a multi-billion dollar permanent art collection held in the Tehran Museum Vault. As oil exploded during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country acquired thousands of coins, including Monets, Picassos and Jackson Pollocks, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the pro-Western monarchy and propels Shiite clerics to power.
The new Iranian theocracy first banned modern art and packaged famous paintings. But in recent decades, as cultural restrictions have eased, some 1,500 Western dynastic works of art have been on display again – with much fanfare. In 2015, Tehran’s city council even covered the city’s billboards with hundreds of works by great American painters, from Rothko to Hopper, turning the sprawling city into a giant open-air exhibition.
Still, a visitor won’t find Warhol’s more gritty fare, like his notorious experimental films, exhibited in Tehran. In 2005, when the museum showcased its entire collection of 20th-century American and European masterpieces, select pieces – including a Renoir nude – were hidden to avoid offending conservative Islamic sensibilities.
However, Tehran audiences on Wednesday seemed satisfied with Warhol’s screenprints that tested orthodoxies by depicting consumerist themes in the early 1960s.
“People have exceptionally welcomed the exhibition of Andy Warhol paintings,” museum spokesman Hasan Noferesti said, noting that crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic were forcing the museum to limit the number of visitors per hour .
One visitor, Shahin Gandomi, a 21-year-old microbiology student, wearing a black shirt and wearing a ponytail, praised Mao Zedong’s series of paintings.
“When an artist portrays a dictator in a work of art, it seems that dictator has been removed from his sacred position,” he said.
The showcase may be nearing its end, but Noferesti said the museum plans to exhibit more Warhol and Western artists soon.
Although Iran does not have diplomatic relations with the United States and hostilities have simmered between the countries since 1979, illegal copies of Hollywood blockbusters and Western music remain popular in the country, especially among young city dwellers. .
Tensions with the United States have increased in recent months as the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, the protégé of Iran’s supreme leader, brought hard-line supporters to power in all branches of government.
Iran has ramped up its atomic program, and talks to revive Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have stalled for months. Three years ago then-President Donald Trump reneged on the deal and launched a campaign of economic pressure that crippled the country’s economy.
But in Tehran’s stylish white-walled exhibit this week, neither political tensions nor US sanctions were discussed.
“There have been great artists in history, and it’s extremely good that we get to see their works here,” said 20-year-old graphic design student Kourosh Aminzadeh, who had returned for a second visit.