The museum’s collection is considered the largest collection of modern masterpieces outside of Europe and the United States and includes works worth millions, most of which have been kept secret since the 1979 revolution.

Visitors look at “Singerli Variations IV” by American artist Frank Stella in 1977 during the “Minimalism and Conceptual Art” exhibition showcasing works by American and European artists of the 19th and 20th centuries at the Tehran Museum of Modern Art in the Iranian capital on August 22, 2022. Photo: AFP.

TEHRAN, IRAN – More than 20,000 people gathered at an Iranian museum displaying works by famous Western artists, some of them for the first time as part of the treasures amassed before the Islamic Revolution.

The museum’s collection is considered the largest collection of modern masterpieces outside of Europe and the United States and includes works worth millions, most of which have been kept secret since the 1979 revolution.

The Tehran Museum of Modern Art “surprises me every time,” said visitor Shahin Rajabi, 35. “The current exhibition is no exception.”

The current exhibition, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, features 132 works by 34 world-renowned contemporary artists, said museum director Ebadrez Eslami, including Marcel Duchamp, Saul Levitt, Donald Judd and the duo Christo and Jean-Claude.

“The reception has been wonderful,” Eslami said, especially after extended closures in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He called one of the main factors in the popularity of this exhibition the fact that “38 masterpieces” are being shown “for the first time”.

AFP saw visitors at the museum this week, some stopping to examine the details while others were busy taking pictures as they carefully made their way through the museum.

“I especially liked the last room of the exhibition, where the artist worked with fluorescent light,” said visitor Rajabi, referring to the work “Untitled” by the American artist Dan Flavin.

The museum was inaugurated in 1977 during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries two years later.

Its design was inspired by the desert wind towers of Iran, an architectural element used to capture and circulate cold air in a hot environment.

Much of the collection was created by the Shah’s wife, the former Queen Fara Pahlavi, who sent a team of experts to visit Western auctions and acquire prestigious paintings and sculptures to raise the country’s cultural profile.

The museum also houses an important collection of contemporary Iranian art.

But international work went underground after the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, spoke out against “Westoxification”, lamenting the moral and sexual depravity of the West that he said had infected the Islamic world.

The subjects of many Western works were considered too risque for public display and have languished in storage for most of the past decades.

The museum has about 3,500 works, hundreds of which are “very valuable,” said Hassan Noferesti, head of public relations.

Among them are masterpieces by Western artists from Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso, RenĂ© Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Albert Giacometti, according to Iran’s culture ministry.

The current exhibit, which runs until mid-September, includes a collage by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto titled Green Curtains and an untitled hemp work by Canadian-American sculptor Jacqueline Winsor.

Curator Behrang Samadzadegan said “about 20,000 people” have visited the exhibition since it opened in late June – about double the usual attendance.

Describing the show’s theme, he added that “when we talk about minimalism, we’re talking primarily about the environment, not about the work.”

Standing in front of American artist Robert Smithson’s Rock Salt and Mirror, 28-year-old artist Solmaz Daneshwar said she “really enjoyed” the display.

The exhibit, however, was at the center of controversy this month when an amateur video surfaced showing two fat-headed insects under a frame of a rare image by the late German photography duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.

The video, whose authenticity could not be independently verified by AFP, went viral.

The museum later issued a formal apology, assuring concerned art lovers that the work of the Bechers, who are known for their photographs of industrial structures, had not been damaged.

It also closed its doors for two days for fumigation.

In 2015, the museum hosted an exhibition of 42 works by Western artists, including Pollock’s masterpiece “Fresco on Indian Red Earth”, valued by Christie’s auction house experts in 2010 at $250 million.

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