Hired by the Queen of Art at the Hidden Museum of Tehran


On the edge of a huge park in Tehran is a neo-brutalist structure that is colored sand. The inside has one of the finest collections of modern Western art in the world.

You enter the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art through an atrium that spirals downward like the inverted version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Pictures of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, father of Iran’s 1979 revolution and father of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded him as supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, were shocked to see you.

A series of underground galleries await. There is nothing like the feeling of coming face to face for the first time with his most sensational work: Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Murali on Indian Red Ground,” The 6-by-8-foot canvas, made with rusty red paint and coarse, swings of drip paint, is considered one of the best works of its time.

Monet, Pisaro, Toulouse-Lutrec, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall, Clay, Whistler, Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Candinsky, Magret, Dali, Miro, Johns, Warhol, Hawkney, Lischenstein, Listenstein, Rothkoin , Man Ray – They are all here.

The museum was conceived by Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and opened to international acclaim in 1977. Just 15 months later, due to a mass popular uprising, the couple left the country in what was officially called a holiday. “The revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic republic weeks later. The new regime Western art works. Could be sold or destroyed. Instead, the museum was closed, its treasures hidden in a concrete cellar, and the Shah’s palaces were preserved and eventually turned into museums over the years. Till, the art collection purchased for less than $ 100 million was preserved but not overlooked; by some estimates, it is now worth $ 3 billion.

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

It tells two interlocking stories: a rules-driven, hierarchical, often-misconceived bureaucracy that buys Western art at surprisingly reasonable prices for a monarchy flush with oil art; Another of the daily life of an unmarried young American woman in Tehran of the old regime.

This is the task of settling the score. 78-year-old Stein, retired deputy director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, clarifies that he feels robbed of the credit he deserves.

“Because I was working extensively in a foreign secretive, my leadership role in building the national archive has not been fully acknowledged,” she said. His male senior, he said, “boldly took a loan for my beauty choices.” Thus, “I wrote ‘The Empress and I’ at the end to correct the record.”

Farah Diba Pahlavi selected a cousin Kamran Diba as the architect and founding director for the new museum, which he would fill with modern Iranian and Western art. Stein worked behind the scenes as a researcher and mentor for the project’s head, Karim Pasha Bahdori, and the employee’s childhood friend.

Stein made a small start – writing an acquisition policy, building a library and identifying drawings, photographs and prints for purchase by studying the catalogs of auctions and private galleries.

Soon she was organizing a scouting expedition and is preparing a detailed memorandum on the major works for the collection. He helped build relationships with dealers, collectors and curators and became a liaison between him and his superiors.

“I was a filter for quality, and I used that filter very strongly,” she said in a phone interview from Altadena, Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband, Henry James Corn, a retired arts management specialist is. “To make a statement of history and context and quality and rarity, they were the criteria, not some cost. In that regard, it was a dream. “

But his role was extremely limited. He never attended or participated in the conversation and did not know the prices paid for the works. Without that first information, she cannot fill some gaps in her memoir.

Stein began work while she was living in New York. During a 10-day purchase in May 1975, the acquisition team of a museum came home with 125 works, which he said he had identified for the purchase. He included important pieces by Picasso: a Cubist painting “an open window on the Rue de Pentièvre in Paris,” a tapestry “Raj (faith) or inspiration”, and a bronze sculpture “Baboon and Young.” She praised the sculpture because, Stein said, “I was looking for things that would be accessible to an illiterate audience.” It was just mesmerizing. “

He saw Calder’s “The Orange Fish” mobile during that trip, thanks to a conversation with Klaus Pearls, owner of Pearls Galleries and Calder’s main dealer in the US. Stein and his colleagues visited the Museum of Modern Art curator William Rubin’s Soho Scaffold to study Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Red Ground” prior to its purchase. “I wasn’t the one who found the painting, but I liked it very much,” she said.

In Iran, he reported to Bahadur, whom he described as “remote”; She could go months without seeing him. After an incident in which he progressed, which he denied, “He did not look me in the eye,” he wrote. Furthermore, she claims that she knew nothing about art. “Whenever I met him, I used to think that this is my work, which teaches me the history of art,” she said.

Eventually she gained confidence and urged him to buy boldly: sculptures including Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Woman’s Eye” and “Walking Man’s Eye”; Mark Rothko’s “Sierra, Orange and Black on Dark Brown” and “No.” 2 (yellow center) ”; Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil”; And prints such as “Self-Portrait” of Edward Munch. He pushed for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Recalling Man with Sculpture” and “Last Object”, a unique grandfather sculpture of Man Ray from his Metro series when he came up for auction.

But bravery was the public face of the team; Stan was forced to live in the shadows. Stein wrote that his suspicion “the credit for my hard work increased over time,” he stole. Her standing in the museum worsened when Deba was named director. “I became the center of everyone’s push for power, and ultimately I had no role,” she said.

He was even accused of bribery. “Bribery was the way it worked in Iran, and I was accused by people who knew better, that I would not take bribes,” she said.

She left Iran in mid-1977, when the museum opened in October.

In his memoir, Stein also tells the story of his decision to leave a job as an assistant curator at MoMA to live in Iran. “I was completely unprepared for the intense heat shock, as well as the complications of living in the Third World.”

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

In an era when SAVAK, Shah’s secret police, was arresting, torturing and killing his political opponents, he said: “I lived my life regularly. I didn’t worry about talking on the phone. “

He had Iranian friends but also embraced the larger American diaspora community. (He describes the July 4 party for 1,000 guests hosted by US ambassador and former director of Central Intelligence Richard Hales, in the vast embassy complex, long before militants seized it and for 444 days of American The diplomats have been taken hostage.

Liquor was legal and abundant in those days. A night party hosted by a wealthy young Kajar prince in Isfahan in his “Hollywood-style Playboy mansion” became “an unexpected practice at Deschury”, where some guests drank alcohol, smoked opium or hashish and cocaine. Did, he wrote.

Although she decided to frame the book around Farah Diba Pahlavi, which she refers to as a “confidant” in the book, Stein stated that she had only three brief encounters with the Queen in Iran; His only encounter was with her, followed by an interview in 1991 in New York.

In an emailed response to written questions, Farah Diba Pahlavi said: “Donna Stein was a professional, hard-working person who provided results. I trusted her opinion. We have a friendly relationship, and we communicate by phone. Do, though not very often. “

She stated that “Ms. Stein established a large group of acquisitions across all media as the basis for a serious national collection of modern and contemporary art. “

A very different look at the museum’s history and its artifacts is found in a limited-edition 2018 coffee-table book, “Iran Modern: The Empress of Art”. A story by Farah Diba Pahlavi tells the story from her point of view, including personal encounters with artists like Chagall, Moore, Dali and Warhol with her. “We could not buy old foreign creations, but we could afford modern art,” she wrote. She started on a fixed pedestal – with French impressionists – and progressed over time. Gorgeously painted, preserved in a linen clamshell presentation case, comes with the book

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

For the museum, its Western art collection remains intact, except for a Warhol portrait of Farah Diba Pahlavi – a barbarism slipped on one of the former palaces – and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III”, which the museum commissioned in 1994 Had done business. For the remains of a 16th-century book, called the Shahnamah or Book of Kings, containing miniatures. (According to Steven, “Woman III” sold privately, bought by Iranians for less than $ 1 million Hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $ 137.5 million in 2006.) The first comprehensive exhibition of the Islamic Republic in the Western Art Collection was in 2005, and some works, such as Polak, are on permanent display. Others, including Renoir’s “Gabrielle with Open Blouse” (1907), featuring a woman with naked breasts, have never been shown in public.

After a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened in late January, with an exhibition of conceptual photography and selections of 700 artifacts donated by the estate of a renowned Iranian collector. The museum will publish its study of the collection – it will require six volumes to tell the story.



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