Hidden away for decades, a Tehran collection of Western paintings is to go on show in Berlin. The politically charged exhibition, which nearly flopped due to Holocaust denying caricatures, is a premiere.
For the first time, an exhibition outside of Iran gives insights into Tehran’s Museum for Modern Art. The show in Berlin is to be understood as a political event: Berlin’s National Gallery is showing works from Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA).
The works have been inaccessible for nearly 40 years, but will be on show in the German capital from December 2016 to February 2017. Tickets are already being sold online. After Berlin, the exhibition will continue on to the MAXXI museum in Rome.
“It is the most significant collection of 20th-century Western art outside of Europe or North America,” Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told DW. Famous paintings by European and American artists made the collection so valuable, he added.
Among them are works by Claude Monet, Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock. They were collected by the former Persian Empress Farah Pahlavi, but were kept under lock and key after the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s.
Parzinger said that fact that the exhibition is taking place in Germany can be attributed to “broad political support in Berlin,” particularly from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Culture Minister Monika Grütters.
Holocaust denial scandal threatened exhibition
After the nuclear deal was signed with Iran last year, Steinmeier in particular made a huge effort to bring the exhibition to Berlin as a symbol of Iran’s openness and the strengthening of its civil society.
In the beginning, it nearly seemed like the politically delicate exhibition project would not come about. The director of the TMoCA, Majid Moullanourouzi, had handed over an award in a caricature contest in which some of the cartoons denied the Holocaust and Holocaust victims were ridiculed. For the Germans, the move was more than a faux-pas, it was an absolute taboo.
Steinmeier condemned the contest and Parzinger wrote a letter to Tehran, making clear that Holocaust denial would not be tolerated.
Tehran responded by putting Deputy Culture Minister Ali Moradkhani, who is ranked above Moullanourouzi, in charge of the exhibition collaboration. The decision sufficed for Germany, and the exhibition was back on.
In a recent press release from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, there is no mention of the caricature incident. However, DW learned of the details of the resolution at a press conference attended by Parzinger, the Director of Berlin’s National Gallery, Uwe Kittelmann, the Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut, Johannes Ebert.
Mix of Western and Iranian works on show
Although the works in the exhibition have been hidden away for many years, they are in good condition – comparable with paintings fresh out of the atelier, said Uwe Kittelmann. While in Tehran, he said he found the quality of the works to be even higher than he’d expected.
Together with their Iranian partners, the National Gallery decided on which images would be shown. “In the end, we got what we wanted,” said Kittelmann.
Of the 60 works to go on show, there are 30 paintings from 20th-century European and North American artists and 30 works from Iranian painters that date back to the 1960s and 1970s. Names like Faramarz Pilaram and Behjat Sadr were mentioned. Six female artists are included among the Iranian painters that are represented.
Francis Bacon’s famous triptych, which shows homoerotic scenes, will go on display. “That’s a big step for Iranian society,” Parzinger told DW.
The Goethe-Institut, which works under the umbrella of the German embassy in Tehran, has been tasked with planning the accompanying program. “It’s important for us not only to present artworks, but also to put them in their social-artistic context,” said Johannes Ebert. To do that, writers and filmmakers that are critical of the Iranian regime will be included.
Courageous cultural projects like this one also bear risks, which all of the participants are well aware of. But hopes are high that the Berlin exhibition will send a message that reaches people in Iran as well. The TMoCA is apparently constructing a new wing in its building. Perhaps at one point paintings that have been in hiding for decades will also be shown there.