Pop Goes the Axis of Evil; Lichtenstein, Feminists and Funky Photography: The Iranian Art Scene Is Hotting Up. Anna Somers Cocks Peels the Veil from One of the World's Great Forgotten Collections. (the Back Half)
Cocks, Anna Somers, New Statesman (1996)
Who would have expected to see Lichtensteins on display in Iran today? Or a Jewish-American lecturing on the latest in feminist art at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art? And an exhibition of funky British photography touring the country, courtesy of the British Council and specifically requested by the Iranians? All this has happened this year.
It can be appallingly provincial and condescending to praise another culture for its resemblance to one's own, but in the case of Iran, it is necessary at the moment because it is easy, although not intelligent, to demonise people whom you see as being completely alien. And this kind of demonisation has become all too popular since 11 September.
Since the 1979 revolution, we have had very little information about what is going on in the minds of ordinary Iranians, apart from the, outstanding films of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, which you can be pretty sure George W Bush has never seen. It is equally likely that, when Bush made his astonishing remark about Iran being on an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea, he did not know that Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, is a man profoundly interested in the philosophy of aesthetics and the role art and culture can play in opening up his country to the rest of the world. For when you base your view of a country solely on what its politicians and newspapers say in public and what your secret service and strategic defence analysts tell you, you risk getting it seriously wrong. The west should remember that it completely failed to foresee the fall of the Shah, although Iran was a great deal more open then than it is now and the signs were there for all to read.
So what does the Iranian art scene reveal about the country's politics? Sami Azar, the Birmingham-educated, young director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, left me in no doubt when I was in Tehran recently, at the museum's conference on "Modernism and Postmodernism", that the current liberalisation stems directly from the president: "Mr Khatami is the one who has raised the issue of dialogue and discourse instead of exporting revolutionary ideas which suggest the truth is just with us. He has become a symbol of collaborating with others, an idea that has always existed in Persian civilisation." Dr Azar went on to say that he was being advised to be active on the cultural scene, in order to end Iran's political isolation: "The doors were closed for two decades after the revolution, but now we are opening up and we are facing a generation that longs to know more about recent art movements."
He took me down to the stores where there are racks and racks of extremely valuable 20th-century western paintings, assembled in a buying frenzy shortly before the revolution by the empress's brother for the new museum, and all off display until very recently. I saw works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Ernst, a superb Gauguin, Rothko, Calder, Dine, Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Bacon and many more. Everything is still there, except for one in de Kooning's Woman series, swapped a few years ago for some leaves of the greatest Persian illuminated manuscript, the Shahnameh.
The west is finally waking up to the fact that Dr Azaris sitting on one of the world's great forgotten collections. …