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Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum

Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum
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Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum

Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum

On the edge of an unlimited park in Tehran sits a Neo-Brutalist construction the coloration of sand. Inside is one of the most interesting collections of fashionable Western artwork in the world.

You enter the Tehran Museum of Modern Art via an atrium that spirals downward like an inverted model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded him as the Islamic Republic’s supreme chief, glare down at you.

A collection of underground galleries awaits. There may be nothing fairly like the feeling of coming face-to-face for the first time with its most sensational masterpiece: Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Mural on Indian Pink Floor,” a 6-by-8-foot canvas, which was created with rusty reds and layered swirls of thick, dripped paint and is taken into account one of his greatest works from his most vital interval.

Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Magritte, Dalí, Miró, Johns, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Bacon, Duchamp, Rothko, Man Ray — they’re all right here.

The museum was conceived by the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, spouse of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and opened to worldwide acclaim in 1977. Simply 15 months later, in the face of a large standard rebellion, the couple left the nation on what was formally known as a “trip.” The revolution changed the monarchy with an Islamic Republic weeks later. The brand new regime might have bought or destroyed the Western artwork masterpieces. As an alternative, the museum was closed, its treasures hidden in a concrete basement, and the shah’s palaces have been preserved and ultimately was museums. For years, the artwork assortment, purchased for lower than $100 million {dollars}, was protected however unseen; by some estimates, it’s now value as a lot as $3 billion.

Now, Donna Stein, an American curator who lived in Tehran between 1975 and 1977 and performed a small however vital function in assembling the assortment, has written a memoir, “The Empress and I: How an Historic Empire Collected, Rejected and Rediscovered Trendy Art.”

It tells two interlocking tales: one of a rule-driven, hierarchical, often-dysfunctional paperwork that purchased Western artwork at surprisingly cheap costs for a monarchy flush with oil cash; one other of the each day life of an single younger American girl in Previous Regime Tehran.

It is a work of settling scores. Stein, 78, the retired deputy director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, makes clear that she feels robbed of the credit score she deserves.

“As a result of I used to be a foreigner working largely in secret, my management function in the formation of the Nationwide Assortment has by no means been totally acknowledged,” she wrote in the foreword. Her male superiors, she added, “boldly grabbed the credit score for my aesthetic decisions.” Thus, “I’ve lastly written ‘The Empress and I’ to right the report.”

Farah Diba Pahlavi selected a cousin, Kamran Diba, as the architect and founding director for the new museum that she would fill with fashionable Iranian and Western artwork. Stein labored behind the scenes as a researcher and adviser for Karim Pasha Bahadori, the venture’s chief of workers and a childhood good friend of the Empress.

Stein began small — writing an acquisition coverage, constructing a library and figuring out drawings, images and prints for buy by learning public sale and personal gallery sale catalogs.

Quickly she was organizing scouting expeditions and drafting detailed memos on main works she hoped to accumulate for the assortment. She helped forge relationships with sellers, collectors and curators and have become a liaison between them and her superiors.

“I used to be the filter for high quality, and I used that filter very strongly,” she stated in a cellphone interview from Altadena in Los Angeles County, the place she lives together with her husband, Henry James Korn, a retired arts administration specialist. “To create a press release of historical past and context and high quality and rarity, these have been the standards, not how a lot one thing value. In that respect, it was a dream job.”

However her function remained extraordinarily restricted. She by no means witnessed or participated in negotiations and didn’t know the costs paid for the works. With out that firsthand info, she can’t fill in some gaps in her memoir.

Stein started work whereas she was nonetheless residing in New York. Throughout a whirlwind 10-day shopping for spree in Could 1975, the museum’s acquisitions workforce got here residence with 125 works that she stated she had recognized for buy. They included vital items by Picasso: a Cubist portray “Open Window on the Rue de Penthièvre in Paris,” a tapestry “Secrets and techniques (Confidences) or Inspiration,” and a bronze sculpture “Baboon and Younger.” She adored the sculpture, as a result of, Stein stated, “I used to be in search of issues that might be accessible for an uneducated viewers. It was simply enchanting.”

She noticed Calder’s “The Orange Fish” cellular throughout that journey, because of a dialog with Klaus Perls, the proprietor of the Perls Galleries and Calder’s foremost supplier in the United States. Stein and her colleagues additionally visited the SoHo loft of the Museum of Trendy Art curator William Rubin to check Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Pink Floor” earlier than its buy. “I wasn’t the one who discovered the portray, however I preferred it enormously,” she stated.

In Iran, she reported to Bahadori, whom she described as “distant”; she might go months with out seeing him. After an incident wherein he made advances, which she rejected, “he couldn’t look me in the eye,” she wrote. As well as, she claims he knew nothing about artwork. “Each time I had conferences with him, I felt it was my job train him the historical past of artwork,” she stated.

Ultimately she gained his belief and he or she urged him to purchase boldly: sculptures together with Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Lady I” and “Strolling Man I”; Mark Rothko’s “Sienna, Orange and Black on Darkish Brown” and “No. 2 (Yellow Middle)”; Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil”; and prints reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait.” She pushed for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Reclining Man With Sculpture” and “Final Object,” a singular Dada sculpture by Man Ray from his metronome collection, once they got here up for public sale.

However Bahadori was the public face of the workforce; Stein was pressured to remain in the shadows. Her suspicion that he “had stolen the credit score for my arduous work elevated over time,” Stein wrote. Her standing at the museum deteriorated when Diba was named director. “I turned the centerpiece of everybody’s push for energy, and ultimately I had no function,” she stated.

She even was accused of bribery. “Bribery was the means of working in Iran, and I used to be accused by individuals who knew higher, that I wouldn’t take bribes,” she stated.

She left Iran in mid-1977, returning for a brief go to when the museum opened that October.

In her memoir, Stein additionally tells the story of her determination to give up her job as an assistant curator at MoMA to stay in Iran. “I used to be completely unprepared for the shock of the intense warmth in addition to the complexities that residing in the Third World would arouse.”

She discovered a one-bedroom condo with central heating, air-conditioning and a shopping center on the decrease ranges. She was allowed to journey freely all through the nation, even to distant locations like Rasht in the north and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf.

In an period when the SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, spied on, arrested, tortured and killed his political opponents, she stated: “I lived my life frequently. I didn’t fear about speaking on the cellphone.”

She had Iranian mates but in addition embraced the giant American expatriate neighborhood. (She describes a July 4 occasion for 1,000 company hosted by Richard Helms, the American Ambassador and former director of Central Intelligence, at the huge embassy compound, lengthy earlier than militants seized it and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.)

Alcohol was authorized and plentiful in that period. One all-night occasion hosted by a rich younger Qajar prince at his “Hollywood-style playboy mansion” in Isfahan “turned out to be an sudden train in debauchery,” the place some company drank alcohol, smoked opium or cannabis and used cocaine, she wrote.

Although she determined to border the guide round Farah Diba Pahlavi, whom she refers to in the guide as a “confidante,” Stein stated she had solely three transient encounters with the empress in Iran; her solely face-to-face encounter together with her after that was an interview in New York in 1991.

In an e-mail response to written questions, Farah Diba Pahlavi stated: “Donna Stein was knowledgeable, hardworking particular person who delivered outcomes. I trusted her opinion. We’ve a pleasant relationship, and we talk by cellphone, though not too usually.”

She added that “Ms. Stein established a considerable group of acquisitions in all media as the foundation for a severe nationwide assortment of fashionable and modern artwork.”

A really completely different look into the historical past of the museum and its artworks is present in a limited-edition 2018 coffee-table guide, “Iran Trendy: The Empress of Art.” A foreword by Farah Diba Pahlavi tells the story from her level of view, together with her private encounters with artists like Chagall, Moore, Dalí and Warhol. “We couldn’t afford previous overseas masterpieces, however we might afford fashionable artwork,” she wrote. She began on a certain footing — with the French Impressionists — and moved ahead in time. Lavishly illustrated, protected in a linen clamshell presentation case, the guide comes with

white gloves and a signature canvas tote bag. It prices $895.

As for the museum, its Western artwork assortment stays intact, apart from a Warhol portrait of Farah Diba Pahlavi — slashed way back at one of the former palaces by a vandal — and Willem de Kooning’s “Lady III,” which the museum traded in 1994 for the remnants of a Sixteenth-century guide, often known as the Shahnameh, or E-book of Kings, containing miniatures. (Bought for lower than $1 million by the Iranians, based on Stein, “Lady III” bought privately in 2006 to the hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million.) The Islamic Republic’s first complete exhibition of the Western artwork assortment was in 2005, and a few works, reminiscent of the Pollock, are on everlasting show. Others, together with Renoir’s “Gabrielle With Open Shirt” (1907), that includes a lady with bare breasts, have by no means been publicly proven.

After a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened in late January with an exhibition of conceptual images and choices from 700 artworks donated by the property of a well known Iranian collector. The museum will publish its personal examine of the assortment — it is going to require six volumes to inform the story.

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