Hidden No More: The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
If you’re planning a trip to Tehran you should consider spending a few hours at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA). Built by the Shah’s wife Fara Palavi in 1977, two years before the revolution, TMOCA is a holdover from Iran’s pre-Ayatollah days. The museum’s collection is estimated to be worth over $3 billion. Sadly most of its works have remained hidden from the public for the past forty years, not because the museum lacks wall space but because the works were deemed by Iran’s religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic morals. Its basement vaults are filled to the brim with Picassos, Monets, and Renoirs. In late 2015, some of these works were dusted off and finally put on display after all these years.
I visited TMOCA on a weekday afternoon on a recent trip to Iran’s capital. The museum is situated in the city’s center on the edge of a park crawling with stray cats, some of them bold enough to sit at your feet and silently beg for food. In front of the museum is a very busy street crossable only by walking a quarter a mile away to the next light or by risking life and limb by jaywalking like millions of Iranians do every day.
Iranian architect Kamran Diba combined modernist and traditional Persian elements into the museum’s Brutalist design. From the outside the museum looks like a string of half-buried beige concrete bunkers poking out of the ground. These “bunkers” are about 15 feet high, taking the form of the centuries-old wind towers called bagdirs that I saw all over over central Iran. Their roofs are sloped in the shape of a quarter circle, and taken together they look like a set of wave tops floating rushing across the grass.
Upon entering the lobby of the museum, which has the feel of a 1970s-era high school or public indoor swimming pool, I paid the 50k rial (1.45$) entrance fee and asked the front desk attendant for a program or map of the museum. I concluded from his confused look that there were no such materials available. Entering the museum’s central atrium, I set off an unattended metal detector but the three guards didn’t seem to notice.
The museum’s dimly lit central atrium is encased in concrete and looks like an underground metro station. Its thirty-foot high ceiling is supported by concrete columns sprouting up from the floor below. A spiral ramp leads down into the basement.
A red, blue and yellow kinetic sculpture by Alexander Calder hangs in the atrium, below the portraits of the two Ayatollahs –as if to remind liberal minded artists of whom is really running the show.
The museum was mostly empty save for a few college-age men and women, many of whom were sketching drawings or posing for selfies in front of the art. As is required of all females in Iran, the women were all wearing a hijab, or head covering. But in Tehran, as in other big cities, some of women were wearing their hijabs low on the back of their heads, as if to say yeah, we’re only doing this because we have to.
One of the atrium’s walls hung splashes of color in the form of Pop Art only recently brought up from the vaults downstairs: Andy Warhol’s silkscreen Suicide: Purple Jumping Man, Roy Lichtenstein’s Roto Broil and Brattata and the neo- lit Passage II by Jasper Johns. The adjacent wall contained more somber paintings by Iranian painter Bahman Mohassess, sometimes referred to as the “Iranian Picasso.”
After being drawn in by these works, I tried to figure out where in the museum to get next. In a multi-floor museum, I like to start at the top and work my way down. But the museum is not laid out in an intuitive way, and without signs or a map, I was thoroughly confused about where the rest of the art was located. Spotting an elevator, I pushed the up button only to find out after a few minutes of futile waiting that it must be a maintenance elevator. I then realized that the museum must only be on the ground floor and the floors below. All this confusion could have been prevented had I asked someone, but my previous ten days in Iran led me to believe that the chances of approaching someone who was able to speak even a few words of English were low enough for me not to bother.
It turns out that the museum consists of eight galleries that spiral down gradually from the ground floor to the basement spreading out from the main atrium,. After winding through the exhibits, visitors end up on the floor below the main atrium where they began.
Off the main atrium were huge signs introducing the visitor to the main exhibition displaying the works of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai, who fell out of favor with the Shah’s dynasty in the early 1970s, emigrated to the United States, and then returned to Iran in the late 1980s. By rough count, there were as many works of art by Lashai on display at TMOCA as there were works by other artists.
Rather oddly, after passing by the signs introducing her exhibit, I found myself in a room containing a few works by Lashai on one wall, and several beautiful Impressionist paintings on the other, including ones by by Claude Monet (Environs de Giverney), Camille Pissarro (Les Maison de Knokke), and Henri de Toulous-Lautrec (Fille a l’Accroche-Coeur).
Further down into the exhibits is the recently unveiled Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground, mishmash of white and black splashes against a maroon canvas. It is estimated to be worth $250 million.
The landscaped courtyards surrounding the museum were adorned with sculptures by Alberto Giacometti (Walking Man) and Magritte’s The Theraputae (The Healer) to name a few, but the doors leading outside were locked, preventing visitors from enjoying the grounds outside. I’m guessing it was because it was winter, though the temperature that day was in the 50s.
One of the museum’s highlights was the sun-filled ground floor cafe manned by three hip young men who spoke English really well. I ordered my usual in Iran, a double espresso rich with flavor, and people-watched while listening to the eurodance music from the baristas’ mini speakers.
All in all, I enjoyed my visit but admit that I was expecting a little more. I think that most of the art is still hidden down in the vaults for the time being. My guidebook stated that the museum contains a Van Gogh and a Renoir, among other famous painters. I looked it up up later and the museum does in fact have a Renoir called Gabrielle with Open Blouse. We can imagine by the painting’s title why it wasn’t on display.
Even with this kind of censorship, I’m glad I made a point to visit TMOCA. It gave me a window into the artsy subsection of Iran’s capital and the opportunity to see some works of art that have in effect been closed off from many Western art aficionados for almost four decades. One can hope that more and more works of art will emerge from the basement and end up on display. The number of paintings on display might be seen as a way to measure the progress the Iranian people are making to regain some of their freedom. Maybe one day we’ll all be able to see Gabrielle in her open blouse.