Dec 29 2016

Tour of TMoCA Collection Canceled

by HG Masters

German and Iranian museum officials looking at Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground (1950) at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), in October 2015. Photo via TMoCA.

After months of uncertainty and delays, the highly anticipated tour of modernist artworks from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) has been canceled. Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which had negotiated the loans with the Iranian cultural ministry and museums authority, confirmed to The New York Times on Wednesday that the loan and export forms had not been signed by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, effectively preventing the works from being sent abroad. The exhibition comprising 60 artworks by Iranian and international artists from the TMoCA collection had been scheduled to open first in Berlin at the Gemäldegalerie on December 4, and then tour to Rome’s MAXXI in March.

The reasons for the exhibition’s cancellation are not entirely clear, though there appear to have been multiple factors. The memorandum of understanding between the SPK and Iranian officials that was announced in October 2015 first appeared to be in jeopardy after the resignation of the Islamic Republic’s minister of culture, Ali Jannati, in October 2016. On November 21, incoming minister of culture Reza Salehi Amiri declared that the loans had been halted, even though German officials still claimed through mid-December that the display has been rescheduled for January 2017.

Roadblocks to the exhibition tour were not exclusively bureaucratic ones. Throughout the year, several prominent figures in the Iranian art scene—and even TMoCA staff members—have reportedly circulated their convictions that secret deals had been signed to keep the works in European collections after their display. Additionally, there was wide speculation that when the works were traveling in Europe, they might be seized by foreign governments if the Pahlavi family or the artworks’ previous owners brought restitution lawsuits against Iran. The concern about backroom deals has some precedent. In 1994, the Iranian government traded a Willem de Kooning canvas depicting a nude female, Woman III (1952–53), for a 400-year-old copy of the illustrated Shahnama (The Book of Kings) in a secretive deal.

Students looking at artworks in the TMoCA collection. Photo via TMoCA.

The TMoCA collection is the object of much fascination and speculation. The works were originally assembled by advisors for the Iranian empress Farah Diba Pahlavi in the 1970s, and they debuted in 1977 when the newly constructed museum opened in Tehran. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which forced the Shah Reza Pahlavi and his family into exile, works from the collection were rarely displayed in the museum until an exhibition of Pop Art in 1999, and then more substantially in 2005 when the museum’s outgoing director Alireza Sami-Azar put highlights on view for five months. Among TMoCA’s holdings are many famous works by European painters including Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, and midcentury American figures such as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The TMoCA collection exhibition would have also provided an important international showcase for Iranian artists, as it featured an equal number of important 20th-century Iranian artists, including painter Farideh Lashaï and sculptors Bahman Mohassess, Monir Farmanfarmaian and Parviz Tanavoli.

In late December, Berlin officials maintained they are eager to host the exhibition at a future date. Those prospects, however, might have grown even more unlikely in the coming years. The exhibition was negotiated in 2015 during the détente between Iran and world powers following the signing of the P5+1 nuclear accords and the lifting of some international sanctions. Now the political winds have shifted with the election of Donald Trump as US president, as Trump promises to adopt a confrontational approach with Iran, including tearing up the deal. But given the financial value of the collection and its diplomatic potency, its future status and any tours of Europe or the United States are likely to be re-negotiated again at some later date.

H.G. Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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