Habibollah Sadeghi looks vaguely irritated to see me: not surprised, seeing as he has spent the last 10 days evading my phone calls, letters and polite appeals delivered through intermediaries. He knows I want to see his Picassos. He doesn’t want to show them to me.
But Iranian hospitality being what it is, Sadeghi is forced to invite me into his office for tea. “I got your letter,” he says. “Frankly, I was somewhat offended that you seem to think our paintings are like some big nuclear secret. They are not a secret at all.”
“I know,” I reply. “That’s why I came to see them.”
We are not talking about the paintings on the wall at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which Sadeghi directs. Those are, at the moment, a stylish if bland collection of Iranian textile and costume design for the fashion-conscious and appropriately modest Iranian woman.
No, we’re talking about the outlaw paintings in the basement, locked in the museum’s vault. Not just the Picassos -- the Kandinskys, the Miros, the Warhols. The Monet, the Pissarro, the Toulouse-Lautrec, the Van Gogh. Possibly the best Jackson Pollock outside the U.S.
Ruled by one of the most vehemently anti-Western governments in the world, Iran is, by many assessments, home to the most extensive collection of late 19th and 20th century Western art outside the West. It is a treasure trove of masters that is all but forgotten outside knowledgeable art circles because, for all but a few of the last 30 years, it has been virtually unseen.
Assembled during the waning years of the shah’s regime, when the oil boom of the 1970s rendered the country flush with cash, the collection debuted two years before the Islamic Revolution. Except for occasional international loans, a pair of small-scale shows and a daring exhibition two years ago during the administration of reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, it disappeared from view thereafter.
“You will see works of Asian and Oriental civilizations in the Western museums, such as the Metropolitan, the British, the Louvre, the Hermitage. But you never find great antiquities and objects and artworks from Western civilization in Eastern countries’ museums,” said Ali-Reza Samiazar, Sadeghi’s predecessor as director of the museum. “There’s one exception to this, and one only: this collection.”
Samiazar managed to open an exhibition of the highlights of the collection for five months in 2005 -- an act of artistic suicide committed just as the election of one of the most militantly anti-Western presidents in Iran’s recent history, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was putting an end to his tenure at the museum and consigning the paintings once more to the basement.
“You can’t find any collection of this comprehension outside the Western world,” said Samiazar, who now teaches at a Tehran art institute. “In Tokyo, you may find important works by Impressionist artists. But in terms of a comprehensive collection covering all the major movements, no. Nowhere. Not in the East European countries, not in Scandinavia, not in South America or Asia. Not anywhere. It’s one of the most important cultural assets of this country.”
Which has brought me to Sadeghi’s office, and my exercise in dignified begging. The collection once was freely open to visiting scholars and journalists, I point out, but these permissions have become harder to come by under the new president.
He wants to know why I’m so keen to see them. He lectures me about those who imply Iran hasn’t a right to these paintings, who raise unfounded charges that Iran isn’t caring for them properly. He describes the strict regime of humidity and temperature control under which they are kept.
He says the main reason the collection can’t be displayed now is not that it is politically incorrect. The bigger reason, he says, is that there simply is no room for both the museum’s robust program of temporary exhibitions and its large permanent holdings.
Sadeghi says there are plans afoot to build a major national gallery in Tehran to put the paintings on permanent display, along with the museum’s extensive collection of Iranian contemporary art, and acquire new works -- a Cezanne, perhaps -- to fill in the holes in the Tehran collection.
“The way you approached me in your letter suggested that we do not appreciate this collection. On the contrary. I myself am an artist and sculptor; I have a PhD in art research. I have participated in 44 international exhibitions. My wife is an artist. My daughter is an artist. Do you imagine we would not safeguard this collection?
“This collection is near to our soul. It is a precious thing for us, we keep it like the apple of our eye. But we also believe the collection of the vault belongs to the whole of humanity.”
“All the more reason to see it,” I say.
“You will see it,” he says.
Ihave spent the last week and a half winding a trail to Sadeghi’s door, visiting and phoning artists, professors, collectors and dealers, in Tehran and around the world, to piece together the story of the international collection (which really is not secret at all, its highlights cataloged on the museum’s website, ir-tmca.com/collection/collection.htm).
It had been a dream of Empress Farah, wife of the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who commissioned her cousin, the architect Kamran Diba, to design a new contemporary art museum for Tehran and fill it with notable works of contemporary Iranian art, and also international works that would allow the city to take its place among the leading centers of culture in the world.
“It wasn’t a very long period for making such a collection. There was a bit of a rush. So he bought some masterpieces, some very beautiful pieces, and at the same time he bought some ordinary paintings, some not very important pieces,” said Aydin Aghdashloo, a well-known Iranian painter who became the museum’s first director.
Monet’s “Environ de Giverny,” Max Ernst’s “Histoire Naturelle.” Four of Andy Warhol’s Mick Jaggers and a Mao Tse-tung. Georges Braque’s “Guitar, Fruits et Pichet,” and an Edvard Munch self-portrait. One of Edgar Degas’ Dancers. Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, Duchamp, Dali. Photographs by Man Ray. Important Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.
“In the end, if they were to display these paintings, then you wouldn’t need to go any other place to see 20th century Western art, actually,” Aghdashloo said. “Because you can find at least a tiny sample of every important artist in this collection.”
The debut in 1977 was a hit.
“There was a tremendously warm, until almost the end, very positive response to the collection. Of course, we always balanced contemporary Iranian with contemporary Western art,” said David Galloway, an American art expert, now based in Germany, who was the museum’s first curator.
As the political turmoil in Iran mounted, though, and the revolution neared, there were signs that the collection was increasingly seen as a symbol of the West’s support of the shah’s regime.
“I did this sort of farewell exhibition, and it included a painting by Wesselmann, a ‘Great American Nude,’ you know, one of those ladies with large pink thingies,” Galloway said.
“Then I left. And in the fall, a member of my staff saw a piece of paper sticking out of the painting, shoved up under the frame. He took it out, and it said, ‘The next time, this will be a bomb.’ ”
In retrospect, he said, it was “a mistake” to display the painting -- that one and another, De Kooning’s “Woman III,” one of his violent, garish nudes.
As the streets filled increasingly with protesters, the museum staff elected to send the Western collection to the basement, intended then as a temporary shelter.
“It wasn’t hidden. Well, in some way it was. But the main point was to keep them intact,” Aghdashloo said. “At the beginning of the revolution, nobody knew what could happen. So they just dug the ground. It was like World War II and Dresden’s collection. They put all the collection in caves. The same with the Louvre. This happens. You try to keep it safe. They did it. They kept it.”
That has been the most widely misunderstood aspect of Iran’s hidden art collection. Apart from a few politicians and clerics, who deplored it, its shelter in the basement vault by a generation of caretakers has largely been an exercise of love.
“It may be hard for people outside to know how deeply felt this was, how extraordinarily rich visually this culture was, and what a deep love it had for art in all its forms,” Galloway said. “The love for beauty, for artistic expressions, ornamentation, design, color. I would say that in a funny kind of way, a collection that included Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein was nonetheless rooted in that culture.”
There have been some calls in the parliament to sell off the Western collection -- what good was it doing anyone in the basement, after all. But by all accounts, only a single painting was disposed of: “Woman III,” which was quietly traded in 1994 for the remainder of the exquisite 16th century Persian manuscript Tahmasbi Shahnameh, which includes a series of miniatures created by Safavid master painters and their students.
The De Kooning ended up in the private collection of Los Angeles entertainment magnate David Geffen, who last year sold it to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for about $137.5 million.
Few in Iran were sorry to see it go.
“It wasn’t just that she was naked. It was showing a woman completely degraded,” said Shahriar Adl, an art enthusiast who helped arrange the original swap. “It represents a naked woman as a personification of the devil, as horrible as possible.”
Until recently, the collection had not been completely under wraps. Pieces of it were widely lent out to Western museums during the 1990s, and the 2005 exhibition, on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s election, was reported the world over. Once again, crowds flocked in from all over Tehran.
Not everything was shown. Renoir’s “Gabrielle Avec la Chemise Ouverte” stayed downstairs, obviously because her chemise was ouverte.
After authorities saw Francis Bacon’s triptych “Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant,” they issued an order to remove the central panel because of its purported homosexual overtones. Samiazar demanded the order in writing.
“I can’t dismantle a very important painting based on a telephone call,” he said.
The written order came the next day.
Samiazar knew the exhibition would be his last act as museum director. His mission, he said, was to get the paintings before the eyes of the world, to publish a catalog to ensure that everyone knew, forever, just what was in the basement. So no one would forget.
“I immunized it,” he said. “People came because they knew there may be no other chance of seeing the collection again, at least for the time being. And over the last two years, it has proved they were right. I don’t think with the way things are going now they can have any chance in the future to see them again.”
It was also personal, he acknowledged.
“It was kind of a goodbye party,” he said.
“I knew after the presidential elections I would be leaving the museum, but thanks God I had a chance to open this show. I didn’t want to leave the museum without this magnificent event.”
During my visit, Sadeghi hopes that I am also interested in seeing the work of contemporary Iranian artists, many of whose work is also closeted in the basement -- partly for lack of space, partly because some of it is just as controversial as the Western art.
He presents me with a catalog in which many of the broad movements of 20th century art have been explored with a brashly Iranian sensibility: a ghostly, hollow-eyed figure, gagged and straitjacketed; a trio of blackbirds confronting a lone, hovering bird (“Negotiations”); lyrical moonlit landscapes; and modern explorations of ancient Persian themes and Islamic calligraphy.
At some point, it seems we have chewed through our mutual suspicion. We walk down a long hallway, wait at the door of a large freight elevator, and descend into the bowels of the museum. Half a dozen caretakers usher us into a low-ceilinged room with open metal beams and exposed insulation, where hundreds of paintings hang on rolling racks, stacked together vertically along either side of the room.
A glowering portrait of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is the only painting facing out to the room.
Sadeghi nods his head, and the racks are rolled out, one by one. I catch my breath at “Environ de Giverny,” a painting I had never dreamed to see in a basement in Tehran. Sadeghi looks on with obvious pleasure at my disorientation.
“I would like to remind you that one-third of this collection has been added since the revolution,” he said. “Some of these paintings were in the hands of private collectors, and in the fallout of the revolution, we feared they might go missing, so we painstakingly have assembled them here.”
He orders another rack pulled out. There are Picasso and Van Gogh. Then, Chagall’s “Family With Cock.” They hang askew but secure on the racks, like a coat someone plans to fetch again momentarily.
We make our way through the highlights of the collection and sample the best of the Iranian pieces. Then we smile and take our leave, with much less urgency than our greeting. I repair upstairs, where the women’s clothing exhibit continues its run, largely undisturbed by visitors.