Why the former Empress of Iran collected Western contemporary art

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Old meets new

Ever heard of Faramarz Pilaram (1937-1982)? He's a big name in Iran. Born in Tehran, his paintings integrate modernized versions of traditional calligraphy and make use of geometrical shapes. Pilaram founded an art school in Iran. This work, "Calligraphic Painting," was created in 1975 and belongs to Farah Diba Pahlavi's art collection.

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Pioneer of modernity

Iranian painter Jalil Ziapour (1920-1999) was a key figure of modern painting in Iran. This work, called "Autumn Leaf," reveals traces of Cubism. The squares in the background are reminiscent of Persian tiles.

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American Pop Art

In Farah Diba Pahlavi's collection, western and Persian influences are juxtaposed. Andy Warhol's screenprint "The American Indian" was created in 1976, at which time Diba - the shah's wife - purchased it for her collection.

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Based on a true story

Duane Hanson (1925-1996) created true-to-life sculptures that were critical of capitalism. "Woman with a Shopping Cart," now housed in Cologne's Museum Ludwig, is one of his more famous works. The Tehran collection includes this piece, "Boxers," which depicts Muslim convert Muhammad Ali in his fight against Sonny Liston in 1965.

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American abstraction

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is just one of many American artists that Farah Diba Pahlavi discovered for her collection. Rothko painted "No.2 (Yellow Center)" in 1954. The fleeting, gently overlapping layers of color are combined in an unusual composition that bears the influence of French Impressionism.

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Conceptual Persian painting

Behjat Sadr (1924-2009) was also a key figure in modern painting in Iran. His works are recognizable by their characteristic use of lines. He used a knife to slice grooves into the paint. Sadr was celebrated by critics as a pioneer of conceptual painting in his home country.

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Drip painting

American artist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was one of the most significant painters of the 20th century. Farah Diba Pahlavi collected his works along with those of 60 other artists from the US and Europe. She juxtaposed them with works from Iran, revealing parallel developments in the Orient and the Occident. "Mural on Indian Red Ground" is from 1950.

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Independent visual language

Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam (born in 1924) not only made a name for himself as an artist, but also as a teacher and author. His artworks - mainly reliefs and paintings - recall the revolutionary power of Abstract Expressionism in the US. Like Jackson Pollock, he also applies paint spontaneously in creating his works. "Scratches on the Earth" is from 1963.

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Failed collaboration

In October 2015, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art together with Iran's deputy minister of culture, Ali Moradkhani. The idea of showing Farah Diba Pahlavi's collection outside of Iran for the first time was born. But plans were scrapped when artworks did not receive a permit to leave the country.

The artworks collected by the wife of Iran's late shah were to be shown in Berlin - but the show was canceled when Iran refused to issue a permit. The former empress of Iran talked with DW about her famous collection.

In the 1960s and '70s, Farah Diba Pahlavi, the wife of the late shah of Iran, collected what is reputed to be the greatest lineup of modern masterpieces outside of Europe and the United States, includes major works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, along with Iranian contemporary artists.

Culture | 29.12.2016

"For me, art is very important in life. I think that artists really must exist to give their messages to the world. Artists are people who remain forever. If people forget the name of leaders or kings or presidents, they never forget musicians and singers and artists," the former empress of Iran told DW during an interview at her Paris residence.

How the collection started

Iran Kaiserin Farah Diba von Persien

Farah Diba Pahlavi was crowned in 1967

"When I married my husband, the king, I wanted to support the Iranian contemporary artists," she said. She discovered several Iranian painters and sculptors through the Biennale that the country's ministry of culture had organized in the early 1960s.

She decided to establish the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977, which would also include major Western artists: "I said why not have also foreign art, because all the rest of the world has our art in their museums," she recalls.

Diba Pahlavi collected the works which make up the Tehran collection until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, forcing the couple into exile.

First big show outside Iran was to be in Germany

Since then, the masterpieces had not been shown outside Iran. Berlin was supposed to be the first city to exhibit 60 works loaned from the collection. In the end, Tehran refused to provide an export permit, and the show was canceled at the end of December.

The loan project was complicated by a controversial award given to an antisemitic cartoon about the Holocaust by Tehran museum director Majid Mollanoroozi.

Resistance to the project also reportedly came from some Iranian authorities who feared that the former empress of Iran could undertake legal claims to obtain the artworks if they were sent abroad.

"This is ridiculous," Diba Pahlavi told DW in reaction to those alleged suspicions. "I helped build this museum for Iran and for the Iranian people and these works belong to Iran and the Iranian people." She had also declared in many interviews that she hoped the Berlin museum would make sure the works would freely return to Iran after being sent to Germany.

The gallery above shows some of the works that would have been part of the exhibition.

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Iran Teheran Museum für zeitgenössische Kunst

The collection includes works by Francis Bacon; it was on show in the Tehran museum in 2005

'Opening up' society

The exhibition project had been initially hailed as a sign of Iran's "cultural and social opening up" by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Farah Diba Pahlavi sees such enthusiastic declarations with some skepticism, reminding that the Western countries' relations with Iran are primarily ruled by the country's oil: "Everybody is rushing to Iran to sell something," she said, adding that opening up society should be about giving people "more freedom to say what they want. It's not four modern paintings that will change mentalities. There are many more important things that should change."