North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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Commemorating Bomber Command

In an unprepossessing corner of London’s Green Park – an oasis of tranquillity squeezed between the busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly and the grandeur of Buckingham Palace – stands an imposing neo-classical stone structure. This is the Bomber Command Memorial, opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. The memorial took so long to be realised in large part due to the ongoing controversy about the magnitude of Britain’s bombing raids on German cities in the final years of the war, which inflicted widespread devastation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. However, the aircrews also paid a high price: at the centre of the shrine is a large bronze group sculpture, depicting seven of the 55,573 servicepeople who lost their lives fighting in the RAF’s bomber forces in World War II – a staggering death rate of 44% of the entire force. The 9 foot high figures were created by Royal Sculptor, Philip Jackson. The work captures the exhaustion, relief, concern and fortitude of an air crew as they depart a plane, knowing they have once again survived a perilous mission but that their brothers-in-arms may never return.

The memorial has proved popular with Londoners and tourists alike, while making headlines for its endorsement by celebrities including Dame Judi Dench and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb.

Sculpture by Philip Jackson, within the Bomber Command Memorial, London. Courtesy Royal Parks.

Although the memorial focuses on World War II, Bomber Command didn’t disappear with the Allied victory in 1945, instead being thrust back to the front line in the atomic age. While the United States enjoyed an era of wealth and rampant consumerism in the aftermath of the war, European nations were slow to recover from the damage and loss. Thus, while America rapidly built up its nuclear arsenal and the USSR raced to compete, US allies in Western Europe struggled to develop weapons that might resist the Soviet threat.

Bomber Command Memorial by Philip Jackson.

In 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appealed to US President Eisenhower to loan ballistic missiles to the UK, just as the perceived technological superiority of the Soviet Union sparked the Sputnik Crisis. The Americans agreed, and in 1959 they launched Project Emily, with the deployment of sixty Thor missiles to the UK. While US air force personnel were sent to oversee the weapons, responsibility for both men and machines fell under the control of Bomber Command. With its nuclear armory outsourced to the US, the UK was compelled to support its ally in a number of military forays at this time, and Bomber Command contributed to Cold War escapades in the Middle East and East Asia, and stood ready to serve during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, the downing of the U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space in 1960 was a wake-up call to the West. Acknowledging that military technology had dramatically changed in the Cold War, the British came to the realisation that their bomber air fleet would be no match for the Soviets in the new theatres of war. When the moment came to renew Project Emily in 1963, the British government instead opted to return the missiles to the United States, abandoning the idea of nuclear-armed aircraft in favour of submarines. With the dubious honour of safeguarding the country’s nuclear deterrent passed to the Royal Navy, Bomber Command ceased to have a role to play in the Cold War, and the unit was absorbed into the wider RAF in 1968.

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Prisoner Art from Guantánamo Bay

Muhammad Ansi, ‘Hands Holding Flowers through Bars’, 2016.

In recent weeks, a small art exhibition in New York has raised thorny questions about the link between art and propaganda, creative ownership, and the possibility of judging a work of art irrespective of its creator. Ode to the Sea opened in October 2017 in the gallery of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The exhibition features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures created in Guantánamo Bay by eight of the inmates. Four of the men have now been released, while four remain incarcerated as suspected Islamist terrorists. All have been confined to the infamous US prison camp between 10 and 15 years. The artworks were sourced by curator Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime, from American lawyers representing the prisoners.

According to guards, art in Guantánamo Bay dates from the early days of the camp, when inmates often scratched floral designs on Styrofoam cups. During the Obama presidency, an art programme was introduced to provide “intellectual stimulation for the detainees”, allowing them “to express their creativity”. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes were prohibited and the men wore leg shackles during classes. Most of the works produced during these early years have since been confiscated during raids and hunger strikes. But in time, some prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour by being granted art materials and allowed to draw and paint in their cells.

Recalling tales from the notorious prison on Alcatraz, the theme of the sea occurs again and again in the art of the Guantánamo inmates. As Thompson explains, they are haunted by the sound and smell of the sea, but it is hidden from their view.  Only for four days in 2014, as a hurricane approached the island, were the prisoners permitted to stare mesmerised onto the ocean. These savoured days inspired a wave of maritime art, as they attempted to recapture the brief sense of freedom. You can listen to an interview with Erin Thompson on the BBC News website.

Djamel Ameziane, ‘Ship Sailing in a Stormy Sea’, 2010.

Djamel Ameziane, a detainee at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2013, also used the metaphor of the sea to describe his imprisonment, depicting his experiences over the years “as a boat out at sea, battered by successive storms during its trip towards an unknown destination, benefiting only from very short periods of respite between two storms.”

Other works on show focus on the drudgery of life in prison, where time seems to stand still. Despite Guantánamo’s association with torture and wrongful detention, the artworks paint a very different picture of life at the camp, one defined by silence, solitude and monotony. In still lifes and landscapes, the prisoners also paint snatched memories of their homelands and former lives, pining for the quiet comforts of tea, sunshine and open spaces. While the artists originated from Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria and Pakistan, the art is surprisingly universal in its design, with the choice of colours and figurative style often recalling European expressionism. Many of the paintings and drawings show an impressive talent for perspective and texture, while Moath al-Alwi’s intricate models of ships, made from discarded items found around the prison, display proficient craftsmanship.

Moath al-Alwi, ‘GIANT’, 2015.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the works on show, some have questioned whether such art should be put on public display, arguing that it is an insult to the victims of terrorism and portrays the detainees in a sympathetic light. Thompson’s defense has been that the setting for the exhibition is key. Scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study terrorism and the legal and ethical implications of detention. Thompson argues that the exhibition is not commenting on the guilt or innocence of the artists, but rather that “these works are invaluable windows into the souls of the men who made them”, questioning the effect of indefinite detention on both prisoners and their keepers. Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni national still detained in the facility, explained to his lawyer that “when I start an artwork, I forget I am in prison. When I start an artwork, I forget myself. Despite being in prison, I try as much as I can to get my soul out of prison. I live a different life when I am making art”.

Abdualmalik Abud, ‘Yemen’, 2015.

The exhibition and subsequent media coverage appears to have taken the US Department of Defense by surprise. As so often, state-controlled propaganda depends on the total dehumanisation of the enemy, even while a lack of understanding might make its own citizens more vulnerable. The practice of allowing Guantánamo’s prisoners to hand over their artwork to lawyers – as gifts or for safekeeping – has now been halted. If any of the remaining 41 detainees are released, they have been told their art will be incinerated, destroying an irreplaceable record of life within an institution that has been at the centre of debate about America’s post-9/11 identity. A Pentagon spokesman recently confirmed to the New York Times that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government”. In response, Erin Thompson notes: “The idea of trying to dispirit someone by destroying what they’ve made, even if the subject is, on its surface, innocuous, is very common in warfare”.

Ameziane Tea

Djamel Ameziane, Tea on a Checkered Cloth, 2010.

If you are in New York and want to make up your own mind, Ode to the Sea continues at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice until 26 January 2018. The exhibition catalogue is also available to read online.

St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.

Henry Moore in Albania: From Persecution to Celebration

This snapshot of a man posing next to one of Henry Moore’s reclining figures appears unremarkable and similar to thousands taken every year across Britain, where the artist’s modernist bronzes are a common feature in sculpture gardens and public parks. But this image records a momentous and moving visit to the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire, England for Maks Velo, an Albanian artist imprisoned for his appreciation of Moore’s work.

 Maks Velo was born in Paris in 1935 and raised in Korçë in Albania, which at the time was a conservative and authoritarian republic that had recently claimed independence from the Ottoman Empire. By 1939, in the approach to World War II, Albania was invaded by Fascist Italy, and during the war it was occupied by Nazi Germany. The end of the war brought little relief, as the country was absorbed into the Soviet sphere of influence, and ruled over for forty years by the increasingly erratic and despotic dictator, Enver Hoxha. Despite these challenges, Maks Velo successfully trained as a civil engineer and architect in the Albanian capital of Tirana, before beginning a precarious career as an architect, artist and writer.

Hoxha was suspicious of intellectuals from the outset of his regime. Many of those who did not flee soon after he took power in 1944 were executed during a post-war witchhunt, while artists and writers continued to risk imprisonment and exile throughout Hoxha’s reign. The persecution was focused in particular on intellectuals who had travelled abroad, thereby stripping Albania of wider cultural references and forcing it into an artistic vacuum. In 1949, Socialist Realism was adopted from the USSR as the official creative style of Albania. Despite Hoxha’s acrimonious break in relations with the USSR in 1961, a rift that precipitated the dictator’s bizarre programme of bunkerisation, Socialist Realism continued to be enforced – although artists risked harsh punishments to test its boundaries.

 Maks Velo first saw the work of Henry Moore in 1969. By this time, organic forms reminiscent of Moore’s modernist outdoor sculptures were already appearing in Velo’s paintings and applied artworks, and it is unsurprising that the Albanian artist recognised Moore as a soulmate. In an interview with the British Council in April 2014, Velo recalls that three years later, a friend gave him an English exhibition catalogue containing pictures of Moore’s drawings and sculptures – a publication that was strictly forbidden in communist Albania. This gift, and Velo’s dedication to the work of Moore and the Romanian modernist sculptor, Constantin Brâncuși, would have dire consequences for the artist.

In 1978, Maks Velo was arrested for showing “modernist tendencies” in his work. The book of Henry Moore pictures was found in his possession, and used as evidence for his subversive behaviour. For the next six months he was interrogated, before being found guilty and imprisoned for a further eight years. Most of his paintings and sculptures were destroyed and his beloved Henry Moore book was confiscated. After his release in 1986, Velo was sent to work in a factory in Tirana. From there, he was able to make it back to his birth city of Paris. A landmark exhibition of Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures in Paris’s Parc de Bagatelle in 1992, finally gave Velo the opportunity to come face-to-face with the work that had so deeply affected his life. And despite the tragedy it had caused him, Velo’s love of Moore continued to thrive.

This story came to public attention in September 2013, when Moore’s prints and sculptures were finally publicly displayed in Tirana at the Albanian National Gallery of Arts, in an exhibition organised by the British Council. Two years later, Velo himself would enjoy a major retrospective in the same gallery, opening just days before his 80th birthday. As well as Paris and in England, Velo has now travelled to Cleveland in the United States and Düsseldorf in Germany to see Henry Moore’s work. For him, Moore’s sculptures “embody gentleness” and are “full of harmony, tranquillity and perfection.” Asked whether the work is revolutionary, Velo commented: “The term ‘revolutionary’ evokes terror. Communism destroyed many meanings. But any great art is revolutionary, is a step forward – and these steps have brought the world to a higher level. This includes Henry Moore.”

You can find out about Henry Moore’s importance as a Cold War artist in an earlier feature article on Espionart, and see more of Maks Velo’s work on his website.

Image: Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Reclining Figure: Angles by Henry Moore, 1979. © The Henry Moore Foundation; Photo of Maks Velo in his studio; Maks Velo, Overlapping Forms (Forma Te Intersektuara), 1964; Installation shot of Maks Velo: Ekspozitë Retrospektivë (Maks Velo: Retrospective) at the National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, 2015. Courtesy Tirana Times; Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae by Henry Moore, 1968–9. © The Henry Moore Foundation. Unless noted, images courtesy Maks Velo.

Iran’s Hidden Art Collection

The inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 1977 would soon prove to be an untimely event. Less than a year later, the Iranian Revolution erupted on 7 January 1978, resulting the following spring in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the present Islamic Republic.

The plan to found a modern art museum in the Iranian capital was the brainchild of the last Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. Her enthusiasm for the subject had been fostered while studying art in Paris, and was boosted by subsequent meetings with artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore and Salvador Dalí. In the mid-1970s, the Empress brought together a team of international curators and released government funds to purchase works for the new museum, taking advantage of a current dip in the value of the art market. Alongside examples of modern and contemporary Iranian art by celebrated artists such as Behjat Sadr, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Ghassem Hajizadeh and members of the Saqqa-khaneh School, the team amassed over 150 works of Western modernism. This collection, including pieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Dalí, is now considered to be one of the finest of its kind outside Europe and North America. The works initially took pride of place in the museum’s new state-of-the-art building, blending traditional Persian architecture with a swirling staircase reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the conservative government of new leader Ayatollah Khomeini, known for his hatred of Western influences, had other ideas. Not long after the revolution, the museum’s collection of European and American art was put into storage, remaining in the vault of the Tehran museum for the next two decades.

For some time, there were fears for the future of the collection. In addition to the new regime’s efforts to combat ‘Westoxification’, the sexual overtones of works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse and Francis Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, were deemed to be unsuitable for display in the Islamic Republic. However, the collection’s ever-increasing price tag – today estimated to be over 3 billion US dollars and no doubt accelerated by its tempestuous provenance and rarity of display – made the works too valuable to be destroyed. The museum’s painting Mural on Indian Red Ground by Jackson Pollock, one of the American abstractionist’s largest paintings, is alone valued at over $250 million. As a result, the collection remains largely intact. Only two works are known to have been lost – a Warhol portrait of Empress Farah that was slashed in the aftermath of the revolution, and Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which was deaccesioned in 1994. Considered to be particularly offensive for its representation of female nudity, the painting was traded to a US collector for a beautifully decorated 16th-century Persian manuscript. Afterwards, de Kooning’s portrait entered the private collection of US entertainment magnate David Geffen and was recently sold on to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen for 137.5 million US dollars, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Since the 1990s, individual works from the collection have been loaned to international museums. However, the first post-revolutionary exhibition of Western art would not be held at TMoCA itself until 1999, when Pop Art works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg were put on display. A larger exhibition opened in 2005, on the eve of the election of President Ahmadinejad, causing crowds to flock to Tehran. More recently, TMoCA has reinvigorated its public programme, and in 2015 many Western art critics travelled to Tehran for the first time to see works from the permanent collection displayed alongside a retrospective of the recently deceased Iranian abstract painter, Farideh Lashai.

 The gradual thawing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West has also seen the Iranian government dusting off the paintings and sculptures, with plans to send part of the collection overseas on a cultural diplomacy mission. However, the first of these exhibitions, planned to open at the Berlin National Gallery at the end of 2016, was sadly cancelled within the last few days, reportedly due to the Iranian president’s last-minute refusal to sign export permits. A larger exhibition, planned to open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC later in 2017, now also looks to be in jeopardy, with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of the incoming administration unlikely to soothe President Rouhani’s jitters. In the meantime, most Western art lovers will have to be satisfied with reports on the collection from journalists who have been lucky enough to enter the TMoCA’s vaults (‘Picasso is Hiding in Iran‘, Los Angeles Times, 2007; ‘Iran Has Been Hiding One of the World’s Great Collections of Modern Art‘, Bloomberg, 2015).

Images: Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground, 1950. TMoCA; Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953. Private collection of Steven A. Cohen; Francis Bacon, middle panel of triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, 1968. TMoCA.