Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA), inaugurated in 1977 and designed by the renowned Iranian modernist architect Kamran Diba, is estimated to hold 3000 of the most valuable collection of Western Modern Art valued at £2.5 billion. The museum’s exterior resembles a brutalism sculpture with elements of Persian architecture such as wind catchers unique to the desert city of Yazd and centered amid acres of beautiful Persian gardens displaying modern sculptures by the modernist masters.
The museum’s darkly lit, exposed concrete interior reminds me of the architecture of the Guggenheim in NYC. If there ever was a heaven and hell of museums, the TMOCA would be hell and the Guggenheim, its rival heaven. The Spiraling ramp directs you to 9 different galleries with each gallery using well engineered skylights over the paintings to be used in conjunction to artificial lighting. Looking down from the ramp is a black rectangular water element, a pool resembling an abyss, made in 1946 from steel and oil by the Japanese artist Moriyuki Haraguchi called Matter and Mind.The museum’s collection was largely assembled by founding curators David Galloway and Donna Stein under the patronage of Empress Farah Pahlavi. The collection is secured in the treasury of the museum and includes famous painters at the start of modernism. The enviable collection includes the following artists:
Wassily Kandinsky Jackson Pollock
Camille Pissarro James Ensor Édouard Vuillard
André Dunoyer de Segonzac Jules Pascin
André Derain Louis Valtat
Georges Rouault Fernand Léger
Pablo Picasso Francis Bacon
George Grosz Diego Rivera
Jasper Johns Andy Warhol
Roy Lichtenstein Jim Dine
Peter Phillips James Rosenquist
Fritz Winter Joan Miró
William Turnbull Victor Vasarely
Adolph Gottlieb Richard Hamilton
Georges Braque Jean-Paul Riopelle
Edvard Munch Pierre Soulages
Edgar Degas Mary Cassatt
Maurice Prendergast František Kupka
Max Beckmann James Whistler
Edward Hopper Giorgio Morandi
Giacomo Balla Marcel Duchamp
In addition to the pre-revolutionary collection handpicked by the empress, there is substantial acquisitions of Iranian art after the revolution, highlighting famous Iranian artists to now such as Iraj Eskandari and Kazem Chalipa, pioneers of art over three decades of post Pahlavi era. The revolutionary artworks, in tune with social issues of Iran during the defense of the country, had an overwhelming and effective mark on the artistic events and succeeded in imprinting the stamp of revolutionary art on the evolution of contemporary art of Iran.
The navigation through the museum is fairly straight forward. Its interiors of concrete feel cold and dark. However, the occasional cavity of windows overlooking the sculpture garden feel parallel to coming up for air. The galleries are massive with a few large works hanging on each wall. The spiral ramp separates the sparse galleries. The lighting is poor, however, the skylights are designed to project natural light onto a wall of concrete where the reflection projects downward on the paintings, a genius of an idea. The rarely seen 188 works of art by 22 foreign artists and one Iranian from the secret collection hanging sparsely throughout the galleries contribute to the walls of the galleries titled ‘comprehensible mentality’ and consist mainly of artists who contributed to four art movements, namely Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme, Post Painterly Abstraction and Lyrical Abstraction.
I first visited the museum in 1990, upon my return to Iran 11 years after the Islamic revolution. I was deeply saddened at the state of things but mostly at the state of our cultural heritage and art. TMOCA was not cared for and was brim with pro-revolutionary, pro-Islamic art. Museums in Iran lack funding and suffer from weak management and mediocre curators. While European and American museums benefit from prestigious roles of the curators that develop and organize amazing exhibitions, instead, the best art, artists, and connoisseurs of art in Iran are found in the art galleries of Tehran. However, with the advent of political discourse between Iran and the West, the organizers of museums have bolstered up their presence to prove their cultural worth to the world. Thus the showing of the secret Iranian art collection, the finest of its kind outside of Europe and the US.
Censors in Iran classed some of the collection as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public since the start of the revolution. Hidden and locked away in the confines of a secure nuclear-bunker-esque basement, this secret collection has just come up for air and rid itself from speculation that the government has been selling them at esteemed auctions around the world.
I believe a museum should be the epitome of perfection and detail. The lack of these elements are prevalent throughout the museum. In comparison to western museums, the TMOCA could benefit by hiring a world class curator to showcase new and exciting exhibitions from around the globe. American and European museums put great importance in the renovation of their spaces. Seldom is this the case with the museums in Iran. As the director of the museum narrow-mindedly suggests, “the museum treasury is so rich that it can provide visitors with diverse exhibits for years to come.”
Words by Neda Nickzad