Picasso and Pollock in Tehran? Thank Donna Stein for That

For two decades after the revolution, the art collection, which was originally purchased for $100 million, was hidden in a concrete basement.
May 12, 2021
Empress Farah Pahlavi (left) speaking with Donna Stein, who is holding a photograph by Hans Bellmer, during the installation of exhibitions for the inaugural exhibitions at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, October 1977 (Photo credit: Jila Dejam).

One doesn’t often think about the imaginative Cubism of Pablo Picasso or the textural richness of Jackson Pollock when thinking about Iran, but in her vivid new memoir, “The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art” (Skira, 2021), revered art historian, curator and critic Donna Stein reveals how one of the world’s finest collections of contemporary art came to life in Tehran in the late 1970s, during the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty.

From 1975-1977, Stein served as art adviser on western modern art for the secretariat of Her Imperial Majesty, the Shahbanou of Iran (also known as Empress Farah Pahlavi, the last wife of the Shah, who died in 1980). Stein helped secure the acquisition of priceless art for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which houses the most valuable collection of Western modern art outside of the United States and Europe (featuring artists such as Picasso, Monet, Pollock, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Warhol and others). The museum opened in 1977, just 15 months before the 1979 Islamic Revolution drove out the royal family and turned the country into an official Shi’a theocracy.

For two decades after the revolution, the art collection, which was originally purchased for $100 million, was hidden in a concrete basement. In 1999, Iran permitted some initial exhibitions (Warhol’s portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi, however, was slashed by vandals decades ago). The Islamic Republic finally allowed the first comprehensive exhibition of the Western art collection in 2005. Today, its estimated worth is $3 billion, and its crown jewel, Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Red Ground” from 1950, is still part of the permanent exhibit.

“Have you heard there’s this American girl who’s going to start a new museum in Tehran?” The question became ubiquitous in 1974, when news spread that Stein, then a young assistant curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), had formed an alliance with Empress Farah Pahlavi to collect modern masterpieces.

But Stein doesn’t believe she received proper credit for her indispensable role in acquiring and assembling the national collection (which explains why The New York Times rightly refers to her new book as a “score-settling memoir”).

The Journal asked Stein, who lives in Altadena and is the retired deputy director of the Culver City-based Wende Museum of the Cold War, to reflect on her important contributions to bringing modern Western art to Iran (and about the time she attended Rosh Hashanah services in a Tehran synagogue):

Jewish Journal: You’ve published numerous articles about the art of Iran and the Middle East, including Islamic architecture. You also were the first American scholar to study nineteenth-century photography in Iran. What draws you to the art and cultures of this region of the world?

Donna Stein: During my years in Iran, I learned that the royal court, and especially Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-1896), were early practitioners of photography. The Golestan Palace Library in Tehran has a massive collection of early photography by members of the royal court as well as foreign photographers, who were travelers in Iran and taught photography to some of the court members, including the Shah. I met several collectors who owned albums of early photographs.

In the years after I returned from Iran, while working on my PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, I chose a minor in Islamic Art and was a student of Dr. Richard Ettinghausen, the Islamic Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an advisor to the empress. When I had the opportunity to select a topic to write about in my graduate studies, I chose early photography in Iran and searched American sources for nineteenth-century photographs at various museums, libraries, private collections, auction archives, …building a substantial image archive.

JJ: Why was it so important for Empress Farah Pahlavi to establish a museum of modern art in Iran? And what were your primary goals curating a national collection of modern art?

DS: In the late 1960s, artists such as Iran Darrudi and Kamran Diba were looking for dedicated spaces to show their art and suggested to the empress that a modern and contemporary art museum would fill an important void in the cultural environment of Iran. The empress knew from living in France and traveling the world that museums were important educational institutions, and [she] decided to develop numerous museums to show the treasured art forms native to Iran — Luristan bronzes, glass, carpets, Qajar art, etc — as well as a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art by international and Iranian artists. She envisioned the museums as lively educational centers, a place where people would attend lectures, hear music and see films.

Donna Stein (Photo credit: Sophie Gallagher)

Like the Empress, I believe the arts are unifying. They bring people together and open minds. The arts can move you, inspire you, inform you, make you think and see things from different points of view. Art can be a tool for social change because of its ability to stimulate conversation. What I tried to do was create a representative history of modern art — via all media — of the major artists, art styles and techniques that would inform people in the broadest possible sense with ideas, theories and philosophy in order to advance the development of contemporary perspectives. My job was to guide the selection process and establish a high standard of quality. In the collections and exhibitions I organized, I always tried to provide a context from which an uninitiated audience as well as art lovers could learn about Western art.

JJ: What were your first impressions of Iran in the mid-1970s?

DS: During my first visit to Iran in January 1973 on a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for Museum Professionals, I was impressed by the sprawling capital city. In its center the architecture seemed Westernized, and the well-paved streets were wide. The oldest buildings dated from the nineteenth century, but most structures looked like they had been constructed during the past five years. I was surprised to learn that there were more than four million people living and working in Tehran, and its infrastructure was clearly inadequate for such a substantial population. Instead of sewers, for example, the masses depended on jubes, a system of deep open channels on each side of a road.

When I moved to Tehran full-time in June 1975, I discovered what it was like to be a feminist in an all-encompassing Islamic cultural environment. Although I had never expected that a daily existence in the Near East would be simple, life in Iran proved much more difficult than I ever anticipated. My previous visits to Iran had been during the winter months, and I was utterly unprepared for the shock of the intense heat as well as the complexities that life would arouse.

JJ: Did you meet any members of the Iranian Jewish community during your time in Tehran?

DS: I attended High Holiday services in Tehran in 1975. I called the American Embassy to inquire where I could go and attended [services] with a Christian American friend, who had never been to a Jewish service. The Rosh Hashanah services were held in a school in a large room, [with] the men and women were seated separately…. In the book, I write, “Despite the solemnity of the occasion, everything was very casual and some women were dressed in jeans. A few older women wore chadors. Most female worshippers didn’t have their heads covered and only a few held prayer books, although many participated in the service by reciting from memory. Most of the congregation gave me a warm welcome but some asked uncomfortable questions about my ethnic background.”

I was raised in an Ashkenazi religious environment, and this synagogue was clearly Sephardic in its orientation and practices. It was unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable. I remember at the end of the service, wine and dried fruit was passed around for everyone.

JJ: The museum was the brainchild of the empress, but given the time you spent in Iran and the country’s fierce embrace of its ancient art (and ancient past), do you believe that the average Iranian was drawn to modern art? Was there any concern (whether from the empress or any of her aides) that modern works wouldn’t interest Iran’s non-elite classes?

DS: The museum program was considered an educational program, and every effort was to make it accessible to all people, [by] placing the Museum of Contemporary Art in the middle of Tehran in Laleh Park (then called Park Farah), next to the carpet museum and near Tehran University. Today, even if some Iranians don’t like modern art, they know it’s valuable. That’s why it’s still there.

Today, even if some Iranians don’t like modern art, they know it’s valuable.

JJ: In the book’s foreword, you write, “Because I was a foreigner working largely in secret, my leadership role in the formation of the National Collection has never been fully acknowledged.” At the time, did you know that you were essentially being robbed of any credit in creating such an impressive national collection? If so, would you have been able to express your grievances to the Empress or anyone in her close circle?

DS: I worked in a cloak of secrecy, and it became increasingly clear to me that the work I was doing was not being acknowledged but co-opted by others. When I finally was officially introduced to the empress, a year-and-a-half into my tenure, she told me that she was surprised I was young, stylish and attractive and had thought I was an older woman who wore glasses, which reinforced my perception of this issue. But there was little I could do.

JJ: What was the state of modern art in Iran before the museum opened?

DS: During my years in Iran, several new galleries opened to show Iranian as well as international artists. Many Persian contemporary artists were admired, and their works sold well in Iran, although some of them did not have an established international market. In 1976, the Private Cabinet of Her Imperial Majesty, in cooperation with the Committee for Modern Iranian Art, sponsored an exhibition of 35 artists at the Basel Art Fair, as a way of introducing Iranian contemporary artists to international dealers as well as a way for Iranian artists to develop a truer perspective of the financial structure of the global marketplace and how their art fit within the current scene.

JJ: Did the museum inspire a modern art movement from Iranian artists themselves, and were Iranian artists included in the collections?

DS: A modern art movement started in Iran in the 1940s after World War II, long before I arrived in Tehran. Many artists had opportunities to study abroad in Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States, [and they] returned to Iran filled with information, technical expertise and ideas. They had seen original works of art by significant Western artists and knew about and understood the various stylistic trends. Artists like Jalil Ziapour, Marco Grigorian, Parviz Tanavoli and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmain realized that their own history provided rich opportunities to develop a unique modern art based on traditional Iranian imagery and techniques.

Initially, TMoCA was envisioned as a center for Iranian contemporary work. But the empress felt it should also include international artists, which would broaden the mandate and enliven the program. She requested that the collection begin with nineteenth-century Impressionism. At the same time that Western art was being acquired, efforts were made to purchase important work from contemporary Iranian artists. I often accompanied the head of the Department of Art and Culture in the secretariat to gallery exhibitions in Tehran and had a hand in choosing Iranian acquisitions as well.

JJ: How did you fare as an American feminist in Iran, even before the 1979 revolution?

DS: Generally, I was treated very well during my time in Iran and made many friends who I am still in touch with today. I had one anti-Semitic incident, and there were several occasions when anti-American sentiments were expressed towards me. My cleaning lady called me “the woman who lived alone,” an unfortunate phrase used to describe women of questionable virtue, as it was inconceivable that a woman would live by herself, and anyone who lived apart from their families was clearly an outcast. The people who worked in my apartment complex were amazed to eventually learn I worked for the empress.

JJ: In the empress, did you see a feminist such as yourself?

DS: I never thought about it at the time. However, I was aware of the meaningful number of women in government, directing social welfare and educational programs, etc. and thought Iran was extremely progressive for its inclusion and support of women, providing significant opportunities for them to contribute to their society.

JJ: During your time in Iran, did you ever feel the rumblings of societal unrest that preceded the 1979 Islamic Revolution and targeted the Shah, whether from your interactions with average Iranians (especially younger ones) or in messages (such as demonstrations or even graffiti) on the street?

DS: I did take some street photographs as I traversed Tehran and other cities of graffiti. One I recall had “Black Sabbath” in large letters that probably referenced the British heavy metal band but may have also been a religious allusion.

JJ: What were your first thoughts when you learned, in January 1979, that the Shah and his family had fled the country, and later, when the Islamic Revolution had taken hold with Ayatollah Khomeini’s return in February (and culminated in the raid on the American Embassy in November)?

DS: In January 1979, I was working in Europe and assiduously followed the global response to these events. I had been in regular contact with friends and colleagues who wrote candidly to me about the hostility and difficulties in Tehran. Even though I wasn’t shocked by the rise of fundamentalism, my family and friends, Iranian and otherwise, talked of nothing else. I feared for my friends and colleagues left behind in Iran and sympathized with others who were forced to make a new life as displaced persons in Europe and America.

With each nasty development, I kept thinking of other missteps the American government had made in South America and Southeast Asia by misreading the situation and backing authoritarian regimes, and I wondered why the State Department and the CIA apparently failed to understand the threat to international stability that Iran’s theocratic revolutionaries clearly represented.

JJ: Why do you believe that the theocratic regime didn’t destroy more (or all) of the works after the revolution?

DS: During the revolution, the people of Tehran encircled TMoCA and protected the collection. As far as I know, only two works were destroyed at the onset of the Revolution: a painted portrait of the empress by Andy Warhol and a sculpture by Bahman Mohasses. A third painting by Willem DeKooning, Woman III, 1952-53 was exchanged for a rare and beautiful Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts of the national epic poem of Greater Iran, detailing the ascension of Shah Tahmasp to the Persian throne. The Ferdowsi Shahnameh originally contained 258 miniature paintings. By the time it was exchanged for the DeKooning there were 120 miniatures left. Houghton had given 78 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sold others at auction.

Fortunately, there is at least one other example of Warhol’s painting, which was included in a recent retrospective of the artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Also, at least one painting by Mohasses and one by DeKooning are still in TMoCA’s collection.

The leadership of the Islamic Republic understands the economic value of the artworks and that the collection is now part of their heritage, even though it is the legacy of the Pahlavi Dynasty.

JJ: The museum is working on its own study of the collection, which it claims will be published in a six-part volume. Has anyone from the museum contacted you about this project?

DS: No, but I am delighted to hear that they are publishing a six-volume corpus on the collection. I recently learned that my files from the secretariat were transferred to the museum archive and accessible for research.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.