“The aboriginal time I met Andy Warhol was in Washington, at the White House,” says Farah Pahlavi, the adopted added of the aftermost Shah of Iran, who was baffled during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Cutting a brand on her accessory in the appearance of her homeland, emblazoned with the Pahlavi covering of arms, the 80-year-old ‘Shahbanu’, as Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s queen accompaniment is still accepted amid supporters, is sitting in a acute bookshop on Piccadilly in London, abandoning a appointment to the US in 1975, aback she abounding a banquet at the White House hosted by President Gerald Ford. In advanced of her is a archetype of Iran Modern: The Empress of Art, a abundant new advertisement that tells the amazing adventure of a accumulating of about 150 avant-garde Western artworks that Iran’s administrative government acquired during the 70s, beneath her supervision.
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She touches the cover, which reproduces one of Warhol’s portraits of her, with dejected eyeshadow and blush lipstick, adjoin a active chicken background. The account dates from 1976 – a year afterwards that aboriginal affair at the White House, when, according to Pahlavi, “Warhol was active from one allowance to another, because, apparently, he was abashed that I capital to ask him to dance.” She smiles. “He was actual shy.”
Not so shy, however, that the American Pop artisan didn’t accede to accomplish a account of Pahlavi, who acclimated to be accepted as the ‘Jackie Kennedy of the Average East’. In the summer of 1976, Warhol accustomed with his manager, Fred Hughes, at what was afresh the empress’s home, the Niavaran Alcazar in Tehran, to booty a Polaroid of her, cutting a simple chrism blouse, which he acclimated as the antecedent for a alternation of silkscreen portraits. “North Tehran reminded me of Beverly Hills,” recalled a affiliate of the artist’s entourage, Bob Colacello, who had backward at the Intercontinental Hotel, where, apparently, Warhol relished acclimation caviar from allowance service.
A brace of years later, Warhol was arrive to accomplish addition portrait, of the empress’s husband, admitting this time he was answerable to assignment from an official photograph. Yet, aloof a year afterwards that, the Pahlavi absolutism was toppled, and the Shah fled to Egypt – area he died, in 1980 – with his wife and family. The above empress – who today, age-old 80, lives amid Maryland, in the US, and an affected accommodation overlooking the Seine in Paris – larboard abaft Warhol’s portraits, forth with the blow of the 300 or so works of avant-garde Western and Iranian art that she had accumulated during the 70s, funded, with her husband’s blessing, by the country’s oil wealth.
Today, that little-seen accumulating – which survives, about intact, in the vaults of the Tehran Architecture of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which Pahlavi inaugurated on her altogether in 1977, with Nelson Rockefeller in appearance – contains masterpieces by the brand of Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mark Rothko. According to some estimates, it is now account as abundant as $3bn (£2.35bn).
Wasn’t she tempted to booty any of it with her, aback she fled the country? “What I bought was for Iran,” she tells me, her bendable amber eyes briefly aflame with appreciative defiance, “not for me alone to booty out”. Her alone memento, she says, is a besom that already belonged to Warhol, which she bought at bargain afterwards abrogation Iran.
I was consistently cogent the government to buy paintings, instead of animal appliance – Farah Pahlavi
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According to Pahlavi, the adventure of Iran’s accumulating of avant-garde Western art – the greatest, and absolutely best valuable, alfresco Europe and North America – starts with her own amorous absorption in art and culture. Born Farah Diba in 1938, to an aloof ancestors in Tehran, she affiliated the Shah – whom she had met at a accession at the Iranian admiral in Paris – in 1959, cutting a clothes by Yves Saint Laurent. She was aloof 21, and became his third wife.
She was, she says, consistently acquainted that she came from “a country of age-old civilisation and culture” – afterwards all, Cyrus the Abundant had founded the aboriginal absolutism of the Persian Empire in 550 BC – and, in 1967, she accustomed the anniversary Shiraz Arts Festival, in axial Iran.
As the Shah’s consort, she generally bought paintings to abutment adolescent Iranian artists – because, she recalls, “in those days, affluent bodies bought age-old Iranian objects, not avant-garde art. I was consistently cogent the government to buy paintings, instead of animal furniture.”
Ancient to modern
The berry for Iran’s accumulating of avant-garde Western art was sown in the backward 60s, aback the empress abounding an exhibition aperture and batten to an Iranian artisan alleged Iran Darroudi. “She told me, ‘I ambition we had a abode area we could appearance our work’ – and I said, ‘It’s a abundant idea: we should accept a museum.’” As the plan coalesced, Pahlavi commissioned her cousin, the artist Kamran Diba, to architectonics TMoCA on a above aggressive array arena adjoining to what is now Laleh (Tulip) – aforetime Farah – Park. Diba, who additionally became the museum’s founding director, was aggressive by elements of adequate Persian architectonics as able-bodied as the spiralling anatomy of the Guggenheim Architecture in New York. The abstraction was that the academy should anatomy allotment of a arrangement of museums sponsored by the empress, including the civic carpeting museum, which was founded in 1976.
Having absitively to body a new art museum, Pahlavi realised that it would charge a collection. In the aboriginal 70s, Iran was rich: “It was a aeon aback we had adequate acquirement from oil,” she tells me, “though it was additionally aback all our problems started.” To activate with, she advised affairs aback age-old Iranian artefacts, which, over the centuries, had been broadcast about the world. However, she bound assured that would prove too expensive, while avant-garde Western art, which she additionally “admired”, was added affordable, and simpler to acquire. So, she accumulated a aggregation of admiral to body from blemish a world-class accumulating of avant-garde art, starting with the Impressionists.
Her assembly began negotiating with galleries, and alike travelled to New York to seek admonition from The Met (“To see if a painting was good, and if the amount was acceptable,” she explains). Meanwhile, she contacted the Maeght Foundation (a acclaimed architecture of avant-garde art in the south of France, accustomed in 1964) for help.
Within a actual abbreviate amplitude of time, Pahlavi’s aggregation had accumulated a accumulating of avant-garde art that would be the backbiting of any academy on Earth. Her bedmate didn’t allotment her affection – “He was active with so abounding added important things in Iran,” she says, “and wasn’t abnormally absorbed in adopted avant-garde art” – but he accurate the project, authorising the Civic Iranian Oil Company to backing her purchases (in 1973, Iran was the second-largest oil exporter in the world). As she puts it, “He consistently helped me if I bare a account for this or that.” It aloof so happened that “this” ability be Paul Gauguin’s Still Life with Japanese Woodcut (1889), and “that”, Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Arena (1950) – admired by Christie’s, in 2010, at $250 million.
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In a sense, Pahlavi’s acquisitions may be accepted as accordant with the Shah’s alleged ‘White Revolution’ of modernisation and accelerating reforms. In Iran Modern, the above empress’s co-authors, Viola Raikhel-Bolot and Miranda Darling, call her as “a attestation to the access of bendable ability to change the bolt of a nation forever. Her eyes and adherence angry the 1970s into a aureate age for Iran.”
To critics of the Shah, this may complete partisan. What did the Iranian bodies accomplish of the avant-garde art that she bought in the 70s? “You know,” replies Pahlavi, “even today, in England or New York, you cannot apprehend everybody to adulation avant-garde art. But these were treasures of art for the country. Art brings bodies calm added than any political speech.”
Yet, didn’t her amount accord to a acumen of the atrocity of the Shah’s regime, which may in about-face accept contributed to his downfall? She frowns. “Not at all, not at all. There was not one abrogating reaction.”
As able-bodied as spending time with Warhol, while architecture up the collection, the empress met several artists whom she admired, including Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall (who lived abreast the Maeght Foundation), and the British sculptor Henry Moore, whose rural studio, alfresco London in the Hertfordshire apple of Perry Green, she already visited. “When I entered,” she recalls, “he showed me a little painting, and said, ‘I ask everybody to acquaint me who did it.’ Thank God, I said Miró – which was the appropriate answer. I was actual proud, of course.”
According to reports, one of Moore’s sculptures, in TMoCA’s gardens, has been damaged by a bullet. The aperture is still visible: a reminder, best likely, of the agitation of the Revolution.
One of the best hasty things about the history of Iran’s accumulating of avant-garde art is that, in the deathwatch of the Revolution, it was abundantly neither damaged nor dispersed. There were exceptions: Pahlavi (who was accursed to death, in absentia, afterwards the Revolution) recalls watching a French television documentary, which showed that one of Warhol’s portraits of her, which had afraid acutely in the alcazar in Tehran, had been bargain with a knife.
Moreover, in 1990, Woman III (1953), by the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, was exchanged for some 16th-Century Persian miniatures endemic by an American art collector. In a arena aces of a abstruseness movie, the bandy took abode on the alley at Vienna’s all-embracing airport.
For years, though, the accumulating languished, unseen, in the vaults of the architecture in Tehran. In 2005, a few of the paintings were about apparent in Iran. Quite why this accumulation of avant-garde art has never admiring the ire of the rulers of the anti-Western theocracy that is the Islamic Republic of Iran charcoal a mystery. (Presumably, the art’s amount fabricated it untouchable.) Certain paintings, such as Renoir’s Gabrielle with Accessible Blouse (1907), which appearance a archetypal with naked breasts, can never be apparent in Iran.
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Meanwhile, aftermost year, a alternative of highlights from the accumulating – which were activity to be apparent in Berlin and Rome, in an all-embracing touring exhibition, afore affairs were annulled at the aftermost minute – went on affectation at TMoCA. However, according to a announcer from The Sunday Times, who visited the show, the exhibition had alone been accessible for two hours, afore censors accustomed to abolish the average console of a 1968 leash by Francis Bacon, depicting two naked macho abstracts lying ancillary by ancillary aloft a bed. (“Look carefully,” Christina Lamb wrote. “The hooks are still there.”) Homosexuality, in Iran, is illegal.
Pahlavi affably refuses to brainstorm why Iran’s post-Revolution leaders neither awash off nor destroyed the accumulating she created. I wonder, though, how she feels while leafing through Iran Modern, which reproduces so abounding artworks that she is absurd to see afresh in person: sad? “No,” she replies, speaking cautiously and slowly, “I am not sad. Afterwards the Revolution, I was actual afraid for these paintings. But, fortunately, except for one exchange, they are all still there. I remember, a few years ago [in 2005], one of the admiral [of the museum] put some of the paintings [on display] in an exhibition – and I accustomed an email from a adolescent lady, an Iranian painter, who said, ‘When I begin myself in advanced of a Rothko, I had tears in my eyes.’” TMoCA owns two Rothkos, anniversary admired today at amid $100 actor and $200 million.
“So, I’m blessed that bodies can see what they have, because these paintings” – she gestures to Iran Modern, on the table afore her – “belong to Iran”. She pauses. “I consistently say that the seeds you bulb with adulation and acceptance never perish, never die.”
Iran Modern: The Empress of Art (Assouline, £650), by Viola Raikhel-Bolot and Miranda Darling, is out now.
Alastair Sooke is The Telegraph’s Critic-at-Large.
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