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Picasso is hiding in Iran

A reporter is granted access to a museum vault holding possibly the finest collection of late 19th and 20th century masters outside the West.

September 19, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Until recently, the collection had not been completely under wraps. Pieces of it were widely lent out to Western museums during the 1990s, and the 2005 exhibition, on the eve of Ahmadinejad's election, was reported the world over. Once again, crowds flocked in from all over Tehran.

Not everything was shown. Renoir's "Gabrielle Avec la Chemise Ouverte" stayed downstairs, obviously because her chemise was ouverte.

After authorities saw Francis Bacon's triptych "Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant," they issued an order to remove the central panel because of its purported homosexual overtones. Samiazar demanded the order in writing.

"I can't dismantle a very important painting based on a telephone call," he said.

The written order came the next day.

Samiazar knew the exhibition would be his last act as museum director. His mission, he said, was to get the paintings before the eyes of the world, to publish a catalog to ensure that everyone knew, forever, just what was in the basement. So no one would forget.

"I immunized it," he said. "People came because they knew there may be no other chance of seeing the collection again, at least for the time being. And over the last two years, it has proved they were right. I don't think with the way things are going now they can have any chance in the future to see them again."

It was also personal, he acknowledged.

"It was kind of a goodbye party," he said.

"I knew after the presidential elections I would be leaving the museum, but thanks God I had a chance to open this show. I didn't want to leave the museum without this magnificent event."

During my visit, Sadeghi hopes that I am also interested in seeing the work of contemporary Iranian artists, many of whose work is also closeted in the basement -- partly for lack of space, partly because some of it is just as controversial as the Western art.

He presents me with a catalog in which many of the broad movements of 20th century art have been explored with a brashly Iranian sensibility: a ghostly, hollow-eyed figure, gagged and straitjacketed; a trio of blackbirds confronting a lone, hovering bird ("Negotiations"); lyrical moonlit landscapes; and modern explorations of ancient Persian themes and Islamic calligraphy.

At some point, it seems we have chewed through our mutual suspicion. We walk down a long hallway, wait at the door of a large freight elevator, and descend into the bowels of the museum. Half a dozen caretakers usher us into a low-ceilinged room with open metal beams and exposed insulation, where hundreds of paintings hang on rolling racks, stacked together vertically along either side of the room.

A glowering portrait of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is the only painting facing out to the room.

Sadeghi nods his head, and the racks are rolled out, one by one. I catch my breath at "Environ de Giverny," a painting I had never dreamed to see in a basement in Tehran. Sadeghi looks on with obvious pleasure at my disorientation.

"I would like to remind you that one-third of this collection has been added since the revolution," he said. "Some of these paintings were in the hands of private collectors, and in the fallout of the revolution, we feared they might go missing, so we painstakingly have assembled them here."

He orders another rack pulled out. There are Picasso and Van Gogh. Then, Chagall's "Family With Cock." They hang askew but secure on the racks, like a coat someone plans to fetch again momentarily.

We make our way through the highlights of the collection and sample the best of the Iranian pieces. Then we smile and take our leave, with much less urgency than our greeting. I repair upstairs, where the women's clothing exhibit continues its run, largely undisturbed by visitors.


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