Somewhere in the bowels of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is a portrait from a lost world. Its subject is a beautiful young woman: Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran. The condition of the work, however, a luminous print by Andy Warhol from 1977, is so bad that it could be a metaphor for Iran itself. Fundamentalist vandals have slashed at it with knives.
The Empress — forced into exile when the Iranian Revolution overthrew her husband, the Shah, two years after the portrait was completed — discovered this upsetting news while watching French TV in her Paris apartment. ‘Seeing that, I said, “They are stupid”,’ she tells me. ‘Instead of tearing it they could have sold it!’
One day, she hopes to see it on display again. ‘I hope this regime will not stay and this will be part of a collection to show what sort of people they are. What they have done to Iran is much more than tearing my portrait. But that will be part of the history — an example.’
We meet in a library above a swanky bookshop on Piccadilly, where the Empress-in-exile is being fussed over by an entourage of fashionable young women. She is the tallest person in the room — or seems it — and looks much younger than her 80 years, wearing a chic-looking navy blue power suit, with immaculately styled blonde hair identical to photographs of her from the time of the revolution.
A new book, Iran Modern: the Empress of Art, is being launched at an evening reception — and its two co-authors, Viola Raikhel-Bolot and Miranda Darling, are trying to coax her into signing copies. A vast, £650 volume (for those with a certain kind of coffee table), it tells the story of the Warhol portrait, the collection it belonged to and the part she, the Shah of Iran’s widow, played in establishing that collection. Now mostly deemed ‘un-Islamic’ and hidden in vaults beneath the Tehran museum — Renoir’s ‘Gabrielle with Open Blouse’ was never going to pass the regime’s censors — it is ‘the greatest collection of foreign art outside of Europe’, she tells me, with works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Bacon, Rothko and de Kooning. And, of course, Warhol.
The Empress first met him on a visit to Washington: ‘It was at the White House during President Ford’s time.’ She spent the evening following the artist from one room to another, only to find out that he was avoiding her because he thought she wanted to dance. Eventually, she arranged for him to visit Tehran. ‘I was very happy and very proud,’ the Empress smiles, ‘…Andy Warhol doing my portrait.’ She recalls him writing a ‘very nice article’ about it afterwards and the cuttings prove her right. ‘I had the best time,’ he said. ‘It was just so up there. So glamorous. She was really, really kind and so beautiful.’
This is a glimpse of the Iran so fondly remembered, through rose-tinted spectacles, by members of the Persian diaspora. There was something cool about Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when a certain class of Iranian woman could be found playing volleyball on the shores of the Caspian Sea in a bikini — a world away from today’s enforced shawl-wearing. It was the era when the Empress, or the Shahbanu to give her Persian title, would appear on magazine covers next to Jackie Kennedy. ‘Farah chez Jackie: Un duel d’élégance’ was one Paris Match headline about an earlier visit to the United States.
And it was a golden age for Iran’s cultural scene. For a decade, the biggest names in avant-garde art, music and theatre would gather at the Shiraz Arts Festival, founded and run by the Empress. ‘That was a very important festival from 1967 to 1977,’ she says, ‘and it was bringing East and West together… Yehudi Menuhin and so many great artists in music and ballet and theatre. Bijan, Robert Wilson, Peter Brook.’ Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage were some of the composers who appeared.
It was then that the Empress, with encouragement from the Persian painter Iran Darroudi, began to assemble and commission an astonishing collection of modern and contemporary art from Iran and elsewhere, with help from Western curators. This was not a cheap exercise — the collection is now said to be worth $3 billion — but, she explains, ‘there was a period where the price of oil augmented’. This gave Iran ‘the means’ to show off its history and thirst for culture with new museums. ‘I started with the Carpet Museum of Iran,’ says the Empress, which opened in 1976. The next year saw the inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the architect Kamran Diba — her cousin, as it happens.
Critics of the Shah’s regime will say that’s a telling detail. But she dismisses any controversy surrounding the collection — the fortune spent on it and some of the artists involved, with their shockingly Western lifestyles. ‘Those who were against, the communists and — what are they called? — the mujahedin or the fanatics, they were against whatever we did,’ she says. The Empress recalls a moment at the Shiraz Arts Festival when an Iranian communist complained to the Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski that Iran wasn’t free. Grotowski replied: ‘If you were telling me the truth you could not have said this now in front of me. You would have been in the mountains, with a Kalashnikov on your shoulder.’
Only the fanatics would argue that Iran is more free today. But nearly four decades after the revolution, the Empress is hopeful that one day ‘light will overcome the darkness’. In the meantime, she is proud of her artistic legacy, damaged though it is. ‘The seeds you plant and love never perish,’ she says. ‘When I meet young Iranian boys and girls outside of Iran… they come to me and they kiss me, they hug me and it gives me a lot of courage. People have not forgotten.’
Will Heaven is Director of Policy at Policy Exchange.
Iran Modern: the Empress of Art is out now, published by Assouline.