TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian hard-liners, now back at the helm of the country, may regularly rail against the poisoning of Islamic society by Western culture, but in Tehran, Iranians are flocking to the contemporary art museum to marvel at American pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans.
The circular floors of the Iranian capital’s Museum of Contemporary Art display a sprawling line-up of 18 classic Warhol works, recognizable at first glance: silk-screen portraits of Communist China’s founding leader Mao Zedong and Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, paintings of Campbell Soup cans and a vintage print of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
“I love this painting,” gushed 46-year-old Fatemeh Rezaee, taking in the colored ink of Marilyn Monroe’s face, which Warhol produced in 1962 soon after the actress killed herself. “By looking at it, I visualized Marilyn Monroe’s life story in my head. It makes the concept of death really tangible for me.”
Rezaee, a retired teacher in a loose silk hijab, was so enthralled by the exhibit that she flew all the way from her home in the southern city of Shiraz to see it — twice.
She went on: “His selection of colors is outstanding and to me conveys a combination of feelings such as melancholy and mortality.”
Warhol’s works are among a permanent art collection worth billions of dollars kept in the Tehran museum vault. As oil boomed during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country acquired thousands of pieces, including Monets, Picassos and Jackson Pollocks, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the pro-Western monarchy and vaulted Shiite clerics to power.
Iran’s new theocracy first banned modern art and packed away the famous paintings. But in recent decades as cultural restrictions eased, some 1,500 Western art pieces from the dynastic era have gone back on display — with much fanfare. In 2015, Tehran’s municipal council even plastered the city’s billboards with hundreds of works by great American painters, from Rothko to Hopper, transforming the sprawling city into a giant, open-air exhibit.
Still, a visitor won’t find Warhol's grittier fare, like his notorious experimental films, on display in Tehran. In 2005, when the museum showcased its entire collection of 20th-century American and European masterworks, choice pieces — including a Renoir nude — were hidden to avoid offending conservative Islamic sensibilities.
The audience in Tehran on Wednesday nonetheless appeared satisfied with Warhol’s silk-screen printings that tested orthodoxies by portraying consumerist themes in the early 1960s.
“People have exceptionally welcomed Andy Warhol paintings’ exhibition,” said museum spokesperson Hasan Noferesti, noting the crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic required the museum cap the number of visitors per hour.
One visitor, 21-year-old microbiology student Shahin Gandomi dressed in a black shirt and wearing his hair in a ponytail, praised the Mao Zedong painting series.
“When an artist portrays a dictator in an artwork, it appears like that dictator has been taken down from his sacred position," he said.
The showcase may be coming to an end, but Noferesti said the museum plans to put more Warhols and Western artists on display soon.
Although Iran has no diplomatic relations with the United States and hostilities have simmered between the countries since 1979, bootleg copies of Hollywood blockbusters and Western music remain popular in the country, particularly among young urbanites.
Tensions with the U.S. have surged in recent months, as the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, the protégé of Iran’s supreme leader, brought hard-liners to power across every branch of government.
Iran has accelerated its atomic program and talks to revive Tehran's now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have stalled for months. Three years ago, then-President Donald Trump reneged on the accord and mounted an economic pressure campaign that has crippled the country's economy.
But at Tehran's sleek, white-walled exhibit this week, there was no talk of political tensions or American sanctions.
“There have been great artists in history, and it is tremendously good that we can get to see their artworks here,” said 20-year-old graphics student Kourosh Aminzadeh, who had come back for a second visit.