A remarkable collection of modern western and Iranian art that had been gathering dust in the cellar of a Tehran museum and blocked from being shown in Europe has gone on display in Iran’s capital.
The collection features works by two prominent gay artists, Francis Bacon and Bahman Mohasses.
Some of the hidden treasures of Tehran’s museum of contemporary art had been due to travel to Berlin and Rome this year for their first show outside Iran since they were bought by the museum before the 1979 revolution.
But those exhibitions were cancelled, bringing embarrassment to German and Iranian officials, after Iranian artists protested about the secrecy surrounding their transfer, concerns about their fate, and the fact that some had never been shown before in Iran.
Now the works that were due to arrive in Europe have gone on display in Tehran, much to the delight of art lovers in Iran.
Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Majid Molanorouzi, a former head of the museum, said there was still hope that the works would get to the German and Italian capitals “in the summer this year”.
Tehran’s museum of contemporary art is believed to have the finest collection of modern western art anywhere outside Europe and the US, including works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. The works are thought to be worth more than $2.5bn (£2bn) in total.
A total of 30 western artists and 30 works by Iranian figures are on show at the exhibition, entitled Berlin-Rome Travellers.
Mohasses, who died in Rome in 2010, is seen as Iran’s most prominent artist of the past century and is certainly the country’s best-known artistic figure to have been openly gay, although he lived in post-revolutionary times in Italy.
Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran and carries a huge social stigma. Mohasses’ sexuality is not discussed officially in his home country.
In a recent poll conducted by an Iranian art journal, he came first in the list of the country’s popular contemporary artists. But his prominence was overlooked for many years – some of his works were destroyed by the authorities and some by the artist himself.
Iranian painter Nicky Nodjoumi, whose work has been acquired by the British Museum, said the elites and those close to the artist knew he was gay.
“To me, his artistic significance in Iranian contemporary art is enormous,” he told the Guardian.
“He followed his instinct to portray the suffering of humanity according to what he was feeling, rather than depicting the benign decorative Islamic motives. No doubt his being gay influenced his art – most of his paintings are figurative, the majority of [his] paintings are nude men in a orgy situation.
“Even though he was trying to conceal it with different tactics to hide them, he was living in Islamic society. In many respects we can compare him with Frances Bacon and I would say [he was] influenced by him.”
In 2012, Iranian film-maker Mitra Farahani made a documentary about the life and works of Bahman Mohasses, Fifi Howls from Happiness, which is named after a painting by the artist himself. The film provided a unique insight into Mohasses’ life in exile.
“Being homosexual did not have anything to do with him being reclusive, it was the opposite – he was proud of his sexuality and lived it fully,” she said.
Farahani complained about the lack of efforts by the Iranian government to retrieve, restore and list Mohasses’ work.
“The people who chose Mohasses as their most popular artist should know how many works have remained from him and where they are,” she said.
“The six-metre long sculpture of Les Amants that was made for a Shah villa in the Kish island, and was influenced by a poem by [Persian poet] Nima [Yooshij], where is it?”
She added: “Even if they can’t put them on display, they should keep them safe and let people know about them, because [his works] belong to the people.”
Iran’s LGBT community thrives despite restrictions. Works by internationally-known gay writers have been translated into Persian and published in Iran.
These include works by by Marcel Proust and André Gide. Officials appear to tolerate such works so long as their subjects are not explicitly gay or cannot be easily detected.