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Through the Looking Glass, Backwards

Iran_3 It takes a lot to interrupt my writing silence, but today’s article by Kim Murphy in the L.A. Times makes it necessary. Kim managed to gain access to the basement of Iran’s contemporary art museum where, she informs us, the most important collection of impressionist and modern Western art outside the West is stored, though not exhibited. Instead of showing its Picassos, Kandinskys, Pollock, Gauguin, Matisse and Braques, the museum has an exhibit of women’s clothing and local paintings like one of a small bird facing three large ones titled, "Negotiations." Here is the flip side of the restitution debate — the blinkering of the public to enforce a particular cultural identity, the desire to assert an acceptable, native culture and to exclude the dominant Western one. Art is lost along the way. Cultural exchange — the point of this collection, started by the shah who was toppled in 1979 — is the loser.  It is another aspect of the same contentious theme, cultural schism, as involves the demands by other countries for the return of their cultural artifacts from the West. Fundamentally, those demands stem from a desire to reassert a native, cultural identity, and to reclaim it from the powerful colonizers that plundered them. Granted, hiding the Picasso in the basement seems far more absurd.

Here is what the Iranian public is missing from its cultural life: "Monet’s "Environ de Giverny," Max Ernst’s "Histoire Naturelle." Four of Andy Warhol’s Mick Jaggers and a Mao Tse-tung. Georges Braque’s "Guitar, Fruits et Pichet," and an Edvard Munch self-portrait. One of Edgar Degas’ Dancers. Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, Duchamp, Dali. Photographs by Man Ray. Important Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko."  In 2005, Murphy reports, the then-museum director made a career-ending move of exhibiting the paintings. "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," she writes. The curator demanded the order in writing. And he got it. He tells Murphy: "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." Here’s the rest.