Journey of Toulouse Lautrec to Park Laleh!


by neginu

I walked in to this very concretely concrete building. Right off, I was impressed by the large circular entrance foyer encasing a very modern, wide, downward spiral walkway leading to the lower levels of the structure. I was at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tehran.

The architectural aspect was reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York. Although, in New York, all is white and the spiral pathway swings upward; in Tehran, all is grey concrete and the spiral pathway leads down. I found that somewhat symbolic! The building was suitably appropriate for a modern art museum, minimal yet well defined design; simple. It taught me that in the days past, unlike what is seen in Tehran these days, architecture was actually a thought-out process.

Huge photographic black and white portraits of various contemporary artists adorned the curved wall of the entrance level. Dali was showcased smack in the middle of the wall, pushing up a cane against the bottom of his chin , his hair -- mad, and his expression, well… it is Dali, you know that crazed look that speaks of insanity or genius or in fact both! Right above, two ubiquitous portraits of our past and present supreme leaders dangled from the roof, keeping an ever watchful eye over Dali and company.

I looked down from the top of the spiral walkway and my eyes inevitably followed the line of four massive columns down to the bottom level. There, sat a large, metal rectangular pool filled with oil. I was told this is a very famous piece by a Japanese artist. I wondered if the little Japanese man knew that in the years following his creation, just about everything would come down, as the columns did, to a pool of oil. Much like this pool, our nation’s pool of oil has a finite limit and we can only cross our fingers for what will ensue.

I began my descent down the circular path. The first exit of the passageway guided the visitor to various prayer rooms designated for women, men; some offices and a PR room. I wondered what this large space could have been used for previously - that is before there was a dire need for sex-segregated prayer rooms and ‘herasat/morality police’ offices. Perhaps it used to display temporary exhibitions of the museum.

There doesn’t seem to be temporary anything here now. No one gets in - No one gets out.

At the very bottom, where the pool was, a hallway took me to where the art finally began... It started from ultra modern sculptures, worked itself into minimalist abstract works, and finally wound back upstairs into rooms showcasing a collection of paintings by truly world renowned artists.

In the midst of thinking what I thought of the museum and whether the serious lack of ventilation was something someone should be looking at, I was asked by a girl for an interview on the ‘merits’ of art and its exhibition. I had been deep into an emotional/philosophical argument in my head over what was then and what has now become the priorities of our society, the value of art and culture, its preservation and yes, ventilation! I think my thoughts were floating out above my head for all to see! It must be why this girl in her very cool red head scarf approached me to almost say ‘do tell us, what do you really think?!’ I was never so short on my Farsi vocabulary. In an emotionally charged up state, somewhat flustered, I ended up saying ‘elzaamist’, it is vital! Art is mandatory! As soon as she realized I am obviously not at home with linguistic eloquence in Farsi, she went for the second question, dreaded by all of us living abroad, which was where I lived and what was it like? I politely ended the interview and moved on.

The collection was sparse, but they were all present, Dali, Kandinsky, Pollock, Picasso, Pissaro, Magritte, Manet, Monet, Warhol... and Toulouse Lautrec. I was pleasantly surprised.

It was eerie and unsettling to go through the rooms featuring the painters. I am still not sure why, but it was. There was exactly one piece by each artist. Another oddity was, barring for the artists already dead in the 60s and 70s, every single piece was dated somewhere between 1963 and 1975. And then complete stalemate! It was as if for this museum, where no one new enters and no one leaves, time had stopped in 1975. The irony was that this was a museum of contemporary arts, the key word being contemporary!

We, as a nation, stopped being contemporary somewhere in the 70s. The sense of confinement and detention in time overwhelmed me.

The only one who knew what is to come was Toulouse Lautrec. The world underestimates the foresight of this artist who was the reigning king in depicting decadence, excess, debauchery and sin! All I knew from Lautrec was his vivid images of the nights of folly in Paris, of brothels, loose men and women and looser ‘morals’. He was all about portrayal of all the ways men can sin!

And here was Lautrec, and his one piece displayed in the Tehran Contemporary Museum of Art. Anyone familiar with Lautrec would be shocked to learn that this painting was one of his. Can anything be further from the signature Lautrec painting? A stern girl, hair in a tight bun, wearing an austere dark dress! She had the makings of a Catholic school headmistress. How did Toulouse know? How did we miss all the signs and he didn’t? His painting is in such conformity with the ‘moral code of conduct’, it makes you take a step back. Foresight! He gave us a painting which is ironically contradictory to his signature style.

I sat, gazing at Lautrec’s painting, and thinking of the contradictions and everyday inconsistencies that we have come to call reality in our homeland.

Sitting all around me, were students of ‘Art’ who found their quiet safety zones to discuss art, or more likely, whisper sweet nothings to each other. These couples and their interaction represented one of the daily contradictions that I was confronted with. Oh, the plight of the non-dating, dating youth!!!

I felt frustrated to be somewhere with the word ‘contemporary’ in its title, yet having a nagging feeling that I had traveled back in time. Last time I had this feeling of time travel I was in Cuba. However, there I found the experience of seeing the 1950s up close very quaint, kind of sad, but still charming. There was no charm here whatsoever. I needed the modern day world to come crashing in - right then and there.

I was pleased that this museum had survived, yet saddened by the lack of breadth of the collection. I looked at Toulouse’s girl and thought if an art student visits and tries to understand Toulouse through this painting, he will have understood nothing. I wondered what Dali would have thought of hanging below a supreme leader and who was really having the last say here.

Filled with emotion, I finally got up to leave. This is typical of me when I am in my homeland, and yes, after all these years, Iran is still home. The land of paradox, irony and contradiction is still where my heart beats for the quality of a museum exhibit. It is still where everything matters. Everything there is mine. Outside that land, where I reside, nothing is mine. I am forever, a voyeur. Outside Iran, a museum exhibition is just that, good or bad, I comment and I walk out. In Iran, I walk out, but the museum doesn’t walk out of me.

I said goodbye to the morality police in a daze and with a head full of questions, I got to the street. There was a wrought iron fence marking the museum periphery. Another young ‘non-dating dating’ couple was standing at the fence, biding their time to go in. The handsome guy was leaning into the fence, with a Romeo-like pose, looking at the girl… He had a book in hand, which he read from and every few seconds he turned his gaze up toward her. It seemed that despite her very best effort to hold on to her ‘non-dating dating’ posture, she was melting ever so slowly and deconstructing through what filled her ears.

Before I could get myself around to mourning about how they were being deprived of a more depictive collection inside, I realized….he is reciting some serious poetry and she is coming apart piece by piece in admiration. I got goose bumps and somehow my western frustration began to subside and slowly replaced by that internal smile (made in Iran and not available abroad).

To me, the experience of Iran is a constant swing between heart warming internal smiles and episodes of anguish and desperation. It is the internal smiles that keep me going back for more.

In the end, perhaps all is not lost in a land where twenty-year-olds use poetry for seduction. Perhaps things can eventually work out in a city where art galleries pop up almost as fast as mini markets and fast food restaurants serving our very demanding fast lives. Maybe we don’t need a massive collection of every contemporary artist to be relevant in the world of global contemporary art. Maybe the contemporary work produced in Iran today will speak for itself.

I think the lovers at the gate had it right. Maybe we just need to keep the poetic spirit of our forefathers alive and cultivate our artistic inclinations. In all honesty, there is nowhere I have traveled, where cabbies from the wrong side of town, boasting not even a middle school education, crack open their dashboard compartments to show off their cherished books of literary passages and poetry. There is something magical in this enchanted land. Maybe some of that magic will eventually usher us into more liberal and globally relevant pastures.

Is it too naïve to hope that it may all come down to magic rather than a pool of oil?

July 2010



Gerdoo -- shekastam!

by Gerdoo on

I love the observations about oil, about the staircase that spirals down, about foresight .... even more I love the absurdity of the existence of a museum of modern art in a place that is trying its best to pull back from the precipice of modernity -- as though it were an infectious disease that is threatening to deconstruct all that is held dear and near to 7th century Islamic values.  

But most of all I like the imagery of the showdown between Dali and the supreme leader as if each is telling the other:   Just Dare Me !!!  

lovely peace Neginu:  from Gerdoo :)