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The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has a new exhibition and the lineup of artists is stunning: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, just to name a few.

The art, now worth billions, was bought in the 1970s under Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose coffers were overflowing with oil revenue at the time. The shah sought to modernize and Westernize the country in general, and put his wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi, in charge of acquiring the art.

The result was considered by some to be the greatest collection of contemporary Western masterpieces outside of Europe and North America. The trove includes works by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and roughly 30 by Pablo Picasso.

"The latest things that were available in Western galleries, they were bought for the collection here. All the big names from the beginning of the 20th century until the '70s, you know, we have them," Faryar Javaherian, one of the curators of the exhibition, tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

When the shah was ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, everything Western instantly became toxic. The Western art was placed in a vault at the museum. For years, the museum was closed, then was used to display revolutionary propaganda. The museum has kept its Western collection hidden away, though in recent years, it has been displaying a few Western pieces for several weeks at a time.

Now, as Iran takes tentative steps to re-engage with the West, the museum has staged a major exhibition that includes the Western artists alongside Iranian artists.

"The 41 [artworks] we have selected, a lot have not been exhibited since the revolution," Javaherian says. "The policy of the Islamic Guidance and Cultural Ministry is not really to promote Western art, especially the kind of art we have in this museum."

Asked what the officials might find objectionable about abstract expressionism or pop art like Andy Warhol, Javaherian explains.

"It's not that there is concern. It's just that mostly, they're not interested," she says, adding that the attitude seems to be changing.

"I think because they've realized the material value of these works of art, so now they take better care of it," she says. "It's really funny, a few days ago we had a head curator from Centre Pompidou [in Paris] visit us and he told us that most of our paintings are in much better condition than similar ones in the West because they have been sleeping in storage for 37 years. That part made me really happy."

The exhibit actually focuses on an Iranian artist, Farideh Lashai, who died two years ago, and uses the Western art to place her paintings in context.

"She was a close friend of mine," Javaherian says. "She's really one of the few modernists we have in Iran. She was also a very politically active woman and a feminist. She did some prison time during the shah's period so she's very unique."

"We're trying to create context," Javaherian adds. "First a national context for Farideh's work and then an international context. For instance, there is a Rothko and then a Pollock, then there are two Sepehris [Iranian artist Sohrab Sepehri], then there is a Cy Twombly, and then on the other wall we have a lot of Farideh's paintings dated from the 1970s."

"For instance, Farideh has a drawing which could've been drawn by Cy Twombly, so we placed those two together," she says.

The intent, she adds, is to have visitors think about the Western and Iranian paintings on an artistic level, but also on other levels.

"I think art is always the first level of connection between people no matter what country they're from," she says. "Art is sort of a universal language. We tried to connect through artistic issues, cultural issues, and then we hope that, God willing, political issues will also get results."

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