Iran pulls the plug on Tehran art exhibition in Berlin

An exhibition of artworks from Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art that was due to open in Berlin next month has been indefinitely postponed because the Iranian authorities have failed to allow the paintings to leave the country.

Ticket sales for the event – which had been hailed as a sign of a deepening cultural dialogue between Iran and the west – have now been suspended.

About 60 works from the TMoCA were expected to be to be received in Germany next week for the opening of the eagerly-awaited Tehran Collection at Berlin’s Gemälde Galerie.

Spanning French impressionism to American pop art and celebrated as the most impressive collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, the exhibition was scheduled to move to Rome’s Maxxi Museum of Modern Art in February.

Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground
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Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground. Photograph: Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art | © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Among the paintings due to be displayed was Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground, estimated to be worth in excess of £200m, and Francis Bacon’s 1968 triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendants. Thirty Iranian artworks also due to go on show include works by Faramarz Pilaram, Behjat Sadr and Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam.

The apparent refusal of Iranian authorities to release the collection has been met with disappointment and bewilderment in Berlin, where cultural heads and diplomats had been working to pull off the deal for years.

“The opening on 4 December will definitely not be possible,” said a spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) who negotiated the loan. “We are ready and waiting to open the exhibition, but the paintings are still in Tehran.

“We had signed contracts with the TMoCA and relations are on a good footing, but we are told someone needs to give the green light for the artworks to leave Tehran, and that signature is still missing, though the current signals we’re getting indicate we’ll get them soon.”

While Germany’s foreign ministry, whose cultural ambassadors have been active behind the scenes, has signalled it is prepared to be patient, Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK said the Iranians needed to solve the impasse soon. “We will not postpone this three, four, five times,” he told Die Zeit. “There are limits.”

Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had celebrated the cultural agreement with Iran – for which Germany has reportedly paid €2.8m said to cover insurance and transport costs – as proof of the success of German cultural diplomacy, or what he has called “reflective power”, arguing it helped to strengthen relations in the wake of the recent but extremely fragile nuclear deal.

The art works were purchased during the oil boom of the 1970s under the direction of Farah Diba Pahlavi, the wife of the last Iranian shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Francis Bacon’s painting ‘Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant’ (1968) displayed at the Modern Art Movement exhibition at TMoCA.
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Francis Bacon’s painting ‘Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant’ (1968) displayed at the Modern Art Movement exhibition at TMoCA. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

It includes works by Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcel Duchamp and Edgar Degas, many of which have not been seen outside Tehran for four decades.