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Niavaran Palace Museum mounts Chagall show in defiance of Iranian regime

Exhibition of Jewish artist’s work challenges official stance on Israel

The Niavaran Palace Museum in Tehran is showing seven paintings by Marc Chagall in an exhibition which opened to coincide with World Museum Day on 18 May. Both the choice of artist - Chagall was Jewish - and the timing is perhaps significant, given the foggy world of Iranian cultural politics. It is poignant, given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel “to be wiped off the map”, that the exhibition poster shows a Chagall image of a dove.

The Niavaran Palace Museum does not have its own art collection and it is not known who planned this exhibition. The choice of venue may be deliberate in that it fudges this issue. Its director Mr Salehi was unavailable for comment, but Dr Ali-Reza Sami-Azar, former director of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) claims to know the provenance of the Chagalls. “Four come from Mirass, the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organisation, and two from the Museum of Contemporary Art and the seventh probably belongs to the Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan.” The Bonyad, or Foundation for the Disinherited and the Disabled Veterans, set up immediately after the 1979 Revolution, is the most economically powerful religious welfare institution in Iran. “The initiative for the exhibition may have come from Mirass. Its president is fairly conservative and close to President Ahmadinejad, although the director of the Niavaran Palace Museum was closer to President Khatami”, says Sami-Azar, who believes “this choice of exhibition definitely has meaning as a political gesture, although it’s hard to recognise who’s making it”.

Dr Sami-Azar, forced to resign from TMOCA nine months ago, now teaches fine art at the University of the Arts, Tehran. Since then, TMOCA has only put on one show, of Iranian artists’ work drawn from the museum’s collection, extending it four times. “It’s clear they, like most of the art world in Iran, are in a holding pattern. The mood is therefore very unclear. Everybody is waiting.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iranian museum defies regime with Chagall show'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 170 June 2006