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Hardliners who rule Iran regularly criticize what they describe as the “poisoning of Islamic society by Western culture,” but in Tehran Iranians have been flocking to the Museum of Contemporary Art for months to enjoy Andy Warhol’s famous “soup cans.”

The museum displays a collection of 18 classic works by Warhol that are recognizable at first sight: silkscreen portraits of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, and an old graphic copy of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

The exhibition, called simply “Review of Warhol’s Works,” opened in June and closes next Sunday. The novel coronavirus, which has killed more people in Iran than any other country in the Middle East, forced the museum’s curators to close its doors to Warhol fans for a few weeks in August.

“I love this painting,” Fatima Rezaei, 46, said, gazing at the colorful ink on Marilyn Monroe’s face, in the painting Warhol produced in 1962 shortly after the actress committed suicide. “Looking at the painting, I imagined Marilyn Monroe’s life story. It makes the concept of death tangible to me,” Rezaei added.

Rezaei, a retired teacher in a loose-fitting silk headscarf, was so impressed by the exhibition that she flew from her home city of southern Shiraz twice to see Warhol’s work.

“His choice of colors is wonderful, and from my point of view conveys a mixture of feelings such as melancholy and annihilation,” she said.

The works on display by Warhol are among a multi-billion dollar art collection kept in the basement of the Tehran Museum. With the oil market booming under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country acquired thousands of artworks by artists, including Monet, Picasso and Jackson Pollock, before the Islamic Revolution that toppled the pro-Western monarchy in 1979 and the rise of Shiite clerics to power.

At first, the new religious rule banned modern art, and stockpiled famous works. But in recent decades as cultural restrictions have eased, some 1,500 Western art pieces – from the era of the royal family – have re-emerged with great fanfare. And in 2015, Tehran’s municipal council put on city billboards images of hundreds of works by great American painters, from Rothko to Hopper, turning sprawling Tehran into a gigantic open-air gallery.

However, the visitor will not find Warhol’s more daring works, such as his controversial experimental films, on display in Tehran. In 2005, when the museum displayed its entire collection of 20th-century American and European art, selected pieces – including Renoir’s nude – were hidden to avoid offending conservative Islamic sentiments.

Still, the public in Tehran on Wednesday seemed satisfied with Warhol’s silk-screen prints that challenged fundamentalism with works of consumerist themes in the early 1960s.

“People have exceptionally welcomed the exhibition of Andy Warhol’s paintings,” museum spokesman Hassan Noversti said, noting that the crowds flocked amid the Corona epidemic, required setting a ceiling on the number of visitors per hour.

One visitor, a 21-year-old microbiology student in a black T-shirt and ponytail, praised Mao Zedong’s series of paintings.

He said, “When an artist depicts a dictator in a work of art, it appears as if this dictator has been brought down from his sacred position.”

The show may end, but Noversti said the museum plans to display more works by Warhol and Western artists soon.

Although Iran does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, and hostilities have raged between the two countries since 1979, pirated versions of Hollywood films and Western music remain popular in the country, particularly among urban youth.

Tensions with the United States have risen in recent months, as the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Iran’s supreme leader, brought hardliners to power in all branches of government.

Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, and talks to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have stalled for months. Former US President Donald Trump backed away from the agreement in 2018, and launched an economic pressure campaign that paralyzed the country’s economy.

But at the elegant, white-walled Tehran fair this week, there was no talk of political tensions or US sanctions.

Kourosh Aminzadeh, a 20-year-old graphic student, who returned to the gallery for a second visit, said: “There were great artists in history, and it is very good to be able to see their artwork here.”


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