It’s not every year that you get to spend Valentine’s Day with an Empress. And yes, real Empresses do still exist, although this particular one is living in exile in Paris — which only adds to the dramatic appeal to anyone (like me) obsessed with history, geopolitics, and espionage. So, on the 14th of February, my co-conspirator, collaborator, and wonderful friend Viola, and I found ourselves in an elegant, wood-panelled sitting room in a discrete location in the heart of the city.
The glass coffee table in the centre of the room held a beautifully-curated mix of ancient Persian artefacts, books, bowls of pistachio nuts, glasses of tea in engraved silver holders, and fairy-tale cakes from Pierre Hermé: red macaroons sprinkled with rose petals that the famous baker had made just for Her Imperial Majesty; in her honour, she told us, the famed pâtissier had named them ‘Isfahani cakes.’
It was in this enchanted setting that Viola and I settled down on a dove-grey winter’s afternoon to listen to the Empress Farah Pahlavi’s stories of art collecting, imperial responsibilities, the transport potential of military aircraft, and friendship with Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent. . .
“When I went back home to become the Queen of Iran,” began the Empress, “my husband said to me ‘When you are Queen you will have a lot of responsibilities’. I said, Yes, but I could not imagine the scale of what was to come. . .”
This is not the first time that Viola and I have had tea with Her Imperial Majesty. We had been researching her story for our book for some time, however each encounter has been memorable for Her Majesty’s warmth and poise, and for the sheer historical and cultural significance of her role in history.
It was Viola who first came to me over kombucha in a vegan café: “Have you heard about the hidden art collection in Tehran?” I hadn’t, but with those few words, she had my full and undivided attention.
Please do go on.
The most valuable collection of western art outside Europe or the United States is lying hidden in a basement in Tehran. Virtually no one has seen it for the last thirty years. Not only is the collection expensive, it’s also comprised of the best of the best art: master works by Andy Warhol, Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock, Bacon, Picasso, Magritte, Moore, Giacometti, Renoir. . . the list goes on.
The entire thing was the brainchild of the Empress and assembled in a few short years during the 1970’s, when Tehran stood as a gateway between the east and west, a thrumming city where the avant-garde culture of the west mixed energetically with the deep artistic traditions of Persia; a town where you might spot Andy Warhol roaming the streets with his camera, complaining about the heat, and ordering bowls of caviar from hotel room-service. Or maybe later Elizabeth Taylor, dressed in exotic silks, being photographed by Iranian artist Firooz Zahedi, or Nelson Rockefeller and his wife Happy enjoying a glass of bubbles with the royal couple. . .
Viola and I were fascinated by the clash of historical and cultural currents that defined Farah’s time as Empress, and by the idea that this hidden art collection could act as a portal into a lost world, into a time when Iran was truly a bridge between East and West, a country very different from the image of an intolerant theocracy that has defined Iran for the last thirty years, certainly in the media. We were equally – and perhaps even more so – fascinated by the story of a young woman who had shaped the artistic vision of a nation, a woman whose story and contribution were then buried by the revolution.
Farah Diba, as she was born, came from a respected Iranian family and went to Paris to study architecture at university. It was there that she was to meet the then-ruler of Iran, the Shah and, after a short but romantic courtship, to become his wife. Crowned Empress of Iran, she set about using the cash windfalls brought by the country’s oil reserves to improve the lives of the women and children in her country, working with lepers and championing literacy, amongst other causes. Her true passion was for the arts however, and she wanted to both preserve the artistic heritage of Iran, but also to show Iranians what was out there – the art that was being made in the west. The idea for Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was conceived by the Empress and designed by her cousin, the architect Kamran Diba.
The young Empress – often referred to as the Jackie Kennedy of the Middle East for her glamour and striking dark looks – buzzed about town in her blue-and-white helicopter, juggling four children, an imperial husband, and the exigencies of plans for the cultural advancement of the nation.
Niavaran Palace, Tehran: It’s the morning of July 9, 1976 and the young Empress, Farah Diba Pahlavi of Iran, is waiting for Andy Warhol. To prepare for her portrait, the Empress has chosen a cream silk blouse. Her make-up is minimal – only her eyes are rimmed with kohl — her hair is simple and elegant, arranged in a fashionable style. Warhol arrives, accompanied by his manager Fred Hughes, to take a Polaroid with his Big Shot camera. It’s the second time Warhol has been commissioned to do a portrait of a member of the Iranian Royal Family, the first of the Princess Ashraf, twin sister of the Shah of Iran. Two years later, Warhol will be commissioned to do one of the Shah, to be unveiled in 1978 at the Shiraz Festival. However, before the festival can take place, the glittering guest list of international jetsetters all receive the same telegram: “Due to illegal manifestations by extreme xenophobic groups, we regret to cancel this year’s festival But we will invite you again next year.” The optimistic last sentence is misplaced: the festival will never take place again.
By January 16, 1979, the Shah and his Supreme Army Councils can no longer control the situation in Iran. A succession of riots and strikes has brought the country to the edge of total disintegration and the Shah’s security forces are clashing with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters. The Shah and his wife are forced to flee to Egypt, and into a life of exile. They leave everything behind, including this infamous art collection.
The art works effectively disappear under the sands of the Revolution and vanish from public consciousness; the cultural Golden Age of Iran also effectively vanishes from history with the regime change
“North Tehran reminded me of Beverly Hills,” said Bob Colacello, who accompanied Warhol on the trip in 1976 “. . . everyone lived around their pools, except there were Persian carpets next to the pools and little half-tents.”
“Every artist in town (NYC) was running to Iran because they were giving out money for the arts and there were lucrative deals to be made,” recalled Andy Warhol’s cameraman, Vincent Fremont.
The Iran that emerged after the Revolution in 1979 changed everything — not only the lives of everyday Iranians, but also the place of Iran on the world’s cultural radar. Under the Ayatollah, Iran dislocated and disappeared from the Western public consciousness as little more than a frightening and intolerant theocracy. The free and open flow of artists and ideas between East and West was turned off for good.
The collection at TMOCA has remained largely unseen — and even forgotten — until recently, when the collection was slated to travel to Berlin (2017). Suddenly, and just as mysteriously, the art works were forbidden from leaving Tehran, and the exhibitions were cancelled. Who knows when — or even if – the wider world will get a chance to see these works again.
What happened during the revolution of 1979, and what came after, is well-known and widely documented. The art works themselves – and the stories behind them – are the untold narrative of Iran, both a portal into a lost world and a strategic blueprint of a culture that was abruptly truncated. This is the story that Viola and I have written, hoping to record the Empress’ story but perhaps also to awaken in the collective awareness the question: What If….?
Her Imperial Majesty is unable to return to Iran but still takes an active interest in the contemporary Iranian art scene, and the lives of young Iranians. Her situation and her story made Viola and I think about how many more women in history were out there, their stories untold, or buried in some way? So we founded Vanishing Pictures, a production company dedicated to telling the stories of women who have shaped the course of the art world but whose full legacy remains in the shadows: moguls, muses, collectors, monarchs, mistresses – the list goes on. Our #imperialhijinks — as we like to label our research trips and the adventures that surround them — inspire us both, and remind us to reach that bit further, to go beyond what’s often considered ‘normal’ for a woman to want to achieve. The Empress of Iran has been a very good place to begin. . .
By Miranda Darling
Co-founder and co-conspirator at Vanishing Pictures Productions