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How I Lost My Leg in Tehran

by Barbara Rose, WSJ

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be cloned -- to have another you or part of you floating around somewhere in the world? Occasionally I have that strange feeling about my right leg, since I know that a flesh-colored cast of it exists, although at the moment I am not sure where. Originally, it was seen in "Passage II," a painting by Jasper Johns done in 1966.

As many writers have observed, Johns's paintings are littered with the body parts of his friends, who were convenient models. Taking the idea of asking a subject to "sit" for a painting literally, Johns sat me down on a chair and made a plaster cast of my bent leg when I was visiting in Edisto, S.C. My leg eventually appeared painted a realistic flesh color but turned upside down, pinned to the upper left of "Passage II," a painting containing objects, including neon lettering. The work was bought by the art-book publisher Harry N. Abrams and reproduced in the 1968 Abrams monograph by Max Kozloff.

In the early 1970s, the painting was sold by Mr. Johns's dealer Leo Castelli to Farah Diba, then the youthful Empress of Iran, during her art-buying spree. Before marrying the shah, she had been an art student in Paris and was an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art. After oil prices skyrocketed in the early '70s (sound familiar?), Iran was swimming in foreign money while the Western art market was suffering. Great masterpieces of modern art were cheap.

My leg was in good company: The collection the empress's agents assembled included two major Rothkos, two of de Kooning's finest paintings and other New York School masterpieces, including Pollock's "Mural on an Indian Red Ground."

Most of the collection, which had been in underground storage for almost 30 years, went on view in "Modern Art Movements," the historic exhibition held from June until October 2005 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. My leg, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps that's because female nudity is a big problem for the Islamic fundamentalists. Renoir's voluptuous female nude is also unaccounted for, but Picasso's large "Painter and His Model" -- containing a lumpy, distorted attack on the female figure that no one from any culture could deem erotic -- was prominently displayed.

The unprecedented show was a huge success. The first gallery was filled with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. There was a Gauguin still life, a rare Léger from 1913 and Picasso's synthetic cubist masterpiece, "Fenêtre Ouverte sur la Rue de Penthièvre," as well as his late cast bronze of a baboon cradling her baby, which is also in the Picasso Museum in Paris. There were circus performers by Georges Rouault as well as a daring watercolor by the German Dadaist George Grosz. Other European and American modern masters were on view with a special section devoted to Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine. Also in the collection are sculptures by Magritte, Henry Moore and Giacometti; paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Georges Braque; and three important Toulouse-Lautrecs. Their exhibition in the museum designed by Farah Diba's cousin was a surprise to all.

Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini declared Iran a theocracy in 1979, censors from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance decide what will be seen in public places. They let the Picasso through but deleted a panel from Francis Bacon's triptych "Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant" (on loan to Tate Britain, it was reclaimed for the show) as too risqué, so the painting was deprived of its offensive central panel.

Andy Warhol's portrait of Farah Dibah languishes in a damp basement underneath one of the former royal palaces, but his pouting Mick Jagger was there for all the chador-clad women and robed mullahs to admire. Most remarkably, an entire gallery was devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the art movement that proclaimed America's cultural primacy.

The story of Farah Diba's collection is worthy of a James Bond movie. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution forced the shah and his family into exile, palaces were thrown open and there were rumors that the nation's modern art collection would be sold to Kuwait. The revolution expunged activities deemed "Western," and the modern art collection became a mythical treasure trove, hidden from view like the grave goods in a pharaoh's tomb.

One event brought the existence of the collection back into the limelight. In 1994, de Kooning's "Woman III," an abstract nude, was secretly exchanged for the "Shahnameh," a priceless illustrated manuscript based on the epic Persian poem "The King's Book of Kings." The manuscript left Persia 400 years ago to end up in the collection of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who sold it to an American collector in 1959.

By swapping de Kooning's nude for the "Shahnameh," the Iranian fundamentalist regime rid itself of a painting it would never show and regained a national treasure. The deal alerted the world to the existence of a priceless collection of modern art, buried in the vaults of the museum in Tehran.

The news made me wonder what had become of my leg. Although the official museum checklist lists several works by Jasper Jones (sic), the one titled "Passage I" has no image and the print titled "Pinion" is illustrated on the Web site by the complex, many-layered lithograph "Decoy." The large lithograph contains a photograph of the missing painting, so disguised that it is hard to tell if it is a woman's leg or a pink blob. "Passage II," which has not been seen publicly since it was purchased, is not listed as in the collection.

It is hard to say why, after being locked up for nearly 30 years, the masterpieces of modern Western art were exhumed and put on show. The decision might well have been a symbolic farewell by the reformist President Muhammad Khatami, preceding the transfer of power to Islamic hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected at about the time the show opened. The exhibition closed in October.

Until recently, a Web site told the whole story of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and its collection. A few months ago, temporary exhibitions were still being announced, although now they were of strictly Iranian art. Then suddenly the Web site went dark and the only link to it said "under construction." The site is now back up, announcing a new exhibition of Iranian photography, but continuing to list the works of modern Western art, including a number of prominent Jewish artists, as part of its permanent collection, which is presumably open to the public. Equally ironic is another exhibition of paintings by the well-known Jewish painter Marc Chagall, which opened in Tehran this summer even as President Ahmadinejad was calling for the destruction of Israel.

Today, some of the most original contemporary Iranian artists, such as Shirín Neshat, whose work is now banned in Iran, are living and working in exile in the U.S. And an exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography, organized by the Tehran museum, is touring U.S. museums without the blessings of either government. In this ironic and unwitting cultural exchange, Iran owns historic U.S. paintings that American museums cannot afford and the works of gifted Iranian artists are celebrated by American museums as the cutting edge of the avant-garde. No one knows what will happen to the masterpieces of modern Western art in Tehran. They are said to be worth billions of dollars now and are too expensive to be destroyed. Will they be sold or traded?

Which brings me back to my leg. Where is it now, I wonder? Did some fanatic realize it is a woman's and throw a cloth over its offensive nudity? Is it being held for ransom to be exchanged for a valuable Persian manuscript or an important weapon? Or was it lost or stolen? Every time I look down at my right leg, I wonder where its flesh-colored plaster-cast double may be.

Dr. Rose is an art historian who lives in New York and Madrid. Her book "Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present" will be released next month by the University of California Press.

" Every time I look down at my right leg, I wonder where its flesh-colored plaster-cast double may be. "

Via WSJ 
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