Iran Loans Jackson Pollock Painting for Centennial Exhibit at Tokyo's Museum of Modern Art
By Kelly Olsen, WSJ
The U.S. and Iran have been at odds for decades, with tensions escalating further this year amid talk of possible armed conflict in the Middle East over Tehran’s nuclear program.
But in Japan, a nation that tries to maintain good relations with both countries, a major exhibition featuring the work of one of America’s most recognizable artists is showing how appreciation for good art can bring even the most intractable foes closer together.
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo has been holding a special exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of American abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock.
Visitors to the museum, located near the moat surrounding the leafy Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, are unlikely to be surprised that “Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective” has received what the museum describes on its website as “special support” from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
But the fact the exhibition, which wraps up a three-month run Sunday, is also “patronized” by the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran might raise a few eyebrows.
As it turns out, there is a good reason for Iranian involvement. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has lent a famous and extremely valuable Pollock painting it possesses, Mural on Indian Red Ground, for the current exhibit.
“Mural on Indian Red Ground,” painted by Jackson Pollock in 1950. Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
“That we are receiving support from both America and Iran has made it a rare exhibition,” said Kazuo Nakabayashi, chief curator at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
The 1950 painting made its way to the Middle Eastern country in the 1970s during the reign of the Shah of Iran and remained there after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Mr. Nakabayashi said in an interview Tuesday.
He added that Iran was quite enthusiastic about lending the painting for the exhibit, something he attributes to a positive impression of Japan in the country due to the showing there of a 1980s Japanese serialized television drama, Japanese movies and a shared historical heritage related to the famed Silk Road trading route.
Japan has also been an important oil customer for Iran. Though Tokyo has been gradually reducing its reliance on Iranian crude, this year it came under pressure from the U.S. to cut imports further amid Washington’s efforts to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program.
For the exhibition organizers, avoiding the thicket of international sanctions to which Iran is subject was no easy task. Insuring the oil, enamel and aluminum paint, wood-mounted canvas artwork from the Tehran museum was another tricky issue, with it being appraised for insurance purposes at an “extremely high” value of $250 million, according to Mr. Nakabayashi.
The image is among an exhibition of about 70 works from various museums, galleries and private collections around the world that shed light on Pollock’s artistic development. As well as the multicolored splashed-paint works for which the artist is arguably most famous, the exhibit also includes earlier and later work from his tragically shortened career, along with a video showing Pollock at work. There is even a front page account in a local newspaper of his death at the age of 44 in a 1956 traffic accident near his home on Long Island in New York.
Harumi Ebisawa, a translator from nearby Yokohama who attended the exhibition, said she went specifically to see the painting from Iran, a work she called the artist’s greatest. She said it was unlikely she would ever have the chance to see it again if she missed it this time.
“I feel that art, after all, is a borderless thing,” Ms. Ebisawa said while relaxing outside the museum after seeing the Pollock work that best illustrates her comment: an American painting on loan from an Iranian museum on display in Japan.