Monday, January 29, 2017 Donna Stein assembled the collection of the Shah's wife Farah Diba. In London, she revels in memories of an all around happy time during a cruel regime
In June 1977, when, after several delays in Tehran, the crates were opened Donna Stein’s heart stopped for a moment. Among the works she had acquired with the Persian Shah’s wife Farah Diba for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art were two large Giacometti bronzes: one from the edition of the famous "walking man" and a standing female figure. The woman was broken at the hip. "No idea when this happened, it could have been during transport or when the crate was opened," Donna Stein recalls. "But I was horrified." Apart from that, the American art historian has a very good memory of her time in Persia.
Donna Stein, a petite, bespectacled figure, had actually wanted to travel to Berlin to see the exhibition with loans from the Tehran Museum in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie. But at the end of last year, the show was cancelled. The Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, had refused to approve the export of the works. The German partner, the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage, had lost patience after many delays and terminated the contract.
"If something first rate appeared on the market, it was bought," she recalls.
The show in Berlin would have been for the 74-year-old an opportunity after more than forty years to see parts of the collection, for which she laid the foundation. She was "very disappointed" about the cancellation and did not fly to Germany, but limited her European visit to London. Here, in the café of the Imperial War Museum, she tells of the emergence of a collection that is regarded as the most valuable collection of modern Western art outside Europe and the USA.
It all began when Donna Stein worked in the Prints, Illustrated Books and Drawings Department of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). There, from 1966 to 1972, the training of younger employees was one of her tasks, including a member of the Persian Queen’s Secretariat. After her time at MoMA the curator went on a seven-month trip around the world to prepare a study on the history of the World's Fairs. This led her, among other places, to Iran, where she lived with a college friend whose husband was Iranian. "I resumed contact with the Iranian woman I knew from New York the Secretariat," Donna Stein says. "Her father was a general, and she led me into the circle of the so-called 1,000 families who were then the elite of the country. They were all highly educated and multilingual." At some point, the American came into contact with the court of The Shah. At the same time, Farah Diba- Donna Stein refers to her as "the Queen" – developed a great interest in modern and contemporary art. "Everything started with the Queen," complements Donna Stein. "Many new buildings were built, old ones restored. She was very interested in the arts and, more over, wanted to show the people in Iran what existed beyond their own culture. This was an initiative in public education." In addition, there existed a contemporary art scene in the country, many of the Iranian artists had traveled and studied abroad. At the suggestion of the artist Iran Darroudi, Farah Diba built a museum for Iranian and Western art that would be accessible to everyone. Kamran Diba, a cousin of the Queen, designed the modernist building with classical Persian architectural features. At the urging of his cousin, he also became the director, since all foreigners had declined the offer. What was missing now was first-rate Western art. Shortly after her return to New York in October 1974, Donna Stein received a letter from her Iranian girlfriend that contained an offer of a "very interesting post. "As part of the Queen’s secretariat, I would assemble a collection of Western art from Impressionism to the present. I have a very clear memory of reading the letter in front of my home on West 72nd Street and jumping up and down with joy. I simply could not believe it."
Since she did not want to accept the job without a previous interview, she traveled to Tehran over Christmas and New Years and designed a plan for the collection. Shortly after her arrival she selected the first works at an art fair in the Iranian capital, including a Kandinsky, four Giacometti works and a Max Ernst bronze.
The plan was to collect mainly works on paper—prints, drawings by artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, as well as books and photographs. After Donna Stein began work in January 1975 in New York, she determined it was necessary to Include paintings and sculptures.
While the hated Shah regime in the West triggered protests, the American, Stein, experienced Persia as a curatorial paradise. The art that she wanted to buy was divided into three categories: "Absolutely essential artists such as Matisse or Picasso, of whom one had to have more than one work of art. Then artists like James Whistler, who should at a minimum be represented with a typical work of art. And then artists who were interesting, but not indispensable, " she recounts.
When asked whether the repressive system of the Pahlavis was not an ethical problem, Donna Stein is very vague. Of course, the monarchy had been restrictive, she had experienced this personally, but she did not want to go into the details. On the other hand, she is quite sure that the system was "not nearly as bad as today's Mullah state.” She does see that the monstrous cruelty of the Savak secret service or the corruption and excesses of the royal family could have contributed to the Khomeini revolution. On the contrary, the Pahlavi’s attempts at modernization during the monarchy may have contributed to their downfall. In the end, the society was too open and women were uncovered. At the same time, she also acknowledged a "great prosperity imbalance."
As for the collection, money played no role: "If something first rate came on the market, it was purchased. It was a matter of rarity, provenance and, of course, of quality.” She activated contacts from her time at MoMA, including Director Richard Oldenburg and Bill Lieberman, Chief Curator for Paintings and Sculpture, and asked for recommendations. She turned to dealers in London and Los Angeles. No one had any doubts. "I explained what I needed and they helped."
On the basis of a complete list, the curator recounts the works of art, which were part of the collection. The highlights were Jackson Pollock's famous "Mural on Indian Red Ground" from 1950 and a version of Picasso's bronze sculpture "Baboon with Young". A painting, Renoir's Gabrielle with an Open Blouse, bought by her curator-successor, David Galloway, hung in the Shah's bedroom. In June 1975, over a week’s time, Stein said, the core of the Western collection was acquired.
"This collection is the legacy of the Queen. She has done a great service to the country," says Donna Stein. The fact that the works of art have been protected in the basement of the museum since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and are not accessible to the public is very unfortunate. Only once, in 2005, there was an exhibition with a selection from the collection. The large sculptures, such as a "Reclining figure" by Henry Moore and Giacometti sculptures, now restored, are still visible in the museum's exterior.
Equally regrettable was the cancellation of the Berlin exhibition. Donna Stein can only speculate about the reasons behind the hesitation of the Iranian government: "It was assumed that there was a fear that Shah-faithful Iranians could access the works abroad and prevent them from returning to Iran.” From a perspective of undeterred loyalty, she thinks “It is impossible for Farah Diba to allow this to happen. After all, the queen loves her country and wants the people to have access to these works of art. Maybe they were not right; maybe they just wanted more money. Who knows? " Now the curator hopes that the exhibition, which was originally intended to travel to Maxxi, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, will be shown at a later date. She would go back to Europe, Stein said, "And I hope to see the Queen again."